by Diana Dominguez

The first thing to do is to define "plot" vs. "story-line." Joanne Reid’s article ‘How to Write a Novel in 10 Weeks’ defines "plot" as a story that is both started and moved along by "story" considerations — as she puts it:

"A plot is event-driven. With a plot, the emphasis is on events — things that happen and the protagonist comes through relatively unchanged. A plot has its point of recognition delayed to near the end."

She says that mysteries, for instance, are pretty much always plot-based rather than character-based. I might add the category of certain type of thrillers — those that really hinge on the events in the story, and the characters might have some basic growth throughout the story, but they don’t become really different people at the end. A film analogy to this type of story might be something like DIEHARD with Bruce Willis. John McClain (Bruce Willis) essentially remains the same kind of person at the end of the film, although he might realize he loves his wife and family a bit more than he thought at the beginning. The story really hinges on whether or not he will defeat the "bad guys."

"Story-line" is character-driven. Reid says: "With a story line, the emphasis is on character and the protagonist emerges changed, either for the better or the worse. In a story line, the reader may see the point of recognition but the protagonist doesn’t."

I would venture to say, like Reid, that the majority of mainstream novels are story-line type stories, with more emphasis on character development than plot per se. These types of stories generally allow readers to "identify" with the protagonist in some fashion, and, therefore, readers are "drawn in" to these types of stories in a way they aren’t in purely plot-driven stories. Movies that aren’t strictly plot-driven are like that, too — say: GLADIATOR, which certainly had a plot, but the emphasis was on Maximus’s character development (from general to slave to gladiator to hero — kind of says it all, doesn’t it?)

However, as Reid says, both types of stories need reasonable, logical, and momentum-producing plot points to give readers a sense of satisfaction at the end. Character development stories — unless they are truly experimental and "artsy," for want of a better word — need to have some kind of plot that will allow the character to go from point A to point B (or Z) in his or her personal growth. Without connecting plot points, as Reid says: ". . . you are writing a long series of vignettes that have no purpose or focus."

Reid gives an excellent "steps to plotting" primer, so I won’t go over it here. Her lesson on plotting can be found here:

Alicia Rasley also has some excellent articles on plotting:

But, the basic idea is to have some sort of plan for the novel, and Reid even suggests planning out each event and how it leads to the next event — a "cause-effect" kind of chain of events to help keep the story going forward. She also makes clear that while this is a "road map," it doesn’t mean you can’t take a few detours, or change course altogether as you go along because something in the story "dictates" you should.

She mentions the difference between "complications" (a situation the protagonist finds him/herself in that he/she would rather not be in) and "plot points" (an event that swings the story in a different direction). She says:

" A complication can be a plot point but they are not necessarily the same. The complication can lead to something which leads to a plot point."

Here I’ll interject some personal comments:

I’ve never been much of an "outliner" when I write. I tend to have some major ideas of where I want my characters to go, and what kinds of things happen to them in the story, but I don’t generally sit down and make a list of "event chains." Most of my story gets told as I go along because, usually, my characters evolve as I write about them, and this is what usually determines the way the story should go. Again, I usually have a general framework and idea for the entire thing — including the ending, although I’ve heard of several writers who claim they "never know how the story will end before they write it" (which I have my doubts about 🙂

The few times I’ve tried to sit down and plan out my novels (I had to do this for creative writing classes — a detailed chapter by chapter synopsis for a novel I was working on), I found myself getting so stilted the I just about ended up hating the story altogether — it got too boring! I like the sense of a life unfolding and story being told as it happens.


Here are some exercises you might try for plotting — and adjust the "specificity" to your way of planning.

1) Identify the event or plot point that sets your story in motion. Does it put your protagonist in conflict with his/her environment and force a change in his/her life or way of thinking?

2) Plan out the first two major complications and/or plot points that will move your story forward. Are they connected in a "cause-effect" type of chain, or do they simply serve to bring out a character trait of your protagonist, but not move the story forward? Can you revise so it serves both functions?

3) What is your protagonist’s final objective? Is it a growth/character change kind of objective, or is it a plot resolution objective?

4) Does your story’s final objective seem reasonable based on your plot points and complications? Or, will readers find it seems to "come out of the blue"?

Discussion questions

1) Do you find that you write more character-driven "story-line" stories, or plot-driven (event) stories? Why?

2) If you don’t plan out your stories in some detail prior to writing, do you find this creates problems of focus when you are writing, or do you find it more rewarding to write this way?

3) If you do plan out your stories in advance, do you find it helps you deviate less from the main plot and avoid "veering off the path," and do you like this aspect, or do you find it hinders you from possibly exploring other avenues for your story to take?

4) Have you written a story or stories in a way that you usually don’t (plan in advance when you usually don’t; let the story "write" itself, when you usually plan), and what has that experience taught you?

5) If you feel like it, share some plot points/story-line events from the story you’re working on — and how you came upon them.

6) Do you already specifically know how your story is going to end?


Rasley, Alicia. ‘Article of the Month: Beginning, Middle, and End: The Purposes,’ Writer’s Corner,

Rasley, Alicia. ‘Article of the Month: Thirteen Prime Plot Principles,’ Writer’s Corner,

Reid, Joanne. Write a Novel in 10 Weeks: Plotting,