Series of Events or Plot?

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In playing catch up with queries, I’ve noticed a heavy concentration of queries written by authors who have mistaken a series of events for the plot. Thar be a difference. I don’t care about the series of events; I need the plot because it’s the guts to your story. It’s the reason your book exists. It’s the kapow.

A series of events is a collection of scenes that happen in the course of a book – it ain’t da plot. Note the difference:

“Sally goes to college, where she meets John, the hunky prime slab o’ beef who sits behind her in Math 207. They begin dating, only John is confused because he’s still hung up on his hometown girlfriend, Jane, and can’t figure out who he likes more. Sally, in the meantime, meets Derek in Science 101 and has her own share of confusion. It’s impossible for her to resist his curly hair and the fact that he can speak Pig Latin with a German accent.

Sally sticks it out with John, but lusts for Derek, until John goes home for semester break. Over a pizza party with a group from their science class, Sally ends up making whoopie with Derek. When John returns from semester break, Sally decides to tell him it’s over, that she’s in love with Derek and his German accented Pig Latin. John, meanwhile, discovers that Jane, his hometown girlfriend, has taken up with the undertaker’s son. His mind is made up and Sally is the only girl for him, only now she’s with Derek

John is so undone, he decides to transfer to Podunk University, so he can forget all about Sally. Sally, in the meantime, grows weary with Derek’s Pig Latin, and almost faints when he decides to shave his head. Goodbye sexy, curly locks, hello buzzhead. She begins to think about John. Was he really the one for her? She considers contacting him on Facebook, but he won’t accept her Friend Request. Her emails have gone unanswered, and he won’t answer her phone calls.

She gathers up the nerve to take a road trip to Podunk U and confront him, only to find out he’s disappeared. She goes over to the house of one of his friends to see if he knows where John is…”

…blah, blah, blah…get to the point already. And the problem is, there never is a point, and the query letter continues on for far too long, describing general scenes, but never revealing any reason this story exists. There is no purpose. What’s worse is we don’t even know who is the protagonist (I made this, btw).

Now there are times when a story is all that…a big conglomeration of nothing…and if your story looks like this, you may be in Lack-of-Plot Hell. On the other hand, your story really may have a point after all, but you’ve hidden it too well under long underwear and heavy jackets (forgive the frigid metaphors…it’s really cold in Pitts – yay!). If you don’t reveal the plot within the first couple paragraphs of your query letter, I’ll quit reading…pinky swear.

On the other hand, Plot (as defined by Dictionary.com) is the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story. And here’s the thing; it may be completely different from your boring series of events. I had this very thing happen last week. I read a query that consisted of nothing but a series of events. I rejected it and explained why. A few days later, the author wrote back, thanking me, and included the actual plot. It was much more interesting, and vastly different from the original.
So let me show you what I mean. Here’s the plot to the mess I wrote above:
Sally feels terrible about the way she treated John while they attended university, so she travels down to the campus he transferred in order to forget her…only he turns up missing. Sally begins to consider the possibility that his disappearance is related to his math thesis, which challenges Einstein’s theory of relativity. Since Sally had worked with him the project, she wonders if she’s a target as well, and she’s torn between digging deep to find him and being concerned for her own well-being.

Boom. There it is in one paragraph. It’s a mystery, we know who the protag is, and the plot. All that other blather in the first example has squat all to do with the plot – and it’s this kind of writing that makes it impossible for me to care about reading more – which is sad because you can see the first example has zip all to do with the real plot as revealed in the second example.

So take a look at your query letter and see what you have; a series of events or the plot. Remember; the plot = your character’s journey.

  1. Something happened that created an experience for your main character(s). What is it? A murder? Cancer? Threat to world peace? Job loss? This experience is your trigger point for the story.
  2. Your character is uniquely qualified to have this experience. What is it? Was her loved one murdered? Does she or someone close to him have cancer? Is he a spy who can avert the threat to world peace? Did he lose his job?  What I’m looking for is how the experience relates to your main character.
  3. Your main character can make certain choices that will change the outcome. What are they? Call the police about her loved one’s murder, or investigate it herself and possibly become a target? How does she deal with cancer – does she fight or give up? Does he have enough strength and know how to avert world tragedy? Does he go on welfare, or does he take the only job available to him – which won’t cover the rent? I want to know what the personal stakes are for your main character. I’m looking to see how big the stakes are for them. If it’s a matter of a chipped nail, then there isn’t much to pull me in. However, if we’re talking about finding sanity and comfort in the wake of a major killer of a disease, then I can get wrapped up in that.

If you look at 1, 2, and 3, you’ll see that it’s far easier to avoid committing the Series of Events query letter, which I guarantee will result in a rejection.

7 Responses to Series of Events or Plot?

  1. Pelotard says:

    Look, I’ve been following your blog for years now. Why is it that you never run out of interesting, important and informative things to tell us?

  2. Aw, go on with ya. You threaten my blacked, soulless heart with compliments.

  3. ericjbaker says:

    Very helpful and insightful, as usual.

    All I need to do now is write something.

  4. Great post. I appreciate the way that you stress the connection between the inciting incident, the character, the premise, and the stakes. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to point back to this as a reference in a post I’m doing next Tuesday on passion that fuels the characters and their actions. Thanks for the detailed example, too.

  5. Hopped over from S.P.’s blog. Great advice. I must follow you!

  6. cluculzwriter says:

    Thankfully, I joined a writer’s group in 1994 that helped me narrow in on plot and how to move it forward. In simpliest terms, I learned to give my protagonist a goal and then to do everything I could to stop him from achieving that goal. Pretty raw, but it worked.

    Great post. I’m jumped from Sara Bowers blog.

  7. Zan Marie says:

    Great post and something we all need to think about.

    I jumped from Sara Bowers blog, too.

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