The Anatomy of a Story

What keeps readers enthralled with a book?  The answer depends on what you believe drives the story, is it the plot or the characters?  Aristotle in his book, Poetics, stated that “tragedy is a representation not of men, but of action and life.”  And for hundreds of years, writers and books were focused on developing the plot instead of their characters.

In the 19th century, the modern novel was born, and the idea of a story being character-driven became a part of the literary discussion.  I believe a strong plot is necessary, but if your characters are one-dimensional, the plot won’t matter.  Readers will be distracted by a lackluster cast of characters.   Envision “A Streetcar Named Desire” with a monotone delivery of the play’s dialogue or an over-acted performance by an actor that defied reality.   The same can be said for the written dialogue in stories.  Dialogue should engage the reader by adding depth of character and by moving the plot forward.

I’m a nurse, so I think about story structure in anatomical terms.  The plot is the skeletal portion of the story.  Without the skeleton, the story won’t have the strength necessary to support itself.  The story will figuratively fall apart without the plot to frame it.

The book’s muscle is the figurative meat of the story.  Descriptive passages and facts bring form and substance to the written word.  Holding it all together are the tendons and ligaments whose job is to tie the plot points together in a cohesive story arc.

A story’s lifeblood is dependent on its characters.  The thrill of the chase and the Machiavellian twists and turns are the nervous system of the story.  The book wouldn’t have the excitement or spark needed to attract readers and keep them engaged without our characters’ deeds, their actions, and their electrifying influence which keep the pages turning.  Emotional passion is the blood of the story.  It can be the pounding heat in your veins or the chilled sensation running through your body during a horrific moment.

Through their deeds and dialogue, the people within the story drive its direction.  The characters are the emotions, the beating heart and the flesh of any plot.  Character development is necessary to transform the words on a page into a force with the power to entertain.

Authors are asked about their inspiration in creating a specific character.  Each writer has a process she uses in the fabrication of the individuals who populate her stories.  Some will write a character sketch detailing the personality, interests, employment, social background, and relationships of their main characters.  They delve into the character with such depth that they catalog their childhood, where and how they live, their looks and even the meaning of the character’s name.

Other writers refer to the notion of their characters ‘finding them’.   A scene playing in his head inspires the writer, needling him until he acts upon it.  The characters grow and evolve during the writing of the story determining the direction of the plot through the natural flow of conversation and events.   They essentially write their own story, and in the process, fashion their own destinies.

Whether an author carefully documents details about his characters or they are the result of whimsy, the author’s goal is to bring the reader into the ‘reality’ of her characters’ world.   It is pure magic when a reader becomes so absorbed in the plot and characters; she begins to identify with certain individuals within the story.

Internal and external dialogue are a tool used to reveal who the character is, what is in her heart and what weighs on her conscience.  I know I can name several protagonists I have admired and about as many antagonists I have disliked intensely.  Do you remember a story where you became annoyed with a decision a character made?  Have you ever had a ‘book boyfriend’?  I have.  Don’t judge me—what young woman doesn’t find Mr. Darcy or Heathcliff worthy of her notice?

If it is true there are only six to seven plot lines total in all the stories ever written, the differences between stories rely on the strength and uniqueness of the story’s characters.   As writers, we are assigned the task of writing a believable story whose characters react and speak naturally and realistically in the myriad of worlds we construct around them.  Our success will turn one of the six or seven repeated literary plots into a creative journey so compelling our readers will lose themselves within the pages.


OMP Admin Note: Kate McGinn is a writer and OMP Network member – one of a group of networkers who will be blogging on a regular basis on various causes and issues. Kate hopes to spread awareness of the issue of American Veterans returning home to less help than they deserve. EMMAUS is one of the two main charities we are supporting.

Kate McGinn’s fiction can be found on Amazon in the flash fiction series BITE SIZE STORIES (Volume Two) along with five other guest writers. Her full-length book EXODUS is also available on Amazon.




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