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Story vs Plot

Updated on November 2, 2010

Differences Between Story and Plot

Many times we use the words “story” and “plot” interchangeably. The equation of the two terms is so common that they are often comfortably understood as synonyms. When editors say, “This is not a story,” the implication is not that it lacks characters, theme, setting, or even incident, but that it has no plot. There is a difference frequently drawn between the two terms, a difference that although simple in itself, gives rise to manifold subtleties in the craft of narrative and that also represents a vital decision that you as a writer must make: Where should your narrative begin?

The difference is easily made. A Story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order. A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. A story gives us only “what happened next,” whereas plot’s concern is “what, how, and why,” with scenes ordered to highlight the workings of cause and effect. Here, for example, is a standard story: A sober, industrious, and rather dull young man meets the woman of his dreams. She is beautiful, brilliant, passionate, and compassionate; more wonderful still, she loves him. They plan to marry, and on the eve of their wedding his friends give him a stag party in the course of which they tease him, ply him with liquor, and drag him off to a whorehouse for a last fling. There he stumbles into a cubicle to find himself facing his bride-to-be. Where does this story become interesting? Where does the plot begin?

You may begin with the first time he meets the extraordinary woman, but then you must cover at least weeks, probably months, in a few pages; and that means you must summarize, skip, and generalize, and you’ll have a hard time both maintaining your credibility and holding our attention. Begin at the stag party? Better. If you do so, you will somehow have to let us know all that has gone before, either through dialogue or through the young man’s memory, but you have only one evening of action to cover, and we’ll get to the conflict quickly. Suppose you begin instead the next morning, when the man wakes with a hangover in bed in a brothel with his bride on his wedding day. Is that, perhaps, the best of all? An immediate conflict that must lead to quick and striking crisis?

The human desire to know why is as powerful as the desire to know what happened next, and it is a desire of a higher order. Once we have the facts, we inevitably look for the links between them, and only when we find such links are we satisfied that we “understand.” The same is true of a story. Random incidents neither move nor illuminate; we want to know why one thing leads to another and to feel the inevitability of cause and effect. When “nothing happens” in a story, it is because we fail to sense the casual relation between what happens first and what happens next. When something does “happen,” it is because the resolution of a short story or a novel describes a change in the character’s life, an effect of the events that have gone before. A story is capable of many meanings, and it is first of all in the choice of structure, which portion of the story forms the plot, that you offer us the gratifying sense that we “understand.”


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