It has occurred to me that with all this talk about story that it might be useful to clarify the differences between STORY and PLOT. After all, we casually use the terms interchangeably but they are indeed very different and that difference is everything.
It’s probably easiest to begin with plot. After all, when we talk about writing, we’re often focused on that thing that might happen next. That’s plot. It’s the what happens. A UPS driver is attacked by deranged alien globs of goo seeking to absorb human life in order to save their own species. The events of the attack make up the plot: aliens come to Earth; aliens eat hero’s best friend while they nibble donuts; hero retaliates and saves the planet. Events. Actions. They are the physical happenings that get us from one end of the book or film to the other. They can be as small as a quiet break-up or as overblown as our alien friends here.
Now, to story.
Story–in my world–are the changes that happen to the person we most care about: our hero. Story happens inside rather than outside our characters. In our alien scenario, above, the story would be the UPS driver’s metamorphosis from unsuspecting everyday shmoe to courageous world-saving hero: innocent, he enjoys a tasty snack with a pal until the aliens attack; then he hides, afraid; he’s despondent as he watches everyone around him get absorbed; when his Basset Hound is eaten, he becomes angry and defiant; uncertain but determined, he cobbles together an impossible plan; he faces off with the aliens in a courageous winner-take-all last stand. The story is the change happening to the hero’s inner life as a result of the external plot events forced upon him.
This is the stuff. Why are there never enough stories? Because we want to feel that transformation; we need to vicariously live that emotional struggle–whether the hero triumphs or is defeated–as part of our state of being. Stories speak to the most basic feelings, aspirations, and experiences shared by most every person alive no matter who they are or where they live. Stories illustrate what it is to be human.
Need a bit more? Look at the verbiage in the plot example: “come”, “eat”, “retaliate”, “saves”. Active, physical words. Now look at the verbiage in the story example: “innocent”, “afraid”, “despondent”, “angry”, “defiant”, “courageous”. Intangible, emotional words. Fundamentally understand the two and hold the key to understanding why some of the most simple and unlikely stories are loved by millions while other tremendously complex and clever ones are forgotten in a blink. This same understanding will free the timid writer from fretting over what others have written before because a writer’s work–in my opinion–is not to wow audiences with mind-bending parlour tricks but to connect.
This is a much, much bigger topic than can be tackled in one brief post. For now I’ll say that I believe that it is the artist’s gift to be able to stand back from life to observe not only the exterior events that are happening but also the interior states that exist in the main players before, during, and after those events. It is the writer’s gift to be able to translate it all into narratives that captivate audiences and allow them to live for themselves those same states of change from the comfort of their armchair or theatre seat.