Or in other words, is the plot/story more important than how it is executed?

I'll use as an example a fantasy I'm writing. If I boil it down in a few words, it would be "a kinda-typical-but-different medieval save-the-world fantasy done right".

The "but different" and "done right" are the best part of it and what makes me proud of this work. It's the "how", the execution, how it's done, how things work, the subversions, etc. Although it's nothing groundbreakingly innovative or spectacularly amazing, it's just pretty interesting and well made.

But the real problem is the other part, the "kinda typical medieval save-the-world fantasy", i.e. the "what". Although the "how" is pretty interesting, I cannot see the "what" in this story the same way, since I kind of grew tired of this type of story because of how much it is repeated ad nauseam in other works, so the "what" ends up obfuscating the "how"'s shine. I don't want my story to be considered "a typical fantasy done right", but instead, a good work on it's own.

If I change the "what" I would have to discard pages and more pages of "how", good content that depends heavily on the "what" (it's ~50% complete, ~45,000 words, two years).

So is it me or is the "what" more important than the "how"? How to make the "how" overcome the "what" and prevent the shine of the execution from being obfuscated by the simple premise? How to achieve that without changing too much what has already been setup?

I know that a good premise badly executed is bad and a simple premise well executed is good, but the problem is that I think the execution of my story, although very good, doesn't have enough "weight" to be interesting/attractive on its own. I think if I improve the premise, it will have a bigger overall value. A good premise and good execution is always better than just a "more of the same" premise with good execution. So there's two possibilities: to improve the premise and discard loads of content, or to improve the execution to be so good that the premise doesn't even matter. I fear to say that both are inviable: the first is a waste of done work and the second is beyond my current capability.

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    Part of me really wants to point out that you're missing the why. Why is it done right and why is it different. Sure this ties into the how and the what, but they really are interconnected
    – user18397
    Feb 1, 2018 at 14:43
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    I also thought the why is important - but along the lines of 'why' are the characters doing a thing. I'd argue that characters may be the most important part of the story. It sounds as though you have built a world and you want to share it. I don't see anything in your question about whether you care about your characters. Do they have motivations for the things they do? Are they consistent? Do they adhere to certain principles? A poor plot with great characters is better than a great plot with poor characters. Lots online, e.g. comparison: mythicscribes.com/plot/plot-or-character
    – SFWriter
    Feb 1, 2018 at 15:21
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    @DPT Yes, characters included.
    – Yuuza
    Feb 1, 2018 at 17:05

5 Answers 5


It's the other way around - How you present your story is more important than What you are presenting

There are only a couple of different base-stories in existence. I've heard different numbers ranging from 10 to 40, but in essence all stories are basically the same. Try to list all the "save-the-world" stories you have ever read/heard/watched. Now try to list all the "save-the-princess" stories. See? There are lots of them. This holds true for basically every story you can think of. Some may be more popular in our current times, while some may be less popular, but in essence every story has been done over and over again.

What makes a story compelling is the way the author presents his version of the story. How you describe the characters. How you describe the scenery. How you describe the emotions involved. How you manage to show all of the scenes one after another. How you present the conflict of your characters. How you use your language.

If your goal is to be completely original and write stuff that nobody has ever thought of you will never finish your book.

If your goal is to present a story with your own words and with your own style then you will be able to finish it and be proud of yourself.


How is far more important than What. Look at successful entertainments (by how many they sell, not whether critics loved them or not), and the settings are mostly standard fare, many of them set in real life, a city or town or school that has almost nothing unusual about it at all.

Fantasy is the same, how many different authors have you read with interchangeable dragons, wands, and spells? Even if they are "original" they are generic, you can easily imagine Tolkien's walking sentient trees in some other author's fantasy, or a spell by one wizard appearing in another book by a different author.

Now I certainly think that original setting can play a role and be fun and interesting to see, in some scifi books setting is the major player (a recent movie, The Martian, is an example).

But still, what supercedes all of that is plot and character. The setting can only hold the interest of the reader for a short time. What holds their interest, and keeps them turning pages, is not seeing the next wonder of your world, but seeing what happens next. It is that suspense of events that captivates them. Setting, your rules of magic, your political system are all support systems for that suspense.

To achieve this suspense, you need two components: Characters that interest them, and a reason for them to try and accomplish something that will not occur without them, something near the limit of their abilities so neither they nor the reader feel the outcome is in the bag, and a reason for them to struggle hard against what will happen if they do not succeed. In many novels this is a struggle to the death against a villain, in others it is a struggle against a life of loneliness, in others it is a struggle to survive or to save somebody else, or a struggle to save a population of people or animals or a culture. In many novels it is a struggle against some deception in order to reveal the truth, a moral struggle.

How you tell the story is more important than your setting, having a protagonist the reader likes, and a struggle the reader wants them to win, that is more important than whether your setting is original or not.

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    You are classifying the setting as part of the how, but even with the setting it is the quality of world building and realization, not what the setting is that matters. Feb 2, 2018 at 16:07
  • @VilleNiemi In some stories, like The Martian, or Castaway, or any man-against-the-environment story, the setting becomes "the villain" and a central "character" in the plot. that is what I meant. In most stories, the setting is not really terribly important, it can be generic and standard, especially if it the real world, but even if it is fantasy or sci fi or holds elements of magic. The "world building" is already done by many previous authors, and to the OP's question, does NOT have to be very original or inventive or surprising, if characters and the plot are great.
    – Amadeus
    Feb 2, 2018 at 17:04
  • Sorry, my comment had a pretty big typo. Seems like you got it anyway. // What I was getting to was that even if you use a generic setting as a static backdrop, which totally works for some stories, successfully doing that is a matter of "how". No matter how generic and static a "what" is the reader only sees it thru the "how" of the storyteller. Rather than "how" being more important than "what", the "what" only exists in the context of the "how". // Apologies for excessive quotation marks. Feb 2, 2018 at 17:27

Crafting the story and plot is part of the "how". If you really have "a save the world done right" you have nothing to worry about since that implies that you crafted the plot and story properly. This is contradicted by your unhappiness with the plot and story.

I know this is not very helpful but I honestly think your first step should be to make it clear to yourself what you are unhappy about and why. Thinking about and writing down why you think this is "save the world done right" might help as well. You are probably missing something.

A random guess : If the story seems hollow and unsatisfactory despite your polish, the issue is probably with character building and development in some way.


I think the other answers are generally right, but I find that it's essential to find a phrasing which encourages balance. You don't want to lose track of the what when chasing after the how.

The phrasing I would recommend is: The how is more important than the what, but the how isn't created entirely by you. While the what is clearly owned by the author, the how is a collaboration between the author and the reader. The reader weaves together as much of the how as the author writes on the page.

Collaborate as much as you like, or as little.


Can I just ask you to make this more specific? Or try myself? My answer will be based off this, but I'd recommend you try to firm up your question.

A story is essentially characters interacting with a problem. The problem is the antagonist and manifests as characters, setting and events that block your protagonists goals. This is the what. Something will be lost, needs to be recovered.

Your genre is basically just dressing. But, it's the first step for choosing how the story will execute and what it will look like. Then your the interactions of protagonists+antagonists and conflicts determine how this plays out.

I don't think it's possible to have a good story with just a what, but they are often called idea stories. Most people in Western culture would say the how is 90% of the story of you define it the way I do.

For me its not just how though, and the excellence of the story really comes down to identifiable characters, settings and decisions that the reader emotes to with positive regard. Without connection it's all meaningless: how, what, and writing style could all fail you.

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