Plot and story. What's the difference? Is there a difference? Some would argue there is no real distinction between the two. Others, myself included, believe there's a world of difference between a plot and a story.
Now, what I'm going to discuss here isn't that much different from the same opinions put forward by Stephen King, David Morrell and Sol Stein, although I'm might be a little blunter in my explanation. I'm blunt because I feel I have to be to get the point across. Recognising the difference between plot and story is a fundamental skill for writers, especially when writing extended pieces (novels or novellas) and yet I keep seeing aspiring writers churning out hundreds of thousands of words of plot with very little story. Not just aspiring writers, but highly paid professionals as well (William Gibson, I'm looking at YOU).
A book with a well-crafted story will keep a reader's attention even if afterwards they put it down and say "Man, that was shallow." Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code is a good example. A book with a good plot but no story might sometimes keep us going until the end... but something will always feel intrinsically wrong, or lacking. Plot-heavy books are often the ones we give up on halfway through.
So what's the difference?
A plot is a sequence of events. I like to imagine that this term actually arose from the mathematical process of plotting points on a graph.
Now, in real life, you often do things without reason. You pick up a wallet off the ground and decide to keep the money inside. You bet a grand on black at the roulette table on a whim. Humans are very unpredictable creatures, and even though there are almost certainly solid motivations behind these actions, they're often buried so deep that we can't recognise them as such. When someone asks you why you decided to drive at 200 km/hr through your local suburb, do you say "I watched a moto-GP on TV when I was five and the smell of the car air freshener reminded me of watching Bullit and I suddenly stamped on the accelerator"? Or do we shrug and say, "I dunno?"
Life is strange and unexpected. But when you put these sorts of inexplicable events in a book, they feels contrived and unbelievable. We expect more from our novelists. We expect everything to have a reason.
What is story? Story is the formula between the plot points. Or, another way of putting it: If the plot is a sequence of events, story is a sequence of cause and effect.
You'll notice I'm using the film Titanic as an example. Now, I'll never claim Titanic was a brilliant movie, but James Cameron does have a fair grasp on story. See that plot point, Invited to dinner? That's the sort of thing many novelists have written down when they begin their planning. Kirk becomes Captain. Spaceship blows up. Spock marries Chekov. But putting all those things in a line doesn't make a story. Imagine if, at the beginning of the voyage, Jack was just walking down the deck and Rose rushed up to him. "Boy, you're handsome! Want to come to dinner with me and my fiance?" We'd think it was manufactured. What makes events believable is cause and effect. Decision and consequence.
Rose is depressed over her betrothal to a really awful guy. So she makes the decision to commit suicide. As a consequence, when she decides that living is actually a pretty rad thing to do, she can't climb back over the rail. Jack is walking the deck at night. He sees Rose and makes the decision to save her, thereby earning her gratitude... and the ire of her fiance, Cal. We see this happening and even though it's all a bit trite we can believe it because we have seen the characters making decisions, leading to consequences. Even the ICEBERG is subject to story. If, halfway through the movie, the ship just crashed and sank, we'd be sitting in the theatre saying "Damn, it's a big iceberg! How'd you miss that one?" But we see the Captain demanding more speed from his engineers earlier in the movie in order to break a record (also see, Chekov's Gun). Hitting the iceberg is a consequence of this. Thus, it doesn't feel "plotted."
This all might seem really obvious. You might be shaking your head right now, saying "okay, decisions and consequences, easy." The problem is that many writers (maybe not most, but a fair proportion) begin with plot, not story. This isn't bad in itself - having a strong plot is vital if novelists wants to keep readers interested. And, just as plot-centric novels usually feel artificial, story-centric novels can go too far and end up rambling as characters make endless decisions that, while interesting, don't actually push the book any closer to a conclusion. For a prime example of what can go wrong when you write without plot, see any Stephen King novel of the past twenty years. King is a self-described "situation-based" author - he places characters in a bad situation with no idea of how they'll get out, and lets their actions (and solutions) evolve organically. That's all fine up until the point where the characters all end up splitting and doing their own thing, like watching TV, or buying a caravan - sure, it feels real, but it's also boring as hell.
When you begin with plot, as I often do, you'll have a series of events written down that you think can form an exciting story. One or two driving characters that fit this plot will already have come to mind, and you'll start finding ways for them to progress between plot points that makes sense in the context of the character. Sometimes (often, in fact) those plot points will begin to shift and reform in ways that make them more character-based than plot based. For example, why have the final confrontation in an oil refinery when the main character is a chemist? Why should Dave have to crash his car if he's a skilled driver? Plot is always shifting, and the more your plot adapts to character, action and consequence, the more real it will feel.
We hit crisis point when the writer becomes married to the plot.
Five reasonably intelligent characters are in a haunted house. Your plot outline dictates that one of those characters needs to go alone into the basement in order for the ghost of Vincent Price to eat him/her. But there is no goddamn way any of your characters would do that. The living room has a nice fireplace, comfy couches, and no ghosts. The basement is obviously a deathtrap. Nobody in their right mind would head down alone.
"But they have to," the writer whines. "It's in the plooooot."
Screw the plot. This is where a writer has to make a choice between the characters and the outline. You insist on someone to go check out the basement? Fine. Do it. But be prepared for your readers to throw the book away in disgust. When the plot dictates the actions of the characters, we stop believing. Remember how everybody walked out of Transformers saying, "Wow, robot fights are cool, but why did they go back to the city? That was idiotic." That's a case of plot dictating story.
When your plot and your characters clash, and you can't find any way of resolving the situation, the plot has to make way.
There are lots of ways to do this. The first step is to take that point on your scene plan and black it out. It's gone. Deleted. Vamoosed. There is now a blank space waiting to be filled, and it's going to be filled by your characters - by decision and consequence.
You can fill it by moving forwards through the story. Examine where your characters are, the situation and tools available to them, and then brainstorm what. Create a big list of possibilities based on your characters personalities and abilities. Any one of those possibilities, if it's honest, is a valid continuation of the story. Some will be boring, and others will lead to dead ends. Weeding out the exciting developments from the bad out is your job.
The other option is to work backwards. If you've realised that there's no way Miss Jones, famous claustrophobic ballet dancer, is going to go check out that haunted basement alone, but you know that for the story to progress she absolutely must die, jump ahead. Work on the following scene where the other characters find Jones drained of all her vital fluids, and continue the story from there. Then, hopefully, over the coming weeks, you'll chance across the why. You'll be able to go back and create a scene that doesn't trample all over your characters motivations.
Remember - your characters aren't steered by the plot. They steer the plot themselves. And when your series of dot-point events have finally mutated into a list of decisions and consequences by your protag and antagonists, you've got a story on your hands.
A final point - don't lie to yourself. If you decide that Miss Jones is going into the damn basement whether she likes it or not, and your justification is that "she heard a spooky noise and decided to investigate", your readers will catch you out. Always treat your readers as if they are smarter than you. If you ever think "will they notice?" the answer is always yes. Especially when it comes to your plot taking control.
A plot is a series of events.
A story is a series of decisions and consequences that lead characters from one event to the next.
Plot events simply "happen" - characters are dragged from setpiece to setpiece.
Story events are a result of cause and effect, set in motion by either protagonists or antagonists.
A "plotted" book feels like a slideshow with characters as witnesses.
Story-driven books feel more organic and believable - characters behave as their personalities would dictate, and these behaviours lead to the set-pieces.
Always ask why things happen, and who is the cause.
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For those who read all the way through - this is my very first how-to article on writing, and any feedback would be appreciated. I'm happy to continue modifying this article until it makes sense to everyone, so hit me up with your opinions. And good luck with the writing!