The novelist E.M. Forster (1927) explains this very clearly. He describes a story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence’ and a plot as ‘also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.’
For example, ‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.
This is because there is a reason given for the queen dying. In a story, someone dying is not in itself interesting. It is the reason for the death that fascinates the reader, especially if the reason is connected with something that has happened to, or been done by, another character.
Readers are well tuned to guessing and imagining causes just from the details they perceive in the story. With this in mind, even the smallest recorded observations can be relevant.
Write a story based on this: ‘A woman on a bus today carried her Pekinese dog inside her handbag. It had a red bow on its head that matched her sweater.’
This short description of a real person could be the starting point for a fictional character. Imagine:
Who might she have been?
Where was she going?
What did her appearance suggest about her mood or state of mind?
How old was she?
How did she live?
In answering these questions you start to build a concrete sense of character. You start to get a story.
Developing your plot line
Developing the detail of your character will help you arrive at your story. And discovering causality – what causes your character to do things or to be the way they are – will give you plot. But how do you develop that plot?
Returning to the example: ‘A woman on the bus today carried her Pekinese dog inside her handbag. It had a red bow on its head that matched her sweater.’
Why was she on the bus?
Why did she have the dog and where was she taking it?
Why did she look the way she did?
Why did the dog have a red bow?
These are not scientific questions: if you wanted to know the correct answer to them, you would have asked her. They are matters for your imagination. Answering them will give you a plot.
As the bus neared, Joanie threaded her scarf through the straps of her bag, tickling Nina under the chin, “No yapping till we get off,” she whispered. After showing her pass, she took a window seat. Dogs weren’t allowed on public transport during peak hours, but it was only a short trip through the village to the shopping centre.
The photographer’s booth was open and a stream of mums with prams and buggies passed through its blacked-out curtains. She joined the queue, tutting at the noise, and checked on Nina, “Good girl,” she said, “show these noisy brats how to behave in public.”
Once in the booth, and ignoring the giggling and whispers from outside, she sat down and carefully lifted Nina from her handbag. Joanie kissed Nina’s tiny head and adjusted the red bow that matched her own sweater perfectly.
“Ready when you are, young man,” She said to the photographer, “and please close your mouth. Don’t you know it’s rude to stare.”
“B-b-but, this is a Mother and baby competition,” he stuttered, hiding his laughter behind his hand.
“I’m aware of that. I am a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother and this little darling is my baby. Now take the damn photo. I haven’t got all day.”
Photographs taken, Joanie left her name and address for the magazine company to contact her later. The rules didn’t stipulate that the baby had to be human, at least they should give her credit for originality. And if she didn’t win, the photos would make great Christmas cards to send to her daughter in Australia. It had been ten years since she’d last seen her in person, and her darling Pekinese, Nina, had truly become her family. “But, I think we’ll stop the matching outfits,” she said removing the red bow from Nina’s head. “There are too many critics these days. Mind you, some of them could do with a makeover.” She laughed, put Nina into her bag and headed for the bus-stop. “I’ll drop by the butchers on the way home, we’ll have sausages for tea.”
In the example possibilities of how and why the woman happened to be on the bus with her dog, we are asking a question which is essential for writing fiction. This question is – ‘What if?’
Asking ‘What if?’ can help you to get from having an idea about a character you want to write about to developing a plot. For example, you might ask:
What if at one time the straight-laced schoolteacher worked in the circus?
What if that charming woman in the sweetshop poisoned her neighbour’s cat?
What if tomorrow I inherited a million pounds, and then what if the next day I lost it?
What if the characters are not as they first seem?
This ability to ask ‘What if?’ is a habit that can easily be learned. It adds causality and richness to your characters as well as helping you to form a plot.