Wednesday 20 July 2011

Story vs Plot

Aren't these just two ways to say the same thing? Does it really matter if you don't know the difference?

On a very basic level STORY is what happens and PLOT is how it happens. There are various simplified explanations of this, the most famous probably being E.M. Forster’s:

The King died and then the Queen died – is a story.
The King died and then the Queen died from grief – is a plot.

The suggestion being that plot provides a deliberate causal relationship between events that tells the reader the reasons for what happened, and what it means in a wider context. This is all very well but how does it help you to be a better storyteller?

The problem is when people tell you what the story is about they do it backwards. They’ve read/seen the story first and then reduce it to something like: It’s about a man’s struggle against impossible odds to save his true love. Which, if you already know what it’s referring to, if you have the context, will sound very grand and noble and fitting.

But if you’re a writer planning a story and this is what you’re aiming to base an unwritten story on, does it sound like a good idea? I’d say the answer is that there’s no way to tell. It might be. Or it might not. A story idea with no other context can be pretty generic and meaningless.

Similarly, people often say story comes from character, or that they are happy to follow a character whom they enjoy, but again this is looking at it in hindsight. If you’ve just started reading a story, how do you know if you like the character yet? It’s only by what they do that you get to know them, which means you need to come up with something interesting for them to do before anyone will start liking them.

Which brings me to the core thing about ‘story’ from the perspective of a writer. A story idea has to be more than an on-the-nose literal breakdown of what your story is about. An accurate summary of events isn't automatically interesting.

Writing fiction is storytelling, and if you don't have a good idea for a story then it doesn't matter how clever the plot, or how beautiful the prose. 

Bear in mind that the same story can be told in numerous ways. Different plots can be about the same thing. And I think that is the key to understanding what story is.

Let’s take the classic tale of Robin Hood.

A man’s struggle for justice in a medieval land where the laws and lawmakers are corrupt.

You know the characters and setting, and the general touchstone events that occur and what they represent, but you could have those events occur in any number of sequences.

But if you didn’t know this was Robin Hood, would the story summary above sound like an interesting story? I’m not asking if it has the potential to be interesting, I’m asking does it sound like it from the summary?

What if I said the story was: An outlaw in Medieval England steals from the rich and gives to the poor.

Even though this way of putting it is still not very specific about exactly who, what  and how, it narrows the concept into a much more focused idea with an element of the unexpected which makes it interesting.  And that's what story is, an idea that implies more than its literal meaning.

Rather than a vague idea like it’s good vs evil, or a woman has to choose between two guys, a story only becomes a story worth telling when it has an idea in it that is tangible, something that catches the attention from the start.. And the plot then becomes easy: it shows what happens when you slot a character into the idea. Well, maybe easy isn't the right word...


Rebecca Bradley said...

I think this is a great explanation. I am not always sure about the technical names of what I am doing when I'm writing, so it's always good to know! :)

julie fedderson said...

Nice post. Shows why some 30 second pitches work, and some don't--it's all a matter of meshing story with just enough plot to make it unique.

Jace said...

I wrestled with these kinds of question all last year while teaching Creative Writing. I would simplify it, as story is the combination of all elements. You can have a plot with no characters: "The government hunts down special individuals to protect its own interests. One special individual decides to protect the people." All plot, no characters. Also, no story yet. Story needs plot, characters, setting, etc. Stories need conflict; plots are conflict. I definitely think it's a worthy question for dissection, however! Thanks. :)

Sarah McCabe said...

I think that story is the whole thing, the bog picture, of which plot is but one element.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Okay if you're so clever then explain to me what the plot is on Twilight and why it sold over 140 million copies. When I look at it, it seems like "Girl wants hot boyfriend, finds hot boyfriend with super powers, and boyfriend needs to have someone to use super powers on to demonstrate further how hot he is."

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think Julie nailed it in her comment. The synopsis is such a small area to fill in enough detail to make the story unique and interesting. (And I say this after dozens of attempts to rewrite mine this past week!)

mooderino said...


@Julie-I think it's also about figuring it out before you start. Too often I think aspiring writers are hoping something story worthy will occur spontaneously halfway through.

@David-that's how to define it in terms of analysis of other's work, but not really useful to a writer trying to create something from scratch.

@Sarah-yes, but for a writer that view isn't really important, it's not so much what is story, as it is what is a good story.

@Michael-romance fiction doesn't obey the rules of normal fiction, anymore than porno movies follow the rules of normal movies.

@Alex-ain't that the truth.

Anonymous said...

Excellent job explaining. I've always known the difference but have had a hard time passing on the knowledge. Not to diminish the post but I thought of two things when you mentioned Robin Hood: The Disney version with the fox and the song-and-dance number in "Shrek." So sorry. ;)

Nancy Thompson said...

I wonder, if someone manages to accomplish all this without ever once even thinking about it, does that mean (s)he is natural storyteller?

And then what if that same person can't write an acceptable query for that story? What does that tell you about their skill?

mooderino said...

@Elle-apology accepteed (at least you didn't think of Men in Tights).

@Nancy-there are plenty of natural storytellers, but they work out what the story is very rapidly, it doesn't make itself magically known at the end. As for querying, I think that's a different muscle entirely.

Anonymous said...

I haven't pondered the distinction before, but you did a great job clarifying the differences.

Unknown said...

I hadn't thought of this before. I should have seen this distinction though. I cannot tell a story. I can't even tell someone what my book is about (verbally) without tripping all over myself. I can write a book with one heck of a plot though!

Rusty Carl said...

Very well put. I think I've probably used the terms interchangeably until now.

Angela Cothran said...

I'm going to remember your concise explanation. I love it when I can find a simple way to wrangle a complex idea. Thanks :)

Botanist said...

Can I be bold and suggest that there is another important distinction to make -- between the story, and storytelling?

Two writers could take the same story and plot (what happens and how), and produce very different results. That transformation is the art of storytelling.

Laura Josephsen said...

Great explanation! And I totally agree with this: Bear in mind that the same story can be told in numerous ways. Different plots can be about the same thing.

Matthew MacNish said...

This is an excellent explanation, thanks Mood. Personally, I think of story, and storytelling, in different lights, depending on what it's being compared to.

For example, you can compare story to plot, as you have so aptly done, or, you can compare storytelling, to writing.

I won't go into it here, but that comparison puts story in a different box.

Alison Miller said...

I have always thought of story as the whole - the big picture - and plot is what carries you from beginning to end. The story comprises the plot, the characters,...everything. Plot is a part of the whole story.

I think you did a much better job of explaining it then I just did!

Insightful post!

Alison Miller said...

*than* I just did.

Spelling Nazi attack. Sorry.

Carol said...

This is a great post and an excellent explanation! This is a good post to keep in mind when writing a synopsis or a query.

Karen Lange said...

This is interesting; I never thought to break it down like this. Great food for thought! Thanks a bunch! :)

Alleged Author said...

"The suggestion being that plot provides a deliberate causal relationship between events that tells the reader the reasons for what happened, and what it means in a wider context."

This is such a perfect definition that I copied it down in my writer's notebook.

Miss Good on Paper said...

Yes, when I teach literature, I teach plot (conflict, rising action, and all those items on the inverted checkmark). Teaching creative writing is a bit different, of course. I think, though, that by analyzing the choices other writers make, we can become better storytellers. I'm a big fan of learning by reading. Definitions will only get us so far.

-Miss GOP

mooderino said...


@Ashley-plot is a good way to keep the reader reading, but the story is what they'll remember.

@Rusty-most people do, which is fine if they aren't writers.

@Angie-you're welcome.

@Botanist-certainly individual voice and style is also a big factor.

@Laura-nice one.

@Matthew-yes, I think Botanist made a similar point.

@Alison-I think that's true but finding how to use that knowledge when writing isn't always clear to people.

@Carol-I try to.

@Karen-no problem.

@AA-illegal downloading from the internet, tsk tsk.

MissGOP-reading provides a context and generally informs our consciousness, but it isn't a blueprint for writing. Working backwards from a polished, edited, mature work isn't much help to a new writer (to an academic it's ideal).

Understanding where the starting point is can at least give young (and not so young) writers a good platform from which to take the plunge.

Thanks for all these great comments, very much appreciated.

Sultan said...

It is interesting how much framing influences our perceptions.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Mood,

Another insightful post. It's interesting how you paralleled plot and story. Well done,

mooderino said...

@Laoch-context is everything.


Ellie Garratt said...

Thank you for the great explanation - it has certainly got me thinking!

Ellie Garratt

Alleged Author said...

Don't worry...I cited you in my notebook and put little quotations around your words. :P

Karen Cioffi said...

Nicely put. Every story needs conflict/plot. Thanks for sharing.

nutschell said...

A great post! and very timely indeed as I will be doing a session on Plotting with my writing group tomorrow. :)

Anonymous said...

You have a spelling mistake near the end of your paper.

...something that catches teh attention from the start..

mooderino said...

@Anon - thank you mystery commenter.

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