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A Story Plot is Like Life

January 23rd, 2015

Colin-Bulman-BookWhy is a carefully worked out plot both necessary and popular in any short story or novel?  My contention is that the answer to this question is quite simply that the progression of a plot in a story follows or reflects a similar pattern to the development of the main events in almost everyone’s life. Subconsciously we are attuned to be interested in plots – and perhaps need them.

Let us take what is probably the most common and familiar plot in fiction from crime stories, romances, adventure stories and even literary stories. In these stories there is invariably a main character (a protagonist) who has some aim to fulfil, some crime to solve, a partner to find, success to achieve, a battle to win – and so on. To make the story interesting, obstacles must be put in the way of the protagonist. He or she must struggle to be successful in whatever the enterprise is. Suspense must be created as the reader wonders how the obstacles will be overcome. The protagonist is likely to be in conflict with others who may wish to prevent his or her success. There will be setbacks and the final one (the climax) will be especially dramatic. Assuming that the protagonist is successful in whatever the enterprise was, the ending of the story will be happy. If failure occurs, then we have a tragedy. Some stories end more neutrally.

A short story will probably have a single protagonist and problem to overcome; a novel may have more than one important character and they may all be striving for different things.

So how does this plot pattern reflect life? All of us go through a related series of problems, wishes, ambitions which we wish to solve or achieve. Most infants look forward to school and want to go there. The older child wants to succeed and pass  exams (or leave school and get a job). Some may desire sporting prowess. Many want to go to university. Then they want a job, possibly to get promotion, get a different career, find a husband or wife, have children, get a divorce, re-marry, go abroad. When we retire we may just want to relax, but others want new experiences. Needless to say, we will have to struggle to achieve our aims. There will be setbacks; there may be enemies (in fiction it is the villain). Some of our enterprises may fail; others might be successful and depending on the balance of the two, we will have a happy or a tragic or a rather neutral life. The main difference, you will undoubtedly notice, between the fictional plot and the life plot is to do with the ending. Every life has only one possible ending. A piece of fiction can avoid that inevitable human ending by simply ending the story before the main character gets too old.

My claim, then, is that the popularity of plot in story is because it reflects life progression as it happens to almost all people.


Colin Bulman is a tutor for the Writers Bureau. He has recently published a book: Fiction: the Art and the Craft which is subtitled: How Fiction is Written and How to Write It. He is also the author of Creative Writing: A Glossary to Fiction Writing and other books on media and English.

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