Thoughts on Composing: Plot vs Concept

I’ve been hitting a little bit of a writing block lately. I haven’t written much over the past few months, but now that things are settling down a little bit in my life and I’m feeling far less depressed, I’ve been missing it. I need something fun and quick (relatively speaking) to get me back into the right headspace where I write nearly every day simply because I like it and it makes me feel good. Therefore, I decided to write a short story. I sit down at my desk/kitchen table, put on my favorite hat, turn on a lamp to set the ambiance, pull out my notebook, and start writing. This all goes smoothly for about ten minutes, but then I hit a block. I realize around this point, I don’t know what I’m writing. I’m just rambling, with no direction and nowhere to go.

Now, I’ve never been one much for outlines. I like to sit down with a thought and write it out and see where the story takes me. This works well for me. When I try to write from an outline, I end up forcing the story in a direction that doesn’t feel right to me, and my writing suffers for it. However, this is not to say that I don’t usually know what I’m doing. With the stories that have worked well for me, I’ve always had a basic plot in my head. If I let the story wander a little bit, it’s fine, but I always know where it’s going. It’s like taking a detour down a side lane on Christmas because you notice some cool lights on a house. It’s great to be flexible because then you get to see the lights, but without a destination you get lost in suburbia and before you know it you’ve got four kids and a minivan and YOU CAN NEVER LEAVE! Not a good place for your story to end up.

So destination. This is where I’ve been failing in my story writing. This is where I hit a wall. It’s not the commonly referred to writer’s block. It’s more insidious. Where regular writer’s block is merely frustrating, this is wasted effort, busy work, digging holes and filling them in again. It’s sitting at a desk and writing 1,000 words of nothing. The thing that’s so nefarious about this kind of writing, is that you’re actually doing something. You feel productive and that feeling blinds you to the fact that you’re really doing nothing. This is why destination is so important. Destination is what makes a story a story. Let me explain.

There are two ways I typically have ideas for stories. One I’ll label simply “Concept.” A concept is when I have one specific detail in mind, but no story surrounding it. A couple years ago, my in-laws told me about a reservoir near where they live with an underwater graveyard buried in it. I immediately wrote that down in my journal because holy shit isn’t that a great setting! So here I have this setting, and last fall I tried to turn it into a story. It did not go well. Why? Because I didn’t have a story to tell. I could write a terrific description of the underwater graveyard. I could even make up some fun spectral inhabitants. But I had no idea what would happen there. I still don’t. This is a scene that’s better off sitting in my journal until I need to pull it into a story, but it’s not a structure for a story in itself.

This brings me to my second type of story idea, which here I’ll label “Plot.” A plot story is like a concept, with one very key difference. In a plot, something happens. It can be something small, insignificant even in the final telling, but it starts you out with action. And in the end, that’s what stories are. Stories are actions. Stories are destinations. The key element in a destination is you have to do something to get there. You have to act. Without that key element, a story is just a setting, or a character, or something else boring and inactive. In order for a setting to be a solid basis for a story, something has to occur within it. The difference between a character in a story and me on the couch is the character is doing something. This is the basis for all great storytelling. And this is where I’ve fallen short. And now that I know that, it’s time to get writing.

See you guys after I’ve done something.


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