Plot and storyline are two key issues for writers of all types; often it’s hard to distinguish between a plot and a storyline as both are ‘stories’, and each can span the course of a book.
Difficulties in distinguishing the difference can be at the heart of most of the problems that writers hit when they reach the half-way point in their work (often it’s what’s behind run-away characters and characters who don’t behave themselves).
We sometimes don’t notice that it’s happening until we’ve painted ourselves into a corner, but it is remarkably easy to end up treating a storyline like a plot and vice versa.
A good rule of thumb is to generally understand storylines as contributors to the plot; think of the plot as whatever you could add after the words ‘we are gathered here today to hear the tale of…’. You need your work to have a point; only some very exceptional exceptions can draw a reader in with no hint of a plot, and often these authors can be recognised by a prose style that waxes lyrical and has you lost in description (think Virginia Woolf).
In short, theirs is a style of writing that doesn’t always lend itself well to storytelling, if you intend to be a storyteller then, as obvious as it sounds, your first job is to tell a story.
The only times that exceptions can be made to allow non-plot-related storylines to take up space on your pages are either in cases where a small scene works as a precursor to a further book in a larger series or, very occasionally, a short storyline can be used to ease tension, teasing the way through the plot and allowing emotion to build and release naturally (it can’t all be build-up).
However, even in these exceptional cases readers can get lost and wonder why they’re suddenly being pulled away from the main story and here is where we lose the plot. Even these kinds of storylines can still be tied to the main plot, even if it’s done rather loosely. In short, if you’re going to lose the plot expect to have to do a lot of work to keep the reader on board.
Sometimes a storyline starts to take over, running in circles and dragging you kicking and screaming away from your main plot. The obvious answer to this is to backtrack and turn yourself back on course.
In the vast majority of instances this is exactly what you should do (like me, you may even find that a chapter or so may have to be completely re-written or even deleted). However, very occasionally you might find that your new storyline has become more interesting than your original plot, and here you have a dilemma.
The reader will never know what you’ve done. Thanks to the drafting/editing process, you can easily go back and make it look like that this storyline was the real plot all along (warning: this approach can take even more time in editing than would have been spent if you simply remove the diversion, so use this approach carefully).
Early on in writing ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ I ended up with two plots; basically I was worried that I didn’t have enough to do fill the book so I over-planned with a huge plot (too much to fit into a 35,000 word book) and a storyline that grew so large that it became big enough to function as a plot in its own right. A book never benefits from two true plots, it ends up with two masters who often want entirely different things.
I had made my life much harder than it needed to be; in the end I settled on the idea that the larger plot could be left in the background, setting the scene for the books to follow, whilst the exciting one (the Wishmaster) could be brought out to the front and take centre stage.
I don’t regret that decision for a second as the Wishmaster has had a great reception from readers, what’s more he provided a host of opportunities for me to show off my characters in exciting and interesting ways that just weren’t going to happen otherwise.
You’ll be able to tell for yourself whether you’re looking at a storyline, a plot, or an overarching series theme/plot. It’s not hard, storylines contribute to character development but plots really change people (and sometimes the world in which they live), and an overarching plot is like a quiet pull drawing your story to a penultimate conclusion over the course of many books (in itself it may be less exciting, but will typically be more interesting, than the plots of individual books).
The Wishmaster returns in book three and he definitely tried to steal the show again as I was writing him. He’s a big character who’s not made many friends so the ripples of his arrival were difficult to smooth over. All the same the main plot is bigger than him and will likely be the launching platform for many more of the books set in Jack’s universe, so I had to reign him in tightly.
I’ll also need to have a serious think about whether to let him show up very much in Thea’s books for that exact reason, but at the same time I like him, I enjoy writing him, and when book three comes out I hope you get some enjoyment out of what I’ve done with him.
Believe it or not I don’t have a huge step-by-step plan when writing but I have learned that there is literally no point in writing something that’s all storyline; a book needs a point, it makes your job as a writer simpler, but vitally it also makes it easier for readers to engage with your work.
It is so simple but also so important that you learn not to lose the plot, or at the very least that when you do lose the plot you do so on purpose and are prepared for the consequences.
If you have anything to ask, or any hints of your own to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.
As always thanks for reading, all the best, John