The things that happen in a story. We’ve all experienced stories with terrific plots. We’ve all been disappointed by (or simply tolerated) weak plots. One quote that emphasizes the importance and place of plot is attributed to George Lucas: “Storytelling is about two things; it’s about character and plot.”
Writers approach plot differently, with many emphasizing the characters. One of my favorite writers, Ray Bradbury, in Zen in the Art of Writing, said: “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” Another great writer, Stephen King, said in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: “Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.”
I see no inconsistency between those quotes. Story is about the inner journey of the character or characters; plot is about the happenings on that journey. Both are essential. Bradbury and King, as well as many other excellent writers, nevertheless steer away from plot in the creative process in favor of character or story. Does that lessen the importance of plot, or does it instead provide insight into the purpose of plot?
I think it provides insight. For writers, plot is a tool. Understanding plot is as important as proper grammar. The three-act structure, which involves story and plot, should be understood. Many writers create magnificent works by beginning with a plot. They discover their characters and the story as they flesh out the plot. Other writers dive into the story and let the plot develop itself. I generally have a plot in mind when I begin a story. Almost invariably, that plot changes as the story develops. I use what I know about the elements of plot, beginning with the three-act structure, to reassess and revise. Of course, just how one keeps plot under “house arrest” is up to the individual writer.
Regardless, plot matters. As aptly stated by P.G. Wodehouse in an interview with The Paris Review (Issue 64, Winter 1975):
“If they aren’t in interesting situations, characters can’t be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them.”
It all goes together. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said:
“Character is plot, plot is character.”