Story or Plot – What Do You Think?

(Reed’s Playlist for the day: Mr. Blue Sky by Electric Light Orchestra)

So I had an interesting experience the other day, and I wanted to gauge opinions of both readers and writers, but especially writers, on it.

I was kind of on a downswing a few days ago. Thank God I have people in my life who are kind enough to keep me positive when I can’t do it myself. But anyway, during that downswing, I took my own advice and looked back at one of my old writing projects, one I had dedicated a whopping 250,000 words to and then never finished. I remembered it being pretty bad.

I read back over it, and to my surprise, it was actually pretty good.

I could see the places where my writing hadn’t matured, but overall the tone and even the characters were pretty decent. And I was trying to remember what – besides burnout – had caused me to put the project down midway through a trilogy. I think I remember feeling that the plot was happening too glacially, that despite enjoying the characters’ journeys, I thought things were too slow on the macroscopic scale.

This is not an uncommon criticism of my work, by myself or others. And without even reading any of my creative writings, you could guess from this blog that it takes me forever to get to a point. I guess I’m the kind of person who likes a long exposition and worldbuilding and a slow revelation of plot.

And I always thought this was a bad thing – I’ve written multiple times about trying to get things fast-paced by cutting out backstory and worldbuilding and other such things, because I feel like it’s making people bored.

But right now I’m reading a book (I’ll wait until I finish and post a review on here to disclose the title) which I am really, really enjoying. It’s from a small independent press, and yet the quality is pretty much equal to any of those huge bestseller fantasy novels I’ve read. It’s blowing me away.

But the thing is, I’m halfway through the book and very little has happened. The characters are trying to piece together what happened on a history-changing night a while ago, and they’ve done at least a little bit of that, but overall, the plot is relatively undeveloped.

However, the story is incredible. The characters’ interactions with one another are very genuine, and they’re all super likable (except for that one character you’re supposed to be annoyed with). They’re not doing anything, but while they’re doing nothing, they’re talking to one another and discovering little pieces of this world and exploring things as a group.

So what I want to know is, do you as authors think it’s bad when a book has a lot of character-driven story occurring, but relatively little plot expansion? In other words, is it okay to go slowly with the actual plot of the book if we enjoy what’s happening to the characters?

Because if so, maybe that old trilogy is worth digging out of the garbage, dusting off, and taking another whack at.

Please let me know in the comments! I’ll be continuing to explore this myself, and I’ll bring any new thoughts I have back to you.

Yours, feeling jammy,

-R.R. Buck

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7 thoughts on “Story or Plot – What Do You Think?

  1. I’d say dust it off! I believe that good story-telling is enough as long as it is a compelling story. Some of my favorite books are written in the plot-less, slice-of-life style without the accompanying structure we normally see. There is a market for both of these styles. It just depends on what the story telling is, and if it can stand alone. I think you can only really go wrong if great, slow story-telling falls into a rushed plot near the end (to make up the difference). This of course would ruin everything that came before it. As always you have to make it genuinely work for the characters and be intriguing even if there is not some grand adventure quest happening xD in the background. I for one would like to see your fresh, dusted-off story-driven masterpiece.

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    1. That’s a good call Marina, especially the part about not pushing a plot towards the end. I was thinking about it more, and honestly, a lot of American Gods was also more slice-of-life and plotless for a large middle chunk of the book. Maybe the goal should be to make the characters and the story so compelling that the plot is just extra icing on the literary cake. Either way, thanks for your comment!

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  2. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the book you’re reading! I like how you chose to make the distinction between story and plot; I’m having some similar troubles with making the plot of my work in progress more prominent.

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    1. Well, what I can say right now is that it comes from DSP Publishing, a great LGBTQ publisher whom I met at the Festival of Books. And I will definitely be posting a review as soon as I’m done.

      So in regards to your own work, what are you doing to try to make plot progress happen without it feeling forced or sacrificing the natural flow of events?

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      1. Right now the story has a long introduction period. Part of that I can cut, and part come from having a large cast of main characters. The antagonists currently do not take a lot of direct action until later in the story, so I actually have a character POV with that group. I’m hoping that highlighting the background actions of the antagonists can heighten the tension somewhat. This is the first draft though, I foresee major edits ahead!

        What about you? Have you thought about how you might rework the piece you’ve rediscovered?

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      2. Oh, yeah, I would absolutely suggest you give some of the antagonists’ perspective early. Especially if they follow an arc from being kind of bad to really bad, I’ve never gone wrong with giving antagonists some page time.

        In the one I just rediscovered it would be nearly impossible to – the actual, full content of the story is a story and very little overall plot, and I think if I cut down to major plot events I’d have about 30 pages of stuff that doesn’t make any sense out of context. But I am working (or, rather, I will be working) on trying to put more plot forwarding in Symphony of Legend, and that’s taking some getting used to. I think when I finish it I’m gonna lock it in a drawer for a few months and take a look at it later, to see if I feel differently about the pacing.

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