Plot vs. Story

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.

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  1. This is fascinating to me, because for most of my life I thought of "plot" and "story" as the same thing. They're "what it's about" versus "what happens." It's been difficult for me to adjust to this world in which the "plot" is "what happens." After all, when I "plot against someone" (hasn't happened lately, but beware) or when I "hatch a plot," my motivation is implied. It's not just what I plan to do, but the emotion or drive behind the planning.

    Seeing the two as separate elements of story-telling is illuminating –or will be after I've wrapped my brain around it all. The plot is the ACTION of the story. The story is the motivations of and reactions to the the plot. Or…?

    It occurs to me that dealing with these two things separately is particularly critical for screenwriting. The action is what is actually seen on the screen. The story is what we have to sneakily convince our audience to read between the lines to understand. If they don't have to do so, chances are, we've told instead of showed.

    bekbek says:
  2. You know, Bekbek, I just make this stuff up as I write and as I work with other writers' projects. It's good to hear I'm not too far from articulating something useful and valid. This particularly theory formed after reading several complex scripts filled with twists, turns and tricks yet it was still difficult to turn each page. I noticed time and again that where there was no empathetic connection for me there was little impetus to continue reading, no matter how "exciting" the events. I extrapolated my little kernel to see how it held up and found it did. And, as a bonus, it fits nicely with well-established theory concerning developing the internal and external lives of characters. Plot and Story are absolutely intertwined. Sometimes it creates more confusion to dissect things but for some, it's helpful. Glad this was the latter.

    dianejwright says:
  3. I think with this discussion, we need a little bit of "throughline" talk. Perhaps that was the issue with the scripts you read with so many twists and turns yet nothing compelling you to move forward with the work. We, the reader, are willing to take a crazy ride with unexpected or wacky turns if there's a solid throughline with can empathize with or that excites enough to take the wild ride.

    Katrina Joy Plam says:
  4. True. Some scripts/manuscripts rely upon throughlines that are primarily external/plot-based, banking that they are exciting enough to be all that matters (and there are mountains of summer blockbusters films and best-selling novels to prove that to be largely true). Those are missing half the goods, in my opinion. They may generate excitement but not empathy and so it's back to the drawing board.

    What do you think? As far as audience love goes, are we talking about the difference between this and this?

    dianejwright says:

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