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May 3, 2016

What’s the Difference between Plot and Story?

Man walking through a desert with text: How is Plot Different from Story?

When we first start off as writers, if someone asks us about our story, we might launch into an overview of our story’s plot. It’s easy to think the plot is what our story is about.

Believe me, I know. I have several query letter drafts that took that road to rejection. *smile*

Yet one complaint I’ve heard from agents over the years is that many queries are too “plotty.” What does that mean?

With few exceptions, story isn’t the same as plot.

For this post’s image above, the plot event would be: man lost in a desert. The story behind it would be: man struggles to survive.

What’s the difference? Stick with me and find out. *smile*

Nouns vs. Verbs

Which sounds stronger and evokes more emotion?

  • The sorority member stopped her luxury sports car in front of the three-story brownstone.
  • The woman screeched her car to a halt in front of the house.

For many of us, we’re going to say the second sentence sounds stronger. We get a sense of action and urgency, which are emotional concepts.

Now take a closer look at those two sentences. They’re essentially the same idea—a woman is parking in front of a house.

The difference is that the first sentence concentrates on precise nouns:

  • sorority member vs. woman
  • luxury sports car vs. car
  • three-story brownstone vs. house

The second sentence focuses on a strong verb:

  • screeched vs. stopped.

That example isn’t meant to imply that we shouldn’t use precise nouns. In fact, we should use precise nouns and strong verbs. Instead, the example shows how verbs are the part of speech that add action, emotion, and narrative drive to our story.

What Does This Have to Do with Story vs. Plot?

An easy way to see how this nouns-vs.-verbs issue is relevant is by looking at stories with flat character arcs, where the protagonist doesn’t change over the course of the story.

Those stories have less emotional change, so it might make sense if we put the emphasis on the “something” the character has to “overcome.” After all, those obstacles—the villain with the launch codes, the serial killer about to strike again, the mean girl and her gang of bullies, etc.—are what feel unique about the story, right?

But those obstacles are nouns. The emotion, and therefore the story, is about the verb: overcome.

That concept goes double for stories with the change of a character arc. Change implies action.

So the emotion of our stories usually lives in our verbs, even when we’re giving a logline-type of summary. The story isn’t about the nouns of the plot-obstacles but about the verb-action with those obstacles—the struggle, the success, the survival, etc.

The Plot? Kind of Doesn’t Matter…

For character-focused stories, we often hear that plot reveals character, and that’s true. But even for non-character-focused stories, the plot creates the struggle for the character.

In other words, the plot isn’t the point of a story.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve seen too many authors struggle with revisions and think that the answer is to change plot events. Sometimes that will fix whatever is broken, but too often the author doesn’t really understand the core of the issue, so a different plot event won’t help.

If the stakes aren’t high enough to reveal character, we might be able to fix it with a few tweaks, or maybe a different plot-obstacle would help. If the struggle isn’t powerful enough, we might be able to fix it with a few adjustments to the current plot-obstacle, or maybe completely changing the plot-obstacle would be better.

Either way, it’s important to recognize that, as the plot-obstacles can be changed to fix what’s wrong, the plot is not the story.

Plot is a tool to reveal the character or the struggle.

When Might a Romance Not Feel Like a Romance?

Let’s take a closer look at the romance genre for an example of how confusing the plot for the story might cause problems. A few weeks ago on Facebook, Marina Costa shared a link to a Tumblr post that focused on plots in the romance genre.

The article’s author wondered why readers kept saying her romance story felt more like a subplot than the main plot. After all, she plans her stories by first deciding on the couple and then designing the plot around them.

Obviously, tons of genres include romantic elements, so the development of a romantic relationship doesn’t need to be the main plot of a story. However, in this case, the article’s author was trying to write a romance.

She theorized that because she creates an elaborate plot of obstacles to stand between the couple, the romance plot felt less important. She doesn’t focus on the sexy scenes, or even the flirtation aspect of romance.

Romance doesn’t need to have any sexy scenes, so that’s not the issue. However, the lack of flirtation and the focus on elaborate plots points to a different potential problem.

For stories in the romance genre, readers expect to see a lot of the character revealed. Rooting for the characters to get together for a happy ending is at the heart of the genre.

So if I knew this author, I’d ask a few questions to try to uncover the issue. No matter our genre, these questions might help us find our story among the plot elements:

  • Are the plot-obstacles revealing the characters? Or are they just complications marking time until the climax of the story?
  • Is the struggle superficial? Or is there a component of the struggle internal to the character?
  • How is the internal struggle portrayed?
  • And because this example is a romance, how does the romantic relationship interact with that struggle?

Feedback like what this author received might indicate a lack of non-external struggle. Romance stories require not only an internal character arc, but also a romance arc.

Flirtation or some other way to demonstrate sexual tension is necessary to show the push-pull of a romantic struggle. Internal character struggles create additional push-pull obstacles, so it’s not just external plot stuff keeping them apart. Internal character arcs tied to the romance are necessary to show how the relationship helped them recognize a solution for their life.

Without those aspects, external plot events will just feel like superficial complications that need to be checked off a list to “unlock” the end of the story. The plot isn’t the story.

Regardless of our genre, we might fall into similar traps with our story. It’s easy to get wrapped up in convoluted plot twists that feel like story.

However, a story isn’t about the external. It’s not about the plot. It’s not about the obstacles. It’s not about the nouns.

Story is about the verbs. What are we revealing about the character or their struggle? That’s our story description. *smile*

Do you disagree with my take on the difference between plot and story? Have you ever thought about the issue of nouns vs. verbs for defining our story? Does focusing on what we’re revealing about our character or their struggle help you with a logline or story description? Have you seen stories with only external components? Did it work for you, or did it feel superficial?

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What do you think?

24 Comments on "What’s the Difference between Plot and Story?"

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Very interesting take on this issue! Hmmm I think a problem is that different people define it differently. I’ve heard of a definition where story is the sequence of events that happen, but plot is the cause-and-effect links between these events, so plot is more meaningful than story according to this way of defining it. But it’s very intriguing how you used the noun and verb analogy (with the car braking passage too) to illustrate this! I don’t mean to be nonconformist again, haha, but I don’t actually feel that the “screeched to a halt” example is stronger and has more emotion than the first example. In fact, I feel that they both convey different types of emotion, neither necessarily “stronger” than the other. The “screeched to a halt” certainly sounds faster or brisker, you could say, but I would say it’s about physical motion. But for the first example, the specific noun phrases of “luxury sports car” and “three-story brownstone” give me a peculiar emotion, a sense of wealth and ostentatiousness and maybe even exoticism, perhaps. So the first example makes me go, “Wow! (she’s so rich and maybe is an arrogant and dislikeable character! XD. Let’s find out more about her later.)” while the second example makes me go “Oh. (She stopped her car abruptly. I wonder why).” Anyhow, yeah, I would say that the two convey very different emotions and neither feels stronger or weaker to me, lol. But I don’t think that’s your point anyway, haha,… Read more »
Miri
I’m currently reading a novel with only external components, an old fantasy in which the heroes have won and “good” has taken over the world, to the point of tyranny; a group of “villains” band together to restore the balance between good and evil. There is no character development to speak of, and in that sense, I find it superficial, but the exploration of whether the world can be “too good,” whether evil is necessary, and whether there is a benefit to balance is thought provoking. I tentatively want to say that a story with only external components can work, when allegorical or otherwise using story as a vehicle for explanation of an idea or principle. But these generally aren’t the type of books I enjoy reading. On plot vs. story, I agree. I’ve seen these terms used interchangeably a few times. I recently saw someone on a writers’ site post a quote by Steven James about *story* (in which he explains that story is not a sequence of events but rather requires alteration, a problem that leads to a transformation of a character, situation, or both) in order to prove that *plot* is not a sequence of events. But they aren’t the same thing. Regardless of how you want to define plot or story, they are distinct entities. Plot is a *part* of story. I think your explanation of story as what’s revealed by struggle is excellent. Thank you for the wonderful blog posts you do, by the way!… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Oh your description of a story with only external components, that is limited in character development but very thought-provoking in allegorical significance, reminds me of Lord of the Flies. ^^

Julie
Julie
Hm. This is a topic I’ve thought about, too. What’s the difference between a story and a plot? I think the “log-line” or brief summary is what the *story* is – you know, a friend asks you what you’re writing about, and you answer, “The story is about a woman who discovers her true heritage and overcomes obstacles to find her inner power.” Getting there is the plot. Going further, to me the story is the culmination of the whole, the setting, characters, and events. The above short sentence describes in a nutshell what my current story is *about*, but doesn’t tell you at all how I’m getting my character to her inner power. So my theoretical friend will then ask me more, and I’d tell that friend that the character’s obstacles range from self-ignorance, to antagonists and villains, and a lengthy bad relationship, all in a SF/F contemporary setting. Where the Plot comes in, is *how* this is all going to happen. Thinking about the difference between the two, if you consider an old story, The Tempest, and then compare it to Forbidden Planet, what’s the difference? The setting. Details about the characters. But the *story* is essentially the same in its high points in plot events, or at least in the results of the plot points. I’m not sure I’m making a whole lot of sense. I see your point about language structures being the bottom line of the plot/story difference, and it very well could be. But… Read more »
Emerald O'Brien
Emerald O'Brien

Hi Jami!

I actually took a course on this last year, and I believe story is what happens to someone as they pursue their goal, and how they change as a result of their journey, whereas plot is literally what happens, cause and effect.

As your example was laid out, that story is why you care about what you’re reading. Like your example, man lost in desert is the what, and man struggles for survival is the emotional pull that makes the reader care about that man lost in the desert.

I also believe you can find a story enjoyable if it is mostly external (for me, especially thrillers/mystery), but that it will leave a bigger emotional impression on the reader if they resonate with the internal story.

Tina Radcliffe

Another excellent, excellent post that I’ll be sharing with Seekerville.

Thanks so much. Your posts are super meaty!!

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[…] What’s the Difference between Plot and Story? by Jami Gold. […]

Julie Glover

This goes along well with something my critique partner was explaining to me the other day! I was so concerned with getting a plot point right, and she said something like, “Remember that it’s just a vessel for your main character to grow.” It put my goals with that scene in the right perspective.

Thanks for giving me even more to think about here!

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