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How Plot and Narrative Strengthen Stories

How Plot and Narrative Strengthen Stories

As a young writer, I didn’t know the difference between plot and narrative — or how to make both work for the most compelling hook, arc, and story. Lucy Christopher at Bath Spa University was the first to sit down with me and really explain it.

You need both plot and narrative hints to hook a reader. It’ll take a lot of revisions to get the balance of this right, but hooks that instantly immerse you in the story have this in common: Plot and narrative are working together.

In the opening of Hugo, for instance, the action (plot) that changes everything is when our protagonist tries to steal a mechanical mouse and is caught. But the reason he’s stealing the mouse is his narrative “goal” — he wants to repair the only thing left from his father (so, boiled down, he wants family). The story doesn’t give all of that right up-front, but lets it unfold. The hint is the hook.

So, what do I mean: Plot vs. Narrative?

When I’m brainstorming my characters and fiddling with my ideas, I spend a lot of time questioning my plot and narrative. 

Plot is what will happen externally to a character, and narrative is what changes internally. These are your big draws for the story — the things that will compel readers forward. You want to come up with the most interesting combination of answers.

Here’s an example using one of my characters:

     Plot Question: Will he remain crippled?
     Narrative Question: Will he become a hero?
Plot Answer: Yes
Narrative Answers: Yes

Let’s Talk Plot

So, plot is the physical or outside-world influences on your character’s life.

Some examples of plot:

  • Lizzie Bennet needs to be married to live securely.
  • Frodo is given the One Ring by his uncle, Bilbo.
  • Tony Stark/Iron Man is captured by a terrorist organization and imprisoned.
  • Alice falls down a rabbit hole.
  • Odysseus tries to sail home.

All of these things are elements that happen to the character, compelled by a force outside the character — whether by circumstances (Lizzie’s culture, Alice’s rabbit hole, Odysseus’s journey), other characters (Frodo’s uncle), or antagonists (terrorist organization).

Now, to turn these into plot questions, we might say:

  • Will Lizzie Bennet get married?
  • What will Frodo do with the One Ring?
  • Will Tony Stark/Iron Man escape the terrorist organization?
  • Will Alice get out of the rabbit hole again?
  • Will Odysseus get home?

Those are the external factors or goals for your character. The questions that compel the physical what will happen of the story. The plot.

Let’s Talk Narrative

Narrative, on the other hand, is the internal things that will happen to a character. The emotional or intellectual influences the character will have to navigate.

Some examples of narrative:

  • Lizzie Bennet wants to fall in love (not marry for convenience).
  • Frodo wants to protect Hobbiton from the evil the One Ring brings.
  • Tony Stark/Iron Man wants to survive.
  • Alice longs for stable reality.
  • Odysseus wants to settle down with his wife.

Notice the word all these have in common: Want. These are all internal emotions, or motivations that spring from the character’s heart and mind. These elements happen in the character.

So, to turn them into narrative questions, we say:

  • Will Lizzie Bennet fall in love?
  • Will Frodo protect Hobbiton and defeat evil?
  • Will Tony Stark/Iron Man survive?
  • Will Alice find stability?
  • Will Odysseus find peace?


Some other narrative questions to think about:

  • What is your protagonist’s lie? (<- click the link to read more about this on K.M. Weiland’s blog)
    • What is she telling herself (or how is she acting) that will have to change in the course of the story?
  • What is he hiding/concealing?
    • This goes hand-in-hand with the lie. What is his ultimate insecurity?
  • What does she need to learn?
    • How will she have changed by the end of the story? How will her lie be exposed and her ultimate rise into a better person (or fall into a worse person) come about? What does she need to prove to herself and the reader by the end of the book?

Normally in my own plotting, I write this out like so:

    Lie: Talvas believes that as a crippled civilian, he has nothing left in his life — he can no longer be a hero.
    Hiding: Talvas must conceal how helpless he feels. He does this by aggressively attacking opposition.
    Learn: Talvas can only become who he wants to be (a hero) when he gives up what he most desires (physical wholeness).

Bam! Now you have the backbone for a very interesting story.

Want to get some feedback? Share your plot/narrative questions or your characters’ lies here!

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