Ask any group of people what the most important element of a story is and you are guaranteed to incite disagreement. There can be no definitive consensus because the candidates are many: Characters, Setting, Prose, Theming, Voice, you name it. For my part, the answer is all too easy. Plot, plot, plot. All the way.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that the other elements are somehow substandard. You will pretty much need to nail them all if you want to be a good fiction author. And different authors, and different genres, and different stories will all have their own needs. Characters are arguably much more important for building long term brands. It’s difficult to imagine many fantasy and science-fiction universes getting far without their intricate worlds. But even in these cases, the plot carries the meat of the individual story. With that disclaimer out of the way, let me present my case for why plot trumps all.
Story elements like setting and characters are extremely important, but it is the plot that connects them. Strong characters sitting on the sofa watching television are not interesting. An overly preachy theme can be aggravating. An exceptional author voice can’t save a bland scene. All the individual threads of a story have no true strength or form until they are woven together into a cloth with a complex texture, color, and fit. No other elements dominate the moment to moment scenes and their interconnections as much as a plot does. This, really, is what defines the fabric of a story.
Here’s a question. Did you like The Matrix 1 but not The Matrix 3? Why was that? The characters and the setting were the same. For many people, they were turned off because of the events of the story.
While it’s true that misuse of any of these major elements can damage a story’s appeal, bad plotting consistently sinks projects or otherwise renders them disappointing. Ever watched a sci-fi movie that had a cool trailer, stunning visual effects, an imaginative world, and even a great lead actor? Have you ever been disappointed at the end of the viewing experience, wondering just how everything went wrong?
Don’t always give your audience what they expect, but give them what they want.
It’s likely that the plot had a part in that. If you liked the spaceships and the characters but just wished all the events played out differently, then a different plot could have given you a better movie. If you enjoyed the scares and odd moments but found the ending explanation for them lacking, then you probably felt cheated.
Plots are contracts with readers. Expectations are set from previews or trailers, opening scenes, and all conflicts. Wrapping all of these loose ends up is a recipe for satisfying a hungry audience. Don’t always give your audience what they expect, but give them what they want.
Plot Centric and Proud
Next time you have strong feelings about a piece of fiction, think about the source of your opinion. Sure, maybe the main character is annoying because they talk too much, or they aren’t funny. Many the fantasy world is filled with wonder. In these cases, the strengths and weaknesses are usually very easy to identify. But what if the more immediate elements of the story appear fine on the surface and you can’t quite place what makes the fiction special (or not)?
Examine the plot closely, and you will have your answer.
Resting in every crevice of every book are the gears that turn each page, endlessly driving towards the end. These sometimes invisible machinations are where stories truly rise or fall.