The How-to Of Creative Writing - What Makes A Story A Plot?

Posted at 17:35pm on 10th September 2008

I’m sorry I’m rather late with this week’s How-to of Creative Writing. I’ve been developing my website in the hope that it will make it easier for visitors to navigate. Also, I wanted to make sure that my readers – you! – understand what it’s all about. I hope you’ll take a look around and let me know what you think. I’m open to any suggestions for improvement. I may have been a published author for nearly twenty-five years, but I’m a novice when it comes to websites and blogs! I need your feedback, please, to help me get it right.


During the past three or four weeks, we’ve been looking at the compass points of creative writing. Today I’m going to highlight each one, and begin to join the dots. You remember, I hope, that I told you there’s no magic formula; ya gotta work at it. If you click on any of the linked headings below, you’ll be taken back to each particular session. Meanwhile, let’s just summarise what I’ve been saying.


We began by working on Plot Ideas. These are some of the suggestions I came up with:

  • Use a newspaper report as a starting point (never use someone else’s story unless you have permission – you may find yourself in court!)
  • Blend it with other anecdotal material to put a different slant on it, or a different conclusion.
  • Ask yourself ‘what if?’
  • Be observant: use nature, chats you have with others, conversations you overhear.
  • Read the obituaries: they’re usually a very succinct story of someone’s life from start to finish.
  • Put a modern take on a nursery rhyme, fairy tale, or Bible story.

Remember, these are only ideas. Kicking off points!


Next we looked at Theme – what it is and what it isn’t; it’s significance in story-telling.

  • Theme is not plot. And it’s not genre.
  • Theme is the subject; the purpose; the focus of the story.
  • It can be expressed in a word or a sentence: forgiveness; betrayal; unrequited love; repentance.
  • Theme guides the plotting process and shapes the progress of the story.


In this session on Characterisation, I pointed out that because a novel is essentially about people, characters are crucial to story-telling.

  • Characters are not merely travellers on the journey your story takes.
  • They are the driving force.
  • Characters should be Central.
  • Credible.
  • Creative.
  • Complex.


In order to avoid having two-dimensional, cardboard cut-outs and achieve Character Credibility, you need to know your characters inside out. Better than you know yourself! Although you will not use a fraction of the details you accumulate, I suggested that to achieve credibility and authenticity in your characters, it might be beneficial to take a sheet of A4 paper, a piece of card, or a MS Excel table, and make a profile of each character. Your summary will include:

  • Physical attributes
  • Historical aspects
  • Personality traits

Click on the linked heading above to see the detailed list. There are, also, several links to other websites and books which are relevant to the subject.


Developing the concept of characterisation, I showed you how different personality types can spark either harmony or conflict between them, when relating to each other. I hope you’ll read the books I recommended, because I can promise you that the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) will not only help you with characterisation for your stories, it will develop your own personality and help you to understand where the people in your life – spouse, partner, parents, children, colleagues – are coming from.

In this session, I asked if you’re an:

  • Extrovert or Introvert in the way you re-charge your batteries?
  • Sensor or iNtuitive in the way you absorb information from the world around you? (The N is capitalised to distinguish it from the I of Introvert)
  • Thinker or Feeler in the way you make decisions?
  • Perceiver or Judger in your behaviour?

Combinations of these four characteristics make up the sixteen Types identified in MBTI. Some combinations produce harmony. Others have the potential for conflict.


I can’t stress enough how vital conflict is in respect of plot. Quite simply, without it, there is no plot. What you have is merely a report. An account.

E.M.Forster, in a series of lectures titled, Aspects of the Novel, in 1927, defined a story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence.’ He continued: ‘it (a story) can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story.’

By his definition, readers would ask ‘Why?’ ‘What did the Queen die of?’

‘A plot’, said Forster, ‘is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.’ Thus, ‘“The king died and then the queen died” is a story.’ But ‘“The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’

Can you see how Conflict is central to this plot? It may not be overtly expressed, but it is there implicitly. The keyword is grief. Grief is the cause of the Queen’s death, and the conflict in the way her grief is played out is what makes a plot of the narrative.

Understanding the role of Conflict and causality is key to grasping the principles of plotting. This is what makes a book a page-turner. The reader can’t wait to know what comes next. Not in respect of a narrative of events in chronological order. But because each event is triggered by cause and effect. And that is a plot!


Get together all the notes you should now have on your plot ideas; your theme; your characters’ profiles. Start thinking about which of your characters are going to play a leading role. And then we’ll begin to have some fun in putting all the elements altogether.


If you feel you’ve benefited from this free tutorial, please consider doing one or more of the following:

  1. Subscribe (free) to receive further posts by RSS (click the little orange icon at the top of the screen to the right of my website address)
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  3. Make a donation by purchasing a copy of A Painful Post Mortem. (All profits for charity)


We’ll enlarge on the topic of Conflict, and start thinking about Plotting.

© Mel Menzies, September 2008

The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller,
Mel is also an experienced Speaker
and has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+
in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows, leading Family Forums, Marriage Enrichment, and Writers' Workshops..

Her latest novel ‘A Painful Post Mortem’ may be purchased online on my books’ page, at: Booklocker ; or at Amazon

ALL Profits - approximately 35% of book sales - are for charity.

To book her as a Speaker, contact her at:

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