Plot vs. story

Last week, I mentioned a course that I’d taken online from the University of Central Florida called Writing the Mystery Novel. It helped me work out a lot of the details of my novel. I thought that I already had a lot of the details worked out, and I did have a good start. But I had realized, even before I signed up for the course, that there was something wrong. I had a good story, one that made people go “oooooh” when I told them about it. One of my coworkers even got goose bumps when I described it to her. But it felt bland to me. And I didn’t know why.

As soon as I read the first lesson of the mystery writing course, I knew what was wrong. What I had was a good plot, but there was very little story. The plot is what happens. The story is the protagonist’s emotional journey through the plot. That’s what was missing in my book.

I had my protagonist very fully formed in my head. I knew a lot of things about him. But I hadn’t given him any emotional work to do in the story. So that was what had to change.

Our instructor said that, for a character to have an emotional journey, the character needs to have some sort of flaw that he overcomes in the course of the plot. It was hard to choose a flaw for my protagonist, as I had to rework his life and relationships to do that. But once I did, the story developed beautifully.

A good plot is essential to a good mystery, of course. But if there’s no emotional resonance, then the plot is just a procedural. The instructor used Agatha Christie’s books as an example. The plots are twisty and entertaining, and it’s fun to match wits with Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple as they try to solve the mystery. But neither Hercule nor Miss Marple have any emotional work to do in the course of the books. So they’re all plot with no story, and they’re not as emotionally engaging as a mystery that has both plot and story.

So my protagonist goes on quite an emotional journey through my novel, and it’s enhanced the telling of the story greatly. Now, if I’m going to write sequels, I have to figure out how to make that happen again.


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