Writing a novel is hard work. Everyone who has written a novel or tried to write one (or several) would most likely agree with that.
Much of the struggle today—besides from the writer’s fear of failure or judgment or feeling like a fraud or the like—is based in overcomplicating things. The fictional world the story is set in has to be rich in details, the characters complex and fully fleshed out, the scenes meticulously described, the characters’ actions explained so the reader gets what the writer wants to say or show, and so on.
That’s enough to get anyone overwhelmed.
There is, however, a way to make the process of writing a story a lot easier (at least in the beginning so you have a place to start because starting is the first step to actually getting somewhere). This solution I’m talking about is to simply break everything down into the most basic building blocks of a novel.
What is it that a novel truly needs? A world, a cast of characters, and a story/plot. This is the foundation of every novel and it is the place to start (you can figure out everything else later).
In this post, I’ll be writing about story and plot, the place they have in the novel, why they are important, and give you tips on how to structure and develop them to fit your novel.
What is Story and Plot and Why it’s Important
What’s the difference between story and plot? The classic example by E. M. Forster in his collected lectures, Aspects of the Novel, says that:
“‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.”
When reading a story, according to Forster, we wonder “and then?” When evaluating a plot, we ask “why?”
To put it simply:
- The story is what happens
- The plot is why it happens, and how
These two components obviously go together and intertwine with each other. One can’t exist without the other. And if you want your novel to work, these two components are vital.
Another thing that should be mentioned here because it goes hand-in-hand with the story and plot is the story structure (which I’ll go through more below). You can have an amazing story and plot but without a proper structure, your novel will fall flat. There’s a reason Joseph Campbell could outline and find the Hero’s Journey by researching all kinds of stories across history and that’s because structure matters.
Think of it this way: if the story and plot is the blood of the novel and the world and characters are what makes it all come to life, the structure is the framework that holds it all together in a way that makes the whole novel logical, familiar, and easy to follow.
How to Develop Your Story and Plot
As I see it, there are two main ways that you can easily start to develop your story and plot:
- By outlining
- By working with a story structure
Before you click away from this post, just hear me out for a moment.
This won’t be a complicated process, and it’s not about knowing or establishing your whole story and plot before you start writing it. This is about jotting down ideas and getting an overview to see if the structure works.
Your ideas won’t be set in stone because it’s most likely that your story will evolve and go in another direction as you write it (that’s normal). And the structure is only a framework to help you get a nice whole picture, but even this framework can be played around with.
In other words, don’t be afraid that this will hold back your creativity.
You can choose whichever method you want. However, if you don’t know what story structure is, how they work, how to structure your story, or similar, then I advise you to use this method. A structure that works for your novel is important.
Let’s go through these methods one by one.
Outlining a story and plot doesn’t have to be very complicated. And it’s not important to get the outline “right”, either. The importance is to have a clear vision and a solid foundation on which to build your novel upon.
You can start with something as simple as a list of scenes, a list of things/events that happen in the novel. Then next to each scene or event, ask yourself why it happens and how and jot down a comment about it.
Let’s take a very simple example:
- The king died (story) - why and how - because he was poisoned by a rival who wanted the throne (plot)
- And then the queen died (story) - why and how - she was no longer protected by her husband’s power when the rival stormed the castle and killed her (plot)
Not only do you focus on the story and plot and get a better look at your novel as a whole when you work with this method but you can also gain new interesting ideas.
As I said before, outlining doesn’t have to be more complicated than this.
Using a story structure as a framework when you develop your story and plot is a simple way to establish the major plot points of your novel.
If you, for example, want to use the seven point story structure (as I have written about in a previously published post: The Basics of the Seven Point Story Structure: And How to Use It) you can use the notes I’ve made for each plot point to inspire your own ideas.
You won’t only get a clear perspective of the structure but also of how your events should unfold in a logical manner in your story.
You will obviously need to add scenes in between the plot points, but this is actually a good method to use if you’re a writer who wants to explore the story as you write but still want a little guidance on the way to a finished manuscript.
You can check out my previously published posts about different story structures:
- The Basics of the Three Act Structure: Act I (the Beginning), The Basics of the Three Act Structure: Act II (the Middle), The Basics of the Three Act Structure: Act III (the Ending)
- The Basics of the Seven Point Story Structure: And How to Use It
- The Hero’s Journey Explained: A Breakdown of its Different Stages
You can also learn more in-depth about outlining and structuring your novel in my ebook Three Different Ways to Outline and Structure Your Story.
Do you want to learn more about the building blocks of a novel?
Build a story from the ground up by learning how J.K. Rowling used building blocks like world building, character creation, story structure and much more to build the foundation for the Harry Potter series. You’ll also learn how to adapt those techniques to fit your own story, no matter in what genre you write.