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The Setting Is Also Not the Story

Not every detail can be addressed in one blog post, so I wanted to write a quick followup to the post: Don't Write the Plot, Write the Story

That post didn't mention setting or world-building, mostly because posts have to be limited in scope so as not to become books in their own right. So let me be clear: regardless of whether you're using the real world as a framework or inventing an entirely new universe, setting is absolutely important! 

The balance of setting with elements like plot and character development varies depending on the genre. A contemporary novel still needs to be grounded in its setting, but a historical novel will likely need to devote more space to establishing the world (creating a fuller picture of the world for those who may not know that history, did not live then, etc.). High Fantasy requires more world-building than Urban Fantasy, and it will almost always need more space on the page to explain the world because you can't expect the reader to have a preexisting framework to rely on if you're inventing a universe from scratch. That balance will also shift based on whether it's the first or fifteenth book in a series.

But no matter how richly developed the world, the setting is also not the story. It is unquestionably an important piece, but it is ultimately the backdrop that facilitates our experience of the story. 

Consider plays. I often remind writers that a novel is not a script—a fiction writer is required to do the work of the director, the actors, the set designer, the costume designer, and even the lighting designer, to an extent. Plays are a very different form of storytelling because so much must be added by each team creating the version they perform. And undoubtedly the interpretations of actors and directors become a critical part of their version of the story.

But a traditional Elizabethan version of Hamlet in full costume, with full sets (etc.) is not a different story than that same company's performance in their street clothes on a bare stage. Theater companies have even done intentionally minimalist performances like this.

Because while the setting (including costumes) enhances the story, and certainly influences our experience of the story, it is ultimately not itself the core story.

On the flip side, Hamlet with a different director's and cast's interpretation may ultimately be a different story. Because as I wrote here, the plot is also not the story. 

Don't Write the Plot, Write the Story

When you're evaluating the trajectory of your story (whether that's before or after writing a first draft), it's important to understand what fundamentally makes a story compelling. Why does it draw us in, and why do we care to keep reading (or watching)? What makes the ending satisfying? 

Many writers, especially at the beginning, fall into the trap of believing that a story is the plot, i.e., the external events that occur. Things like:

  • A heroine's friend is kidnapped.
  • A romantic couple meets.
  • The MC stumbles upon magic he's not supposed to know exists.
  • The maligned hero escapes from jail.
Whatever your genre of commercial fiction, there is (in 99% of cases) going to be a plot, meaning an external framework of events that occur as time passes. And the plot is important! It needs to make sense, it needs to move at a good pace, it needs to be a complete experience (often called an arc), and so on. 

But the plot is not the story.

Don't Write the Plot, Write the Story graphic
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The story is the main character's (or characters'—but I'll stick with one MC for clarity) growth arc. That is, how a character is emotionally impacted over the course of the story, and how they change (or choose not to) as a result.

The plot is a framework, but the character is the design and the substance. 

Even if your story primarily focuses on the action (like solving a mystery, or catching a criminal), the plot should be shaped by the details of your MC. What drives them? What knowledge, beliefs, and misconceptions do they have? The character's background and personality should influence what choices they make and what actions they take (or try to take)—otherwise known as the plot.

If your plot would be exactly the same with entirely different characters swapped in, you're doing something wrong.

What we connect with are the characters and their emotional journeys. Sometimes those journeys can be incremental (consider long-running TV shows like Bones and House), with the characters being nudged very slowly along their arcs. In such cases, individual episodes (or even entire novels, in action-heavy genres) don't necessarily have a full emotional arc for each MC. Often, stories like these rely on the emotional journeys of temporary side characters to draw us in and evoke that sense of fulfillment for individual episodes. Nevertheless, when you take the story as a whole—the entire series—the characters absolutely do grow and change over time. Or they intentionally and stubbornly choose not to, which can be the point of their story. But that journey is what draws us in. 

For example, with a romance, the story is never about the mechanics of how two people meet, or a list of what dates they go on. The story is how these people influence one another, leading to personal growth for each of them that allows them to come together as a healthy couple we can trust to navigate the future together. This is true for a positive romance arc in any genre.

A negative romance arc would result in the romantic relationship ending, but it's still not simply a list of conflicts or fights that happen. Rather, it's the emotional impact of those interactions on your characters, and the choices they make as a result.

Regardless of whether there's romance involved, nailing the character's arc—and how it's impacted by the plot—is integral to writing a satisfying story. Obstacles need to be engaged with (even if they're not overcome), and false beliefs need to be confronted, allowing the character to grow and learn as a result.

Sometimes, particularly with negative arcs, characters do refuse to change. To make such stories fulfilling, often the character must be left facing believable—even devastating—consequences. 

It is the seamless combination of external events (plot points) and compelling internal character arcs that creates engaging stories people can't put down—and will want to rave about and reread. 

So by all means, plan out your plot. Fill in the action beats in your favorite beat sheet or outline system. But remember to root those external events in the foundation of your characters. Because the plot isn't the story. Without those well-developed characters, a plot is just a sequence of events.