On structure, plot and “formula”

Work-in-ProgressI have a policy about not blogging my own writing advice because, frankly, there are so many courses a serious writer can do, and so many books on the subject written by people better qualified than I, but I’m bending my rule, today. A Wattpad friend wrote a blog post asking for help with a presentation he had been asked to do on the topic of plot development and I wrote him a response which was so long – and about which I felt so passionate – that I thought I’d post it here, too.
Now, my friend didn’t think he was saying anything particularly controversial, and he wasn’t deliberately dissing the idea of structure and plot at all, but what he did say was that he was hoping to make his writing group aware of, and open their minds to  “these formulas.”

He’s not alone in mistaking plotting and structure for formula, Stephen King even does it in his book “On Writing” in which he talks about writers who use plot as being lazy – but it is simply not the case.

What follows is the reply I posted on my friend’s blog, edited so that it makes sense, here.

*Note, I haven’t linked to his post, yet, because I haven’t asked his permission – if he offers it (from the other side of the world in another timezone), I will 🙂

I don’t know how long you have till your presentation but even if it’s tomorrow, as a writer you should read the following anyway:

Noah Lukeman’s “The Plot Thickens” – it’s one of the best books on plot development I’ve ever read.
“Beginnings, Middles, and Ends”, by Nancy Kress explains the basics of structure in a way that is incredibly easy to absorb while not treating it lightly (it’s part of the Elements of Fiction Writing series)

If you want to understand the deeper meanings of storytelling and myth then:
Chris Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey” is a necessity (and it wouldn’t hurt to read Joseph Campbells “Hero with a thousand faces”, too, since it’s based in that.)

“Wired for Story” explains the neuroscience behind why story structures play a part in moving us.
Ack! I could name so many more!

In case you don’t have a lot of time for more reading, then let me address the “formula” issue because it’s obviously at the top of your mind and it will also address exactly what “plot” and “structure” are (and are not).

“a plot” is the chain of events, the cause and effect, the “what happens” of a specific story.
Note: If the plan a writer has for a story is so vague as to be able to apply to another, or many other stories, then it’s not a plot (despite the confusing misuse of the word by many), it’s a story structure which they have not yet fleshed out and they have a LOT of work to do! For example, “the hero’s journey” is a structure, not a plot.

“to plot” is to plan out, or develop, the chain of events of a specific story – applying cause and effect to the various elements the writer has chosen to use: the characters, setting, time, etc…
Note: plot development is NOT planning out how that plot/story will be told, that’s a style issue which needs to happen after the plot has been worked out. Writing a story in a non-linear way does not change its structure, it simply presents it in a different way – the time of the tale does not change just because we fiddle with the time of the telling.

“Structure” has no different meaning in story craft than any other – it is the skeleton of a creature, the frame of a building – it determines what species, or what kind of building we have.

If the structure is beginning, middle, end then the creature we have is a story – what kind of story can be adjusted by adding to that basic structure but all stories must have those three things, or they are not stories (again, they need not be presented in that order).

So, if a structure can be applied to many stories, is a structure a formula? No. Not at all.

A formula is both a complete description of its subject and a recipe thereof – if you apply the recipe you will create whatever it describes. A human skeleton by no means describes a complete being, a soup bowl promises a meal that will require a spoon, but by no means defines the soup.

So is a plot – fully formed, detailed and specific – a formula? Again, no, but with qualifications.

In as much as a plot is descriptive of its story, perhaps it is a formula, but it’s still not descriptive of the complete work because the work is not just the story – each writer would take that detailed plot and turn out different beasts – in my mind a formula or a recipe should be transferable to another cook or writer and still turn out the same object.

So if a writer takes the plot of his last work, replaces all the relevant characters with new characters and the settings with new settings – is that a formula?

Maybe, but only if he uses exactly the same kind of characters and the same kind of happenings (which those who have series about the same character can do.)

If the writer uses characters which are even slightly different from the previous ones then the cause and effect is going to change the story quite a bit and all he’s done is use the structure of the previous novel to help him work out a whole new plot/story.

So, for what it’s worth, that’s my take on the plot-versus-formula discussion, perhaps it will be of use to some fellow writers.

Now to go and practice what I preach on chapter 22 of As Long As She Lives!


5 comments on “On structure, plot and “formula””
  1. tonimaclaughlin@gmail.com says:

    You have an easy to absorb, unique teaching style. I love how you’re able to give useful advise in a manner that’s not only interesting, but also tactful, without being patronising. I only wish Australian high school students had access to your teaching skills, knowledge and quick brain. Malcolm is right – you’d be fucking brilliant in a classroom!


    1. That’s only because I only speak when I’m sure of my subject – makes me look like a genius despite the MASSES of stuff I don’t know 😉


  2. Hahah, why am I not surprised?


    1. hehe I told you I would! You can delete my massively long comment if you like and just link to here lol


      1. No it’s fine. I replied with a somewhat long comment myself.
        To give you the short version: thanks for your comment and the book suggestions. Also, I do a bit of clarify on what I meant by formula.


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