One of the benefits of publishing a novel is that you get hundreds of free critiques in the form of reviews. I can't speak for all authors, but some of the things folks have pointed out (good and bad) in my novels are things I wish I'd known while I was still writing them. Not the technical stuff, but really great observations or catches.
There was one review in particular that really made me think of story vs plot, because he pointed out story elements he wished I'd done more with (and I did too). As I was revising Darkfall, I thought about his comment a lot, because I wanted the story to be as robust as possible. In trying to do that, it's easy to let the plot become the focus and hijack the story.
Some things to think about as you revise:
1. How does this scene serve the story?
I like action, and I like throwing my protagonist into trouble, but trouble can lead to more trouble and more trouble and pretty soon the outcome of that trouble has nothing to do with the original scene goal. The underlying story of a novel is the force driving the protagonist's character growth. So events that do nothing to affect that growth can feel pointless. It's just plot, stuff happening, but no one cares. A scene can do a lot more. It can also:
- show a weakness your protagonist has that will have to be overcome by the end
- show an emotional revelation that advances character growth
- reveal some important back story
- add critical foreshadowing
- create or enhance conflicts that will make protagonist choices harder
2. How does this scene serve the character's story arc?
Sometimes I'll write down the story heart on a post-it and stick it to my monitor to remind me what that core story is. Not the plot, but the story. My protagonist Nya's plot is about saving her sister, but her story is about her figuring out who and what she is and finding her independence. Re-connecting with her people and trying to free her city is the metaphor for her character growth that allows me to craft a plot that also pushes my protagonist where I need her to go. So I put her in situations where...
- she's forced to use her abilities in thought-provoking ways
- she has to examine the opposite view of something she believes in
- she has a chance to make the wrong choice so she can learn the consequences of that
- she does things that mirror the larger themes of the book
- she has chances to use what she's learned
- she has moments to reflect on her own personal journey
It's not all about the protagonist. Sometimes the best way to serve the story is to let another character illustrate one part of it. My protagonist's best friend is a wonderful foil for her worldviews, because they don't always agree on things. Other friends can bring new opinions into the scene as well. Even what the antagonists are doing can force your protagonist to consider different things that reflect your story. How might other characters...
- highlight a theme of the story?
- force the protagonist to take another step along the story path?
- show the protagonist they were wrong about something?
- display growth of their own?
- help the protagonist understand their own growth dilemma?
- advise them on the wrong course of action because it serves their growth, not the protagonist's?
4. Do the non-protagonist characters even have story arcs?
Not every character needs one, and they don't need to be as developed as your protagonist's, but giving your secondary characters story arcs of their own can help you develop richer stories. You'll be able to...
- show different sides to a theme
- explore opposing sides of an argument without appearing preachy
- provide the story with more potential conflicts and plot fodder
- show aspects of your story you couldn't do with just one character
Has plot ever highjacked your story?