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How to Tell the Difference Between Story and Plot

For any narrative to be successful, it must contain two key things: dynamic and engaging story elements, and a delivery system of plot that takes the reader on a journey. While both of these heavy-lifting craft elements are vital for any narrative to exist, they are, as concepts, often unclear to writers. This quick definition of story and plot will unpack how each works, what it does, and why it’s necessary to create great work.

Stories are a microcosm of real life. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” isn’t just a great Joan Didion book title; it’s also true. We read to see ourselves reflected in narratives and others’ experiences, and to learn from them to become bigger, more expanded people. Readers expect to go on a journey along with the characters and—as a result of our deeply embedded understanding of how narratives “arc” and progress—that these narratives will take us somewhere different from where we started.

The best and most memorable narratives are those that are built on exciting and vivid story elements and also whose characters move through them via plot, dynamically seeking, striving, and dodging as they develop, evolve, and travel from one state to another, ultimately ending up emotionally or physically changed.

In order for fiction and nonfiction to both have story elements and plot, the writer must know how to tell the difference between story and plot, understand how they work as concepts, and see how to envision both what elements the narrative is built upon and also how to move those elements forward.

What Is the Difference Between Story and Plot?

Occasionally people interchange the words “plot” and “story,” which they ought not do because while they are somewhat related, they’re in theory and application very different.

stairs with light shining on them

Story is the individual points of interest that make up a narrative. Think of them as the individual steps, or treads, on an ascending staircase. Each step is an important landing place; after all, you have to put your foot somewhere, and each one serves to bring you closer to the top.

Plot is the risers and glue that connect one step to the next. They’re more broadly the “why” one step is able to lead you to the next step, and in total create a unit of causal relationships that ultimately is the sensical unit of the staircase. Plot enables the story points to connect to each other causally, and overall to create a unit of connected pieces that makes sense.

underside of people on stairs

In practical application, not related to stairs, plot provides the reason, the “why,” and is the guiding principle for the emotional journey of the narrative.

So where story points are individual narrative elements that line up, plot is the causal relationship between those points that build on the one before providing the why, the how, and to what end.

Here’s the classic illustration from E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel:

“The king died and then the queen died” is a story.

‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.

Story speaks to what is happening. First this happened, then this happened, then this happened. You can tick off the events on your fingers.

Plot speaks to why things happen: the reason, the purpose, the “how come.”

 

novel plot arc

Plot and Story- A Visual Representation

Plot was first defined by Greek philosopher Aristotle in Poetics as a 3-part causal relationship that would lay out chronologically and should be grouped into 3 acts.
It basically would go:

◊ Act 1: introduce the problem

◊ Act 2: go about trying to resolve the problem

◊ Act 3: resolve the problem and enjoy/deal with the aftermath

His definition was later expanded upon by German novelist Gustav Freytag and turned into a more complex “pyramid” containing 5 points:

  • Exposition (beginning)
  • Rising action
  • Climax (middle)
  • Falling action
  • Resolution (end)

Though these 5 points can still be partitioned out into 3 acts.

A good arc is vital if you want to both keep your reader hooked and immersed in your story from start to finish and have them emerge from your world changed due to a satisfying or curious ending.

In this blog on constructing plot for narrative and character, you can also watch a not only illustrative but very funny video of Kurt Vonnegut on “The Shape of Stories.” 

Story or Plot: Which Comes First?


Stephen King says all stories can be started off by asking “What if?”

What if… someone discovered they could extract dinosaur DNA from prehistoric mosquitoes preserved in amber to create cloned dinosaurs? Then what if they opened a theme park with the cloned dinosaurs? (Jurassic Park

What if… the heroine fell in love with a man who had his mad wife locked in the attic the whole time? (Jane Eyre

What if… aliens invaded Britain at the turn of the 20th century? (The War of the Worlds

Examples from BBC Maestro

 

The “What if” question is great for fiction and sparking your imagination. However, if you’re working with memoir, your story points already exist, so then it’s a matter of considering the events to find the reason you did what you did and made certain choices that moved you forward through your experiences. The same would apply to your other real-life characters.

What it was you wanted and what was at stake for you will be how you come to your plot, the causal linking of your story points and the thing that pushes the narrative forward.

Different Genres & Types of Writing Use Plot Differently

Whatever provokes action is plot. Plot’s causal relationships can stem from outward circumstances or interior emotion.

In literary fiction, which is commonly more character-driven, it’s the characters’ wants and desires that will incite them to move through the story points. What they want and what is at stake for them is largely going to be the driver of those narratives.

In upmarket, mainstream, or genre fiction, the plot is often a more external situation such as defeating the antagonist, finding the ring, delivering the package, or saving the village.


bar graph

Different length narratives also have different approaches to plot.

Short stories typically only have the space for one plot. Edgar Allan Poe called it “the single effect,” which makes sense logistically given the space allotted for a short story. That said, author Aatif Rashid in “Against the Single Effect” cites Roland Barthes as an inspiration for upending that concept and providing the reader with a more complex emotional experience despite or perhaps even because of the smaller narrative container. 

Longer narratives such as novels, memoirs, and autofiction have much more room to contain multiple plots. One will often have an “A” plot, which is the primary plot, and then several “B” or even “C” plots that braid together, intertwine, or develop in tandem with the “A” plot.

 

How People Talk about Plot and Story

When someone asks what your book (or any book or movie) is about, you will always naturally begin ticking off story elements. “Well, this happens, then this happens, then this happens.”

Your natural inclination, when speaking to the story, is to answer the question, “and then”. Because without story points, there is nothing to stand on. They’re the flash, the thing that makes a narrative exciting, special, and engaging.

The “why” that links those points together however, while not flashy and shared over coffee with friends, is the unequivocally necessary support mechanism that delivers the narrative from one story point to the next. 

In the end, it’s the path that brings one to their destination (or the steps built into a staircase). For you as the writer, the braiding together of story and plot is the art and magic that will make your work come to life.

 

 

Speaking of coffee, no matter where you are, a virtual coffee and conversation with a writing coach and editor is often the perfect way to kick-start and re-energize your writing.

When you’re ready to see your work move up several levels in skill, and you feel far more motivated and confident in your work, reach out! We’re here to help you achieve all your writing goals.

coffee in blue cup on wood table

2 Responses

  1. Great explanation. Thanks, Jenna. I’m a panster so story is lost in the chain plot. My draft is a long ramble of actions taken by my protagonist and his/her friends or enemies. I just write allowing my characters to get into trouble. I wonder if a writer who plans the story outcome has an easier time moving the novel to conclusion. I would think planners have an easier and more productive time.

    Although, when I do outline, I often deviate.

    1. Both plotting and pantsing have their benefits, Marianne; there’s no one right way to write a book (as you’ve noticed!) Being present with your characters while pantsing will yield fresh and authentic actions and responses from your characters, whereas plotting does help you get an overarching sense of how to move them from A to B. But you can always look at your draft and lay atop it an outline that stems from what you already have and bridge the spots that are giving you trouble (and then adjust accordingly). It’s a lot of work but in the end, you’ll end up with a really engaging and well-paced story. Thanks so much for your comment and for reading the article- really appreciate it!

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