This Story Has No Plot
What does it mean when you get a review back that says, "this story has no plot"?
Recently I've turned down a few stories on the grounds that the story doesn't have a plot, and in writing my decision letters, I've realized how difficult the concept of "plot" is to explain. Therefore, I'm going to take some time here to try to explain what "plot" is, at least from the perspective of a genre fiction editor.
A story, or a narrative, is a simple description of events. I opened the forbidden tome. I was cursed. I slowly turned into a ghoul.
A plot, on the other hand, describes how the events are causally related and unfold within the framework of human understanding and emotion. Driven by a lust for power, I opened the forbidden tome, which activated the ancient curse of its insane author and brought it down upon my head. Although I tried everything I could to counteract the curse, it slowly transformed me into a ghoul.
Notice two things. First, the cause and effect, the internal logic of the strange event, is clear to the reader. Second, the human side of the story is present: motives, thoughts, and emotions.
The classic plot is structured as follows:
• Conflict: The characters face some kind of problem or challenge that must be resolved. In horror the characters usually face physical or psychological conflict, although other types of conflict, such as emotional or spiritual, can also be faced. Driven by a lust for power — why does the narrator lust for power? What has caused this conflict? Make sure your reader eventually understands the backstory, the events that have made the narrator lust for power. However, don't present the backstory as an "info dump"!
Too many stories start by describing the status quo, the normal situation, and then present the problem that disrupts the status quo to create conflict. That's fine in novels, but be very careful about starting a short story so slowly. Many stories catch a reader's attention immediately by presenting the conflict in the very first paragraph. Why start with a yawn when you can start with a scream?
• Complications: The conflict should never be resolved easily. I opened the forbidden tome, which activated the ancient curse of its ancient author.... Complications here could include obstacles to the narrator's gaining the tome, and of course that curse is certainly going to be a major complication in the narrator's quest for power. Alternatively, if you start the story with the tome being opened, the complications will come with the statement Although I tried everything I could to counteract the curse... that is, the plot should involve the problems the narrator faces while trying to lift the curse.
• Rising action: As complications accrue, tension rises. In this sample plot, you have two opportunities for rising action, depending on where you choose to begin the story. If you begin it with the narrator trying to get the forbidden tome, then the complications will involve the attempt to get the book and, later, the attempt to lift the curse. If the story begins with the narrator opening the book, then the complications come with Although I tried everything I could to counteract the curse... What was tried? How miserably does it fail? How does the narrator react to that failure and the resulting slow metamorphosis? Notice that complications and rising action will build tension in readers, as they wonder how the story will end.
Remember that the characters' emotions are an important part of rising action. If we don't feel the same tension that the characters feel, we might as well be reading an encyclopedia entry! Besides, if we empathize with a character, we'll care about what happens to the character in the end. Liking a character makes complications more frustrating and rising action more intense.
• Climax: This is the point of the story where all the complications come to a head and the conflict is faced. This is the moment at which we wait, breath held, to find out how the conflict will be resolved. Although I tried everything I could to counteract the curse, it slowly transformed me into a ghoul. The narrator's last-ditch effort to lift the curse may be the climax, and the moment that the narrator turns to look into a mirror that moment of truth.
• Falling action: At this point the climax is resolved, for better or for worse, and the rest of the story is completed. In a short story, this is best kept brief. ...it slowly transformed me into a ghoul. The narrator has lost, the curse has been fulfilled, and the author wraps up the story, letting us feel the narrator's regret, or bitterness, or defiant sense of triumph, etc. Short stories usually end very swiftly after the climax.
Some authors still think it's clever to pull a "The Lady or the Tiger?" and end before the climax is resolved. Forget it. Plottus interruptus is no longer the amusing literary prank it was in the late 1800s. After a hundred years or so, cleverness becomes cliche.
So what kind of stories don't have a plot?
The most common type of plotless story I get is basically just a scene or act. It's only a description of a conflict, or of rising action, or of the moment of climax—it doesn't tell a complete story. As a scene or an act, it may be great, but enough information is left unexplained to lead me to turn it down.
Similarly, sometimes I get a story that has forgotten to present causality or motive. The events may be spooky or fantastic, and there may indeed be conflict, action, and resolution, but the author neglects to offer any explanation for the events in the first place. Why is the ghost or demon tormenting this poor person? Why was a curse laid on the pages of the book? What are the characters feeling as they move through the story events? The story may be fine from a structural standpoint, but it's shallow and unsteady, too liable to collapse as soon as a reader begins to ask "why?" or "how?"
But wait, you're saying—I've seen successful works that don't explain the strange events they describe. What about The Blair Witch Project? Or House of Leaves? Allow me to point out that both have a body of supplementary works and fan commentary that attempt to provide explanations missing in the original work. Yes, the rules of plot can be broken—but not often, and not without causing a reaction.
OK, you're saying, what about flash fiction? The World's Shortest Stories (Steve Moss, Editor) contains works that are 55 words or under, and believe it or not, the best of the lot actually contain all the elements of plot — albeit in extremely condensed form. And since most flash stories are much longer than 55 words, I don't believe it's legitimate to use the label "flash" as an excuse to ignore plot.
Plot's one of those elements of writing that tends to be taken for granted. We all think we know what plot is — but if you want to be a serious writer, take some time to read more about plot structure and style. The writing reference shelves of your library or bookstore are full of good books on plot—for a writer-friendly text that won't bog you down in literary theory, I recommend Plot by Ansen Dibbell in the Elements of Fiction Writing series.
Want some advice from an editor about writing, submitting, or publishing? Send your question to Dru at firstname.lastname@example.org. Putting Question: in the subject header will help Dru sort it out from all the spam she receives. Questions should be applicable to writers in general and not specific to any one case.