Description vs Plot

One way to drag pacing and undermine reader engagement in fiction is to not offer a strong plot. And one reason for this problem is the substitution of extreme detail in lieu of plot.

Some authors are so good at writing description and setting and micro events, such as body movements, that they focus on this material at the expense of a larger plot. They literally give play-by-play movements of the characters--how they make coffee, how they pay bills, why they choose one grocery store over another.

But that’s not a story. That’s description. Story is based on major events taking place. People moving and changing. Plot is change on the macro level.


Let's write an example to make plot more obvious.

Plot is like the guy who packs a bomb into his luggage and heads for the airport; you can't avoid thinking about him.

On the next page you have two lovers having their first date. They're going to her favorite Italian bistro. He’s a gentlemen with all the right moves.

Meanwhile, the guy with the bomb has a flat tire and pulls over to fix it. Just his luck to buy a lemon. At least the car was cheap, and he needed to save money for the trip.

Back to the romance...the meal has been great and the couple lingers over drinks with amazing conversation and flirty touches. By now she's wondering if he'll ask for another date. She could stare at those thick blue eyes all night long, but doesn't want to seem easy. Then she realizes she never assessed if he was married. She's been used before, and hated that she was the "other woman". She excuses herself to the restroom and pulls out her iPod to do a quick search.

Back to the guy with the bomb. He’s back on the road, turning up the radio and singing along to Elton John as he enters the freeway. It starts to rain buckets, plunging traffic to a forced crawl.

On to the lovers... She's back at the table, having found him single on Facebook, and ready to ask for the next date herself. But then he gets a phone call that makes his eyebrows slap together and he rushes out of the restaurant.

The guy with the bomb is on the bridge now. His car rolls to a complete stop. But not because of traffic. He rolls to the shoulder. Actually, he shoulders the car onto the shoulder. Then sets the brake and locks it before grabbing the gas canister from the trunk and heading off to find the nearest gas station.

Meanwhile, the woman has caught up to her date, who's finishing an argument on the phone in front of the restaurant. The last thing she hears is "Just get to the gas station and I'll pick you up."


Back to reality.... Plot is the bomb: the movement or change that your brain couldn’t stop tracking. And yet plot’s more than the bomb. It's the larger story occurring—that the date and the bomb might have someone in common.

Plot occurs beyond the micro details and intimate moments between characters. But if all you have are those intimate moments and details and ever-so-clever descriptions, and no bomb, then you have a story that will never really ignite the reader's interest.

So go forth and blow their minds, Angels!
Your Editor Devil

And if all else fails, watch this Kurt Vonnegut video on the universal plot and you won't stop laughing: