The Write Stuff - A concept is not a plot

By David Flin

A cloudy concept needs a lot of work

I’ve come across several people who have “an idea for a story” for me. They then proceed to give me a quick outline of a passing thought. I’ve had such things as: What if Amelia Earhart crashed in Avalon; what about a story where doctors know how to cure cancer, but don’t, because they don’t want to put themselves out of work; what would happen if the national animals of different countries existed and battled, you know, unicorn fighting a double-headed eagle?

The first moral of this is that it’s a good idea not to let people in a coffee shop know you’re a writer, because if they know, you’ll constantly be pestered with little concepts, and they’ll think they’ve done the hard work for you.

The rather more important moral is that a concept is not a plot. The First World War didn’t start in 1914, and a Cold War between the two sets of allies has continued until 1921 is a concept. It moves to a concept and theme when one adds the intention to look at the world from the viewpoint of those at the bottom of the heap, struggling to build something better. It only gains a plot when it has characters who do things. The start of the plot for that can be found in Bring Me My Bow.

In a previous article, I explained how you could get inspiration from other works. Here, I’ll be explaining in some greater detail beyond “Steal from better writers.”

First of all, characters come first. Without strong characters, a plot is pretty meaningless. The two go hand-in-hand. If you don’t have strong characters, no reader is going to care what they get up to. Once you have strong characters, they’ll start to adapt any plot you have in mind.

When that starts to happen, you’ll know that you’ve got characters that will interest the readers. A plot outline has to be meaningful to the character. If it isn’t, there’s a big problem.

Furthermore, motivation needs to remain consistent. A character’s motivation may well change as a result of events, but those events have to take place. For example, a character might want to meet someone nice and fall in love, and that gives them their motivation while they are looking. When they meet someone interesting, their motivation may well shift to wondering if this is the someone nice. As information on this becomes revealed, the motivation might well shift again. The motivation and character evolves.

Each scene should serve a purpose. Each scene may or may not develop a character, or the world, but it needs to push the story along. Things may get better, worse, or just different for the protagonist, but there needs to be a progression.

I tend to view a story as a journey. There may be digressions and side journeys along the way, and there should certainly be interesting scenery and character interactions along the way, but the purpose of a journey is to travel along the path. It’s easy enough to push an analogy too far, so I’ll not digress into talking about being careful not to burn bridges in case you need to go back into the plot, or about the importance of not exceeding the speed limit and rushing through the plot, or of the need to avoid distractions like mobile phones while driving the plot forward.

Ask yourself what purpose each scene serves in driving the plot forward. Setting a scene is not driving the plot. Developing a character is not driving the plot. Filling in back-story is not driving the plot. All of these need to be covered, but they need to be covered in such a way that the plot is moving forward.

When you’ve finished your first draft, read through each scene, and ask yourself this one question: “How does this scene advance the plot?”

To take the example of Six East End Boys, and those of you who have read this will be pleased to hear that I won’t go through all 100 chapters: Chapters 1-6 introduce each of the central characters. Chapter 7 brings them together. Chapter 8 outlines the initial plan. Chapter 9 sees the first step in the execution of that plan. And so on. Every chapter sees movement in the narrative.

If a scene doesn’t advance the plot, then the reader will find that the story starts to drag. The story is a journey, so you need to keep the reader moving along. How much and how fast will depend on the story, but the reader needs to feel a sense that the story is going somewhere.

The fundamental principle is simple. If a scene doesn’t advance the plot, it slows the story down. If it slows the story down, eliminate it. If the details there are important, incorporate them elsewhere into the story.

I’m afraid that’s all there is to it. Keep it flowing or cut it out. You might have a dialogue between two central characters that shines a light on to the personality of both of them, and the dynamic between them. But the key question you need to ask is: “How does this advance the plot?”

Discuss this article

David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow