A Situation Is Not a Plot

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.

Or:

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!

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  1. Jamie Harrington’s avatar

    This is something I struggle with more when writing contemporary YA versus paranormal YA.

    In paranormal the stakes are always SO high that it’s hard to compare the two, but it still has to be done in order to write a good story!

    As an aside, when you become KidLit’s client… every time she starts to write a blog post… you worry she’s talking about you :)

  2. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    Thanks for showing the difference. Missing plot is often the problem with the queries posted on Query Shark.

    I’ve seen published books that are missing a plot. The 2nd book in the Twilight series didn’t seem to have much of a plot to me. Bella wanted to be a vampire, missed her boyfriend, did dangerous things to hear her boyfriend warn her to be careful in her head, and hung out with a guy who liked her who turned out to be a werewolf. I gave up on the series after that.

    I agree with Jamie, after sending a query, I always think the posts are about my mistakes.

  3. KellieD’s avatar

    I caught that, Jamie. Congrats!

  4. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Mary, this reminded me that I would love to read some rock-solid advice on how to write a plot synopsis. I’m sure your ‘to write on blog’ to-do list is as long as one of Mr Tickle’s arms, but would you be able to add this on somewhere?

    Thanks, Siski (or Franz, if you must)

  5. Bane’s avatar

    Another nice post. Thanks, Mary.

  6. JR’s avatar

    Hey Mary,

    Your post brought a couple of thoughts to my mind and a few questions.

    Steven King mentions in his book “On Writing” that he never plots his books before he starts them but writes with only a situation in mind. Your point is different of course–making sure your pitch/query describes the plot–but I was wondering where you came down on the whole “plotting in advance” debate?

    Also, you made me laugh. Seems like you’re courting controversy again! Go girl! You’ve gone from discussing cursing in YA to talking about a gay plot.

    I wonder if those readers who objected to cursing in YA also object to their being gay characters. (FYI: Archie Comics just added a gay character.) Is it okay in YA but not MG or do they think it is never okay?

    I read somewhere that the number one reason why a book gets “banned” is because it is too sexual. (“Boy Toy”, for example.) The irony, though, was that a book with a gay character was usually automatically lumped in the too-sexual category even if there was no sexual conduct and if the book was more about identity. Thoughts anyone?

    JR

  7. Olleymae’s avatar

    I really struggled with this when I concocted my agent pitch for the DFW conference. I was practicing with one of my friends, pretending she was you, Mary, (lol) and she finally took my notes and crossed out half of it. She told me, “This is your actual story. Tell her this.”

    My nerves probably still got the best of me and made me babble, but it is a great point to keep in mind. Especially when you’re talking to agents that have probably heard so much they are ready to GET TO THE POINT.

  8. Mary Hoffman’s avatar

    You just wouldn’t believe how many things aren’t a plot! So many authors, particularly YA authors, seem to think that a plot is a series of exciing events. And it isn’t!

  9. Candyland’s avatar

    Excellent comparisons!

  10. Mary’s avatar

    Jamie — I love you for your subtlety.

    Franz :) — I’ll do a synopsis post at some point but, honestly, I hate synopses and don’t believe I can be truly helpful. Still, I’ll think of something.

    Gwenda — Obviously, I’M the premier expert on writing, so this “Stephen King” fellow can just step off…

    JR — I have thoughts on this, of course, but will wait to do a more cogent post on it a little later.

  11. Bongo’s avatar

    Bongo would like to thank Mary Hoffman for using a last name.

    Bongo would like to remind Theresa Milstein that it is heresy to criticize the Twilight series.

    Bongo would like to apologize to his Mary if he offended her. Bongo only wished to bring a little light to her life.

  12. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    You always seem to put things in such a clear perspective. Nice post!

  13. Maria’s avatar

    I agree with Theresa about the second Twilight book. However, keep reading Theresa because I thought that the third book is actually the most interesting of the series.

    Mary, It seems to me that when authors are doing a series, especially a lengthy one, there are some books that seem to be mostly character development and act like a “bridge” to get to the next book.

  14. Bryan Bliss’s avatar

    Unlike all of you, I know that all of these posts are talking about me. ;)

  15. Chantal Kirkland’s avatar

    Hm, so, Mary, are you trying to tell me that my sexy-goth-boy meets girl-who-doesn’t-think-she’s sexy isn’t a plot? Well, poo. I may have to go back to the drawing board. Quit posting things that will turn my 50K words into a coherent document that might one day be a book! Stop. Or you may never see my query. Just sayin. LOL!

  16. Bongo’s avatar

    Chantal, Bongo doesn’t think the threat of one less query letter is going to stop my Mary. In fact, you may encourage her.

  17. ChristaCarol’s avatar

    My thoughts are similar to Olley’s in that when people pitch, a lot of the time it isn’t necessarily that their story lacks plot but they don’t know how to pitch properly. If that makes sense?

    And yes, congrats Jamie! :D

  18. Marybk’s avatar

    Go Jamie! :)

  19. Janet Smith’s avatar

    I’m wondering if plot has an inevitability that pushes the character to change in some substantial way. Maybe the difference between situation and plot is that a situation presents a character facing a problem, but a plot requires the character to react to the problem and all the subsequent problems that result–and the problem must be in some way inescapable. I am still trying to figure this all out.

  20. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    Great post, as always. I might actually take exception with your second example, though… seems you’ve created another situation. A more interesting and complex situation, but still a situation. The friend’s breakup is the instigating event, but the plot will be either how she goes about making her decision or what happens after she makes her decision. Or, possibly, how she fumbles through NOT making a decision until fate makes it for her. “Has to decide” is situation; “decides” is plot. ???

    Sorry, didn’t mean to be a nattering nabob of negativism here. I do think the advice is spot on and a good lesson for everyone.

  21. Mary’s avatar

    Peter — You know what? You’re right! I’ve changed it, above.

  22. Ramona’s avatar

    This was just what I needed to hear right now. I have a situation but, no plot.

  23. Alan Nash’s avatar

    Other than the gay issue, plot or not, it’s a story that can only be told by someone who is living the story. It’s not a one book or essay or short story, it’s a never ending saga and life style. Please do it justice if any of you pursue this issue (meth) and the destruction of the family.

  24. mi’s avatar

    thanks for the great post!
    i’m more of a “stephen king” type writer – meaning i start with a situation and the plot works itself out as i write.
    but i always have a plot before i query! haha!

  25. Susan James’s avatar

    Thanks Mary! So helpful as always.

  26. Kate B.’s avatar

    Hmmm, Alan’s comment made me think. I have a experience with a number of subjects that could be touchy (being gay, living with an alcoholic sibling, suicide in the family). I’ve never had a problem with someone writing about these things who doesn’t have any experience. But I’ll tell you what…a lack of authenticity really sticks out to me. And it’s kept me from doing things like writing from a male perspective or a different race or about addiction.

    I wonder how many people write from unfamiliar situations and how often that’s done well.

  27. Bongo’s avatar

    What does all this “go Jamie” mean? Is she moving to Seattle?

    Bongo moved from Meknes to Chicago and no one celebrated this fact. (Is this a plot or a situation? Or just, sadly, the truth?)

    Also, Bongo’s brother’s family was destroyed because of this math issue. Math is a big problem in Meknes. There have even been protractor killings. And I agree, unless someone has experience with math, they should not write about it.

  28. Melissa’s avatar

    Yow! Mary, I’ve spent the last year figuring out what you just said. If only you’d said it a year ago…

    Actually, if you’d said it a year ago, I probably would have spent the whole year figuring it out anyway. There’s a difference between understanding what you read and understanding what you do.

    @Jamie–Good on you.

    @Peter–Thanks for making your point about decisions vs. decisions that have to be made. Really helpful.

  29. sruble’s avatar

    Great post for the plot challenged (a.k.a. me). It really helps to read reminders like this. Thanks!

  30. Valerie Thomas’s avatar

    Fantastic post. Sums up perfectly why it is so hard to write a book – it’s pretty easy to come up with a high concept place to start, but difficult to advance the idea into a story.

  31. Alan Nash’s avatar

    Kate B. I’m not much of a writer, I’m an Illustrator and Editorial Cartoonist and Locomotive Engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad (that’s what pays the bills :) ) I write for a creative outlet. We have experienced the Meth syndrome, it’s ugly. As an engineer I can tell when someone is telling a story with a hint of railroading and it’s easy to tell they have NO experience in the industry…technical mistakes. I see the same with what people percieve as “real life”. Addictions and deseases like meth, alcoholism, drugs, the colateral damage caused by these issues can, in my opinion, only be told if you have personal experience, the emotions can’t be effectively be portrayed, otherwise. Write what you live so that others can “really” live it, too.

  32. Alan Nash’s avatar

    I guess what I am trying to say is, addictions are not a plot. They may lead to a plot…murder, robbery, etc. I don’t know what I’m trying to say, except I don’t wish it on anyone, maybe that should be the story.
    Thanks, I’ll go back to cartooning…

  33. Anita’s avatar

    Thank you for making the distinction.

  34. Emily Hainsworth’s avatar

    I think Stephen King meant that you can START with a situation, which can lead you to plot. By asking “What if everyone in your town disappeared but you and four other teens?” (a la Christopher Pike), you can THEN proceed to what might happen as a result of that situation (plot). I agree with King — it’s much more interesting/easier to go from situation TO plot than try to pull situation OUT of plot. 0_o

  35. Alan Nash’s avatar

    Being the rookie that I am, and after re-reading Mary’s origional piece, I realized I am out of my league, you people didn’t really need my opinion in this matter. You are all very well versed in your craft and I have no doubt that these situations will be dealt with very professionally and I thank you. I’m going to head back into the world of cartooning and running coal trains. Thanks for not blowing me out of the water :)

  36. Kate B.’s avatar

    Alan, I wasn’t trying to call you out. :) You have a right to have an opinion. I was just curious if anyone could ever do enough research to make a visceral experience, like addiction, authentic enough to write. I’m sorry if I seemed standoffish. I didn’t mean to at all. I was just musing about your post as a writer who’d like to stretch her wings more.

  37. Julie Hedlund’s avatar

    I read a lot of writing blogs, so it’s rare that I read something that I had really never thought of before, but this is it! Just one more thing to file away… situation vs. plot. Thanks!

  38. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Loved this post Mary, thanks!

  39. Brian H’s avatar

    I agree that what you start with is a situation – a “what if?”. Patrick Ness says that his (brilliant) trilogy Chaos Walking (I’ve read the first two: The Knife of Never Letting Go, and The Ask and the Answer – they are amazing) with the idea, the “situation”, of “what if we could hear each others’s thoughts.” You’d nver know from the complex plot that it started from such a sparse “situation”. My Creative Writing teacher at Sheffield Hallam Uni in UK always started his critiques of my work with the question “Where’s the story?”. Incidentally, Patrick Ness’ awesome trilogy deals with loads of “issues”, but the story comes first – and what a story it is!!

  40. Tim’s avatar

    Nice post. I shall have to come back and see what else you’re up to :-)

  41. Gordon’s avatar

    Wonderful discussion. My interpretation is that a situation is static, a snapshot. A plot brings in the element of time, and change over time.

    A situation describes circumstances at a moment in time. A plot talks about how that situation evolves through changes and how the characters are challenged as a result.

    If it’s a good plot, the reader is captivated by how the character responds to challenges.

    Would you agree?

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