Writing Prompt: The Importance of Plot

by Finn Gross Maurer

When discussing how important plot is in a piece of fiction, I think it’s important to think about what happens when you ask a person what they’re reading. Take a second and imagine it. You pose the question. They reply with a title. Now stop, and think about what your next question is? More likely than not, it’s: “Oh what’s that about?”

In writing, plot equals structure, and structure happens to be crucial. Plot is not the only means of providing structure, but it’s certainly the most common, and arguably the most reliable. This is because plot provides the roadmap of where you’re going as a writer, and where you’re taking the reader. It’s point A and B and everything in between. Yet its importance as a structural element is largely contextual, depending on the kind of work you’re producing, and how much you can comfortably ask of your reader in terms of their time and attention.

The importance of plot in your narrative depends on a series of decisions you have to make for yourself as a writer, choices about the kind of story you’re telling and how to put it into effect. But a rule I generally find useful is: the longer a work, the more structure it needs.

The notion of “plot” implies a concrete sequence of events. There are other ways to structure a text, but the reason plot is the most useful is that it parallels our own way of thinking and organizing the world. Our inherent understanding of linear time and causality largely align with the concept of “plot” as employed in most pieces of writing. Events occur, those events have consequences, those consequences have consequences, on and on until you see “The End.” There are plenty of writers that eschew this more straightforward approach. Many of literature’s greatest works do so, but in almost every case they exchange this one structural system for another.

Ultimately it depends on what you’re writing. Maybe you work in genre, or something packed with action and suspense. In cases where a lot is “happening” in your narrative in terms of overt external events, plot is generally your friend. At the same time, there are a litany of “psychological” novels, in which there can be very little overtly happening outside the narrator’s subjective consciousness, the twisting and turning of their thoughts. Such novels will often throw plot out the window entirely, but they do so in favor of other structural methods, often a subtle rhythm created by an arrangement of the text’s motifs and themes, a balancing act that is—generally speaking—much more difficult to do well.

In the case of short stories, the importance of plot is variable, and again it depends on the kind of story you’ve set out to tell. Some are short enough that they can afford to be relatively plotless, such stories usually skew more in the direction of flash fiction or poetry, generating narrative momentum through the language used rather than the events that occur. At the same time, much of why we celebrate someone like Poe comes from his ability to create a dense, complicated domino effect of events in just a handful of pages.

Trying to answer questions about the importance of plot is really about understanding what kind of story you want to write, what it is you want your reader to experience as they wander through your text. As long as they are given something to hold onto, and don’t lose their way completely in a self-indulgent soup of words, that’s all that matters.

Plot is just one more tool resting within that toolbox, one of the oldest and most reliable.

Here are some prompts to help you find your way:


Prompt 1: You are at a bar waiting to meet a friend. They’re over an hour late. Just as you stand up to leave, they burst through the door. Breathing heavily. Hair disheveled. Dirt on their face. Their clothes are torn. There’s a faint smell of smoke. “You’ll never believe what just happened to me,” they say, as they slump into the chair beside you, motioning to the bartender for a drink. Find a way to structure what happened to what is relevant to the now, and to what will happen later.

Prompt 2: A clockmaker has just finished his masterpiece: a cuckoo clock of the most dazzling complexity, full of impossibly small automatons that move and swirl and interact like they were living. It is a fine, pristine mechanism. The clock tells a story, each piece clicking into the next, on and on, until the clock ceases chiming. The hour changes, and the stillness is pierced. Clacking. A small door swings open. The first piece of this clockwork puzzle springs to life, and you are amazed at what you see. Let your imagination soar, but remember, you want to ground it in “plot”.


Bob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent.  He currently lives in the Netherlands.  He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable JuneMan Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts.  He likes what words and pictures do.  He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.



Writing Prompt: Pacing

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia

When I’m reading fiction, pacing is everything. It’s because I see literature as a dance. The author takes the lead. The reader follows. The sentences wind and, hopefully, the reader makes the pages turn.

Though reader and writer remain two separate entities, the connection that binds them is intimate—it flows out of the language. Yet there is a temporal component as well. Writing as an art form is overwhelmingly linear, perhaps more so than any other. Each piece of writing is read word by word, line by line, regardless of size or complexity. To achieve basic coherence, let alone literary quality, the sequence of letters, words, and clauses must be exact. The sentence is a finely tuned mechanism. String enough of them together into a story, and you have something much larger, grander.

Imagine a freight train, a machine of pure language barreling forward in time. Read More

Writing Prompts: Settings

Courtesy of Kirsten WürthMy favorite novel of the past ten years is almost certainly Light Boxes by Shane Jones.  I love it for all sorts of reasons, too many to name, not the least of which being its ability to make me feel like I’m deeply inhabiting its setting.  And this is all the more impressive when you factor in that Light Boxes is a surrealistic text.  Little of what happens in this book is possible under the known laws of physics and rationality.  Yet when I read it, I feel like I’m there.  I feel like I’m in snowbound.  I feel like I’m one of the villagers in this town that cannot exist, part of a war effort waged against the month of February, which casts a long shadow over their lives, and refuses to end.

I feel this because Jones’ prose emphasizes the tangible.  He highlights the physical.  Part fabulist, part poet, he uses simple, direct language to draw the reader’s attention to equally simple and direct elements, which he often repeats.  A kind of rhythm develops.  Again and again we see balloons, snow, clouds, birds, moss, honey, smoke.  These are simple, tangible building blocks, yet they come together to build a rich and fascinating world.  Despite a surface-level simplicity, Jones’ world conjures its own kind of complexity through the use of familiar language in unfamiliar contexts, and the depth of feeling this relationship evokes in the reader. Read More

Writing Prompts: Characters and Momentum

photo-1473147654241-a26ffc2146bbI find it hard to care about most characters in the books I read.  I think it’s got something to do with me being a writer as well as a reader, with my background in poetry just making it worse.  I’m always mulling over word choice, weighing the significance of sound and rhythm, why the author made the decisions they did.  My attention skews to the micro rather than the macro, and the broader sweep of character arc and narrative structure holds less of my interest than the smaller choices an author made in arranging their words.  Over time it has become difficult for me to turn this analytical side of my brain off, and simply enjoy a text for what it is: a story.  My reading brain is always scavenging sentences for new techniques, tricks that may one day prove useful in my own writing; strip mining each row of words for images, influence, and inspiration.  So characters become hard for me to care about, because my default mode is to regard them as illusion, a ghost an author built from a long sequence of decisions. Read More

Writing Prompts: The Unexpected

SurrealismWhen I open a book I’m always hoping to be surprised.  It’s what I look for above all else.  Whether it’s in the narrative, or the language an author employs in its construction, I don’t ever want to know where I’m going in advance.

What I crave is uncertainty—that rush of possibility.  I want to be in free fall through a text.  I want to turn a corner and end up at some place unexpected.  Then take a few more steps, and enter somewhere stranger still. It’s this sense of discovery, of stumbling headfirst into the unfamiliar, that appeals to me most about surrealist and magical realist writing.

In its most interesting variations, the reader is discovering a space whose strange nature extends beyond the material.  The fantastical elements push beyond the physical realm, into something deeper.  These spaces, after all, are purely linguistics in nature.  They are built from and sustained by language, and, as such, basic laws of physics—our understanding of probability, space, and time; all the disparate threads woven through the fabric of reality are suddenly made malleable. Read More

Bring It To the 21st Century

Classics have often been used as a basis for new, and sometimes quite popular, stories.

They can be given a modern twist like these:

  1. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding (based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)
  2. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet)
  3. The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesy (based on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre)

Or the story can be retold from another perspective:

Read More

Writing About a Place You’ve Never Been To

googlemapsWant your character to be in a city or country that you’ve never been to? Take the time to do a bit of research, which should help you write with authority and conviction.

Naturally, the Internet is a great help, and so are some other sources listed below that you can use: Read More

What You Make of Time

Time takes on a very strange connotation when it comes to writing. Ok it’s not only with writing since most people experience that time flies when you’re having fun and crawls when you’re bored. But time seems to take a life of its own when you write or plan to write or procrastinate to write. It has a whimsical bent and is neurotic, bipolar and slightly schitzophrenic. Don’t believe me? Take an alarm clock and set it to go off in 10 minutes. Now start writing. Really, start writing, and then come back, I’ll still be here. Read More