Story is “the chopped-off length of the tapeworm of time.” So said novelist E.M. Forster, whose book Aspects of the Novel is a classic. To Forster, story is transcended by plot, because story is a mere sequence of events: This happened and then that. Story is episodic.
Plot, on the other hand, is the writer’s arrangement of those events. In the hands of a writer, some story events are actually backstory and may or may not be useful in the novel. Other events may be told out of order as flashbacks or as topics of dialogue. And of course, many events are told chronologically. In any case, “plot is the writer’s choice of events and their design in time,” writes Robert McKee in his classic, Story.
I think of story as the whole ball of clay and plot as the shape into which the clay is sculpted. According to Timothy Spurgin in The Art of Reading, plot is what gives the story a “sense of direction.” Plot is the story’s arc or structure.
Perhaps the most quoted example of story vs. plot comes from Forster: Story is “the king died and then the queen died.” Plot is “the king died and then the queen died of grief.” Maybe I can make the difference even clearer: “the king died and then the queen died drinking the same poison.” To me, story asks, “What happened?” Plot asks, “Why?”
Plot is cause and effect. In my mind, that involves characters and their motives. I can have a story idea, but until I have a character or two, I don’t know where the story is going or how best to tell it. In my first drafts, characters provide the “why” and often nudge my story in unexpected directions. Then after I have a first draft, I study the story scene by scene to make sure each one serves the story. Because that’s what plot does. Plot serves the story, tells it the best way possible.
I’ve heard that more has been written about plot than any other aspect of writing. I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg here. If you want to dig further into plot, take a look at the books I’ve mentioned, as well as The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. There are many more books that address plot, but these will serve you well.
I leave you with one more metaphor: While a story simmers, a plot thickens. So whether you’re reading or writing, bon appetit!
© 2012 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com