Monday, October 19, 2009

A Tale of Two Stories

[I want to make clear from the start that the following this is my perception. You may understand plot differently. Whatever works for you is AWESOME as long as you’re, you know, writing.]

I’m very blessed to have a few new writers in my life. I like new writers. They don’t know the harsh realities of the business yet, which means they’re not jaded and still full of unrealistic hope. Ha. Which, in turn, keeps firmly in my mind the reason I write is because it makes me happy. In my frustration I can forget that.

On two separate occasions last week I found myself talking about plot. One, because both writers were in the blush of their first novel and, two, because I was struggling with my own plot issues. In both cases I walked away not feeling like I nailed what I wanted to say.

Plot’s a frustrating thing. In theory I guess it would be easy to explain, but then if it was so easy how come everyone struggles with it? For me, it’s one of the most difficult things to create, pull off and make it look like it was easy while doing it.

To explain plot I think I need to go back to understanding drafts. With the first draft, especially for a new writer, my advice is (and always will be) throw it on the paper. It doesn’t matter what you write. You will end up changing every word anyway. What you need is a shell to work with. It is impossible to rewrite something that is not written.

This does NOT mean that you can’t have some kind of preparation for your first draft. I think you should! I think you should know who your characters are and what makes them tick. What your overall story is, etc. If you understand your story beforehand, it does help you not run into long periods of writing inactivity (writer’s block – which I think is more “what the heck do I write next” than actual block).

When I talk about plot, I’m actually talking about the second draft. I think if you worry about tinkering with plot too soon, you can hinder that part of your creativity that comes up with the story in the first place. Because as you figure out your plot, you (well, me) tell yourself things like: “that plotline is bad,” or “ that won’t work.” Negativity does not foster creativity.

I see plot as two stories. Every book (every good one, at least) will have two stories: the one they tell and the one they don’t tell.

I’m going to use The Host for example because I just read that she sold movie rights and I think that’s hella cool. I will be standing in line to buy tickets. ;)

Story #1:

The Host is the story of Wanderer, an alien from another planet who takes over the body of a human host. The host doesn’t disappear, though. Oh, no. She stays right there like a shadow in Wanderer’s mind. The story revolves around Wanderer’s journey.

Story #1 is what the book is. It’s what is written. It’s what you query, or is on the back of the book jacket.

Story #2:

This is more illusive. Story #2 is the unwritten story that you understand from reading Story #1.

For The Host, the story #2 is about the aliens. How and why they’re there. What their plans are. Understanding their philosophies and deciding if they’re good or bad.

Story #2 is told in bits and pieces. Through narrative, actions, thoughts and dialog. It’s something that is created in that grey space, slowly built, so that you may not fully understand it until you reach the end of the book.

Now, there are more threads to a plot, of course. Each character needs to relate back to Story #2. They may live in Story #1, but their reasons for their actions come from Story #2. And every character has to have an understanding of why they’re doing something.

For me, when I start draft 2, I like to work backwards. I already have a clear understanding of Story #1. It’s written (the first draft). What I focus on is solidifying Story #2. What is it the real story I’m trying to tell? Once I understand that, I can begin to dissect Story #1 to make sure that I’m telling Story #2.

This is my intangible idea of plot. Plot is the point where Story #1 and Story #2 work together as a cohesive unit, where each one cannot exist without the other.


  1. this is the kind of discussion i feel calls for either coffee or wine, i'm still torn on which. very intriguing, heather. would love to have a round table on plot. damn the distance.

  2. Post your thoughts here. We can discuss! ;)

  3. I also struggle with plot, and getting that horrid rough draft written. I am learning to battle that jerk of an inner editor for the next month. EEK!

    Great post, I will certainly keep it starred. :-)

  4. Great post, Heather! I'll take coffee for the duration of the discussion.

    Are you saying that the main story (plot) is an obvious character-driven one, but then there's another story / plot that lies behind the concept of the novel?

    Also, here's my problem...

    "Negativity does not foster creativity."


  5. That’s not what I’m saying. You can have a plot based book and still have a second story. Take the De Vinci Code clearly a plot driven book. I don’t think anyone can argue that (character arcs? What character arcs? *wink*).

    Story #1: Langdon is traveling around Europe following clues to figure out De Vinci’s code.

    What is the real story?

    Story #2: Mary’s story. It’s sort of told backwards. You learn who she is last, but her life is laid out backwards through clues. This is NOT the story Langdon is chasing (he’s flowing DeVinci), but in following the Story #1 you learn Story #2.

    The plot in this plot driven novel is how Story #1 and Story #2 weave together.

  6. Hi Heather, I'm new to your blog. (I think I found it through Kristi Faith's blog). This was an interesting way to look at plot. I'm not sure every book has an underlying story, but as I think about it many of them do. I think my manuscript does, even though I didn't put it in intentionally. It's always good to think about things in a different way, so thanks.

  7. Oh, I see what you're saying. Interesting! I'm going to start looking for the "unwritten" stories when I read now and see...

  8. I sort of see - leave it to Robert Langdon to clear things up. Let me try and sum this up...

    Story 1: There's the main character's story: the who, what, where, when, why and how of Langdon.

    Story 2: How this main story relates to the outside world (historically, in the case of Mary).

    So to give another example.

    Story 1: There's Harry Potter, an orphaned boy-wizard attempting to learn the purpose of his exsitence and to avenge the death of his parents.

    Story 2: Tells the tale of the wizarding world and the effects of good and evil within the community. How does the past and present (of Harry and Voldemort) ultimately deteremine the future of the wizarding world?

    This is a loose (off the top of my head) summation, but still... does that sound, right?

  9. That's exactly what I mean, Emily. So then the plot would be how story 1 and story 2 come together.

    I realize this is a convoluted way of looking at plot. I used to think of plot as a very liner thing. Follow the plot threads to a conclusion... etc.

    The problem was, there was always something missing when i did that. My plot never held up. It wasn't until I started stepping back and saying... okay, what is the second story and then working backwards that I actually fixed my plot problems.

    This wouldn't work for everyone, I don't think. But it certainly works for me!

  10. No, actually it makes total sense to me and puts into formula a notion I'd never truely been able to make tangible either. It's the reason I love Harry Potter in the first place, and many other books as well. The story can't just be one-sided, it has to be layered as well.

    It's like in art class when you go from drawing one-dimensional pictures to two-dimensional ones.

    A really, really, really well-written character novel can draw a reader in without regard to the larger story at hand, but those books are few a far between. A really fantastic book has to reach to it's audience on multiple levels, by creating a sympathetic character, but by also touching some chord within us - socially (Hunger Games, Uglies series), historically (Da Vinci Code, The Historian), morally (Harry Potter), etc...

    Very cool stuff, Heather!

  11. That's exactly what it's like!

    And I love how you point out books that I like too. I think that Natalie has a point when she says that not all books are like this. That's true. But then, I don't love all books either. And I personally don't enjoy (while they can be popular) books that don't have layered plots. A layered plot is VERY important to me as a reader.

    In my own writing, there is no better compliment than when a critique partner says, "Oh, wow, I love how you made everything weave together" because that's not a natural thing for me. I can't do it on my first draft. I wish I could!!! For me, that takes LOTS of effort.

    You mentioned Westerfeld in there too... He's the master at this. By the time I reach the end of his books EVERYTHING makes sense. Even little things that seem like nonsense at the time. I want to be like him. *author envy*

  12. What a great way to explain plot! I agree stories with layered plots are much better than those with a singular/linear one.

    Loved the Host by the way, read it because your mom recommended it. Waiting very impatiently for the sequal. Not sure if I'm excited to see it turned in to a movie though, can they really do it justice?



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