It’s near-impossible to describe an epiphany, but I’m going to try. Last week I mentioned the Writer Unboxed UnConference and promised to tell you how it affected me as a writer. Frankly, there were so many aha! moments at UnCon, they’ll be creeping into my posts for months to come, but today I want to focus on just one.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you likely know I consider myself an inveterate and irredeemable pantser. This has long been a sore point. When I write NON-fiction, an outline is an imperative, so I assumed the same would be true of fiction.
After multiple fails at outlining, I came out as a pantser. Yes, I’ll admit it: I was jealous of writers with beautifully detailed outlines, color coded storyboards, and the certainty and organization I coveted. Worse, the niggling suspicion I was doing it wrong continued to haunt me.
Early in her talk, Lisa scoffed at pantsers, and I almost shut her out because for me, plot outlines were a pointless exercise. But I continued to listen and for the first time began to grasp the difference between plot and story—an understanding further cemented in a session with Lisa, Donald Maass, and Brunonia Barry titled Plot vs. Story.
In short, story is internal. It’s the emotional component, the protagonist’s “transformative arc”—how he or she changes inside in pursuit of a challenging goal. Conversely, plot is external. It’s what happens, the chain of occurences. Plot without story is simply a string of events with no emotional weight. Great plots externalize the protagonist’s internal journey.
Talk about epiphany! I could almost hear the click in my brain.
Now the hard part. This is where I attempt to explain why understanding the difference between plot and story had such a profound impact on my writer self. To reiterate, I don’t outline. I do, however, go into every project with story. This still takes my breath away because until UnCon, I didn’t realize what I was doing. I know my characters. Not just their backstories and physical attributes, but their wants and needs, and what’s stopping them from reaching their goals. More important, I know the inner conflict that will act as the catalyst for their change.
For example, before I typed a single word on my current manuscript, I knew the book would have two protagonists, a history teacher, whose unrealized desires would bump up against his own and others’ expectations of him, and a shop owner whose fear of
rejection would fuel her attempts to hide from and come to terms with her past. That’s the story I wanted to tell, the why, the transformative arcs, the soul of the book.
I can change the plot, the what happens, and still tell the story I want to tell. Plot is only there to serve story.
To say it another way, I may not be a plotter, but I am no pantser either. I place my trust in something far more dependable than luck and improvisation. I place it in story.
Gone is the fear that I’m doing it wrong. Also gone is the guilt. Just because I don’t outline does not mean I’m leaving my work up to chance. Turns out, I have a process, and it has nothing to do with flying by the seat of my pants.
What comes first for you, plot (what happens)
or story (your protag’s transformative arc)?
Hope to see you Wednesday for IWSG!