Here’s a thought that I’ve been meaning to post about for a while. A lot of people pitch stories to me where they outline a situation and think that implies a plot. For example:
My character is living with her father after his parents’ nasty divorce. Meanwhile, his mother has run off on a meth binge.
Mine is a coming-of-age story where my main character is gay/Mexican/bulimic/diagnosed with cancer.
That’s all fine and good, but both of these pitches present me with a situation. A broken household. Something about the character that makes them different from their peers. But none of these things are a plot. My next question is always, “And…?”
Your character is gay aaaaaand…? What happens? What’s next? Your character has divorced parents aaaaand…? Where does the plot come in? What else?
A meaty situation or a controversial issue do not a fully fleshed-out manuscript make. It’s not enough. Lots of the most successful “issue books” or books where the character is in a bad situation keep these things in their back pockets but then evolve and build upon these issues or situations with a very rigorous plot.
For example, you can’t just write a book about a character in a broken home and have that be the extent of the story. That’s too spare. You can, however, write a book about a character in a broken home who runs away to find his meth-addicted mother, brings her back, rehabilitates her, then mourns her when she relapses, overdoses and dies. That’s a plot. You can’t just have a book where a character is gay and wanders around talking about how hard it is to be gay. You CAN have a gay character who is in love with her best friend, a friend who has recently broken up with her boyfriend, and now has to decide whether to help her best friend heal or to make a move. (You CAN have a gay character who is in love with her best friend, a friend who has recently broken up with her boyfriend. Your character must now decide whether to help her best friend heal or to make a move before the upcoming prom, because she hears the ex is trying to make a comeback.) That’s a plot.
Keep this in mind when you’re thinking about your book. In today’s market, where editors like to see layers upon layers of conflict, having just a situation in your story, not a plot, isn’t enough. It’s a very important distinction.
ETA: Peter, in the comments, argued that my second example was, indeed, situation, not plot. He’s right. I’ve changed it in parentheses above, so you can see the first version, and then the more plot-like version. Good catch!