Tell a Story—Not a Setting

Tell a Story—Not a Setting

Guest Post by Steven Bohls:


Christopher Booker, author of THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS, itemizes fiction’s seven basic—

I can hear you interrupting me with your mind. Don’t lie—I know you want to finish the line before I get to it.

—itemizes the seven basic Al Qaeda guerrilla tactics.

Serves you right for trying to steal my line…

So… back to the seven basic plots. These plots are in every story, everywhere, from the history of the world.

(The following is not plagiarism because, *ONE: I changed some of the words, and *B: I really like all this stuff I stole came up with completely on my own.


Overcoming the Monster: The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland.

Perseus, Beowulf, Dracula, War of the Worlds, James Bond, Die Hard, Godzilla

Rags to Riches: The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person.

Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, Spiderman (Silence fool! I don’t care if you disagree), Oliver Twist

The Quest: The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way.

Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter (Deathly Hallows), Land before Time

Voyage and Return: The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him/her, returns with nothing but experience.

Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Hobbit, Chronicles of Narnia

Comedy: Light and humorous character with happy or cheerful end; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado about Nothing, Music and Lyrics, Mr. Bean

Tragedy: The protagonist is a villain who falls from grace and who often dies at the end.

Macbeth, Bonnie and Clyde, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Breaking Bad

Rebirth: The protagonist is a villain or otherwise unlikable character who redeems him/herself over the course of the story.

Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me, Maleficent

Now I’m sure there’s a million other lists aimed to bottle art in all sorts of wonky-shaped bottles. But I only consider lists who score higher than a 4 out of 10 on the “I-Seriously-Question-That-Malarkey!” scale, or ISQM for short.

(Yes it’s a real, scientific scale. Now stop interrupting and let me indoctrinate you already).

The “man versus” list defines the 7 types of conflict in a story. We’re not going to dissect that list, but suffice it to say, you can very well have a “man vs. self” conflict enclosed within in an “Overcoming the Monster” framework for a “Scott Pilgrim VS the World” story, or instead put that same “man vs. self” conflict into a “Tragedy” and come out with something like “Breaking Bad.”

So, this is a Spec-Fic E-Zine focused on quality writing, yes? What does all this malarkey (in the non-ISQM fashion obviously) mean for you?

Hate me for saying the following all you want, but the following is 100% true-sauce: settings and genre matter just about as much as a J.C. Penny photo studio backdrop curtain in a cuddly picture of your 2-year old. Would you still frame/hang the picture if the wispy background curtains weren’t in the shot? What if the ABC blocks were gone too? What about the giraffe backdrop that looks more like a bargain bedsheet than a professional prop? Maybe. BUT, what about the baby? Nope. I can’t think of a single “baby” picture I’ve seen hanging on the wall of any home I’ve ever been in that’s had simply the props + backdrop and no baby.

Stop getting so damn excited about “sweet new settings!” and “holy crap I have the BEST idea for a new [insert fantasy world/planetary body/alien species/shadow wraith queen of the cursed blood doom cult of shrieking doom]-s! Because guess what? Once you awesomely learn how to frame a story—once you studiously study how to orchestrate conflict and create academy-award-winning book characters, you can put that beast of an idea into whatever setting/genre your pretty, little heart desires (except that… if you’re a seasoned writer, I’m betting your “heart” is no longer “pretty” anymore… probably more like an “undercooked-brownie-in-a-toddler’s-pocket” sort of “pretty.”

Stop world-building. You’re not Brandon Sanderson. No one is. (In fact, I’m convinced “Brandon Sanderson” isn’t even a person at all, but a writer’s fairytale, some unattainable myth that taunts me at night with its unattainableness. Curse you phantom Brandon and your superiority!)

Stop hinging your book’s entire appeal on its setting—on its world—on its premise.

Start by forgetting your genre—forgetting your beautifully-crafted world and all its fracking Battlestars.

Learn to craft all 7 of the 7 of the basic plots. Seamlessly.

Learn to pit man versus anything from society and supernatural all the way to the battling of the forces of technology (Gahh!!! I did it again! Fine. Now you know them all. Guess that means you have no more excuses).

As a sci-fi writer, learn to write a gorram western just as well as your space opera (betcha ten bucks that Joss Whedon could—oh wait, he can. And he did a pretty ‘shiny’ job at it too).

Overall, learn how to tell a story, before you start living in your fantasy world.

About Steven:
BohlsunnamedI believe a day isn’t worth its hours if I didn’t taste at least some of its art. I’m a dreamer first, a thinker next, an artist third, and a writer last.

I signed with Corvisiero Literary Agency last year and shortly thereafter signed with Disney Hyperion for a series of middle grade books. I’ve completed thirteen novels and wake up each day anxious to write more. I truly believe that success in publishing is not a game of luck—but rather a reckless, confident, foolhardy, ridiculous, arduous, tenacious, exhausting, grueling charge into the unknown then charging again, and again, and again, and again until the day comes when your earned fortitude lifts you beyond the mountain peak of rejection and into the valley of more work.

4 thoughts on “Tell a Story—Not a Setting

  1. Sir, thou inspirest me almost to be an author.

    Suddenly that idea that seemed to form itself on its lonesome a couple months ago has come screeching back into the center of my mind (appearing right between your self-interruptions as I try hard to compose my laughter; laughter from a restroom stall is always quite awkward.)

    1. I will agree that plot is better than world-building, but world-building also has its place. Throwing it out the window is not the answer, the answer lies in figuring out how to apply the various plots to your idea.

      For example, in a manuscript I wrote and am currently in the process of editing, I had a daydream vision of this world where cities floated above the clouds with earth still clinging below them, and small planes and airships flew in the skies. Humans had taken to the skies because the earth had become too polluted. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was echoing a lot of steampunk themes. I loved the concept of the world and began developing it, so I created this character who piloted one of these gliders.

      From there, I extrapolated this idea by applying it to several “plot templates,” and it became a story based around the pilot’s life. The world serves as a genre backdrop, but the focus is around what happens to him and the people around him.

      My point is, world building in and of itself is not bad. You mention Brandon Sanderson, and he’s a fantastic example – his worlds are fascinating, but you could swap that backdrop and the characters and plot still stand on their own. Better examples of world-building-gone awry would be J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan, who both defied the odds by having best-sellers despite a healthy dose of World Builders’ Disease. It’s just a matter of understanding where to draw that line and how to apply the world you’ve created in a way that doesn’t detract from plot.

  2. Enjoyed the conversation that this piece was. Just a quick thought on world-building. I believe it’s incredibly important for the writer to have experienced their world before the characters do. The author has to know what forces are at play in the world and what needs to be overcome before he or she pits their protagonist against these forces. Example: Keira Cass’ The Selection novels. The premise is the only good part of those novels – the bachelor meets the hunger games. When she added rebels fighting everywhere it grew too confusing and undefined. To sum up, world building is important for the writer, not necessarily the reader. Writers that understand their worlds and use setting sparingly to help define characters are better than those that do not.

  3. This is a really interesting discussion! I believe Chris is right that it’s about finding balance, and I love Calista’s point that the world has to be well-defined–even if the readers never see all of the details! Thanks for the great post, Steve! I agree that maybe it’s not as simple as focusing on plot at the expense of world building, but you gave me a lot to think about, and I loved your post!

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