What’s the Difference between Plot and Story?

by Jami Gold on May 3, 2016

in Writing Stuff

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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23 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Serena Yung May 3, 2016 at 9:14 am

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, so I’ll talk about the actual subject of the post:

Hmmm though I adore character arcs and character development, I’m not sure if character change is necessary to constitute something that has a “story”… The classic example might be the murder mystery where no characters change over the course of the novel, but of course, the murder case is solved. Does that mean that this kind of novel has no story? Or did you mean that the mystery would be about the using of logic and intuition (as well as plain good luck) to solve a problem/bring justice to the innocent? So the non-superficiality of it would be about the themes revealed rather than the character revealed? Yet, I don’t think mysteries would write that kind of summary on their query letter…I’m not an expert on mysteries, however.

There could be themes revealed via character backstories (which are a kind of character development) of the murder suspects and the murderer. E.g. how romantic jealousy can be dangerous, how infidelity will lead to tragic consequences, etc.

Another example of a flat character arc novel, would be the stereotypical sci fi book. Super intriguing world, ideas about society, about people, about science and technology, etc. But the characters themselves may not necessarily change or even be developed much. There may be a story about how a society evolves due to some strange new genetic disease or due to the discovery of how to end poverty once and for all, for instance; so maybe there isn’t a “story” when it comes to the characters themselves, but there is a story about how a society transforms due to some particular influence or phenomenon. I would definitely not call even the average sci-fi novel superficial, haha.

Anyhow, I guess in my view, a sense of “depth” in a book can come from character development, character change, relationship development and evolution, or even from themes conveyed via interesting world-building situations.

Aw man, yeah, a romance wouldn’t be satisfying if there wasn’t anything to hint at sexual tension between the characters, even if the characters are the type of people who never flirt, lol. I’d want little hints from facial expressions, thoughts, feelings, inadvertent revelations in dialogue, etc. to suggest their mounting attraction and deepening relationship. I am such a sucker for romances (or romance arcs) that I kind of live for these “romance evolution hints” XD

But please tell me if I misunderstood what you were saying, as I feel like I might have.

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Jami Gold May 4, 2016 at 6:32 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, I’m still struggling with health issues and vision problems, so my ability to respond to comments is still not good, but let’s see if I can keep up with this one at least. LOL!

You’re right that people define these terms differently, which is why I wanted to talk about the ideas behind the words more than the words. 🙂

And as I mentioned in the post, both precise nouns and strong verbs are necessary, so I definitely didn’t want to give the impression that one was “better” than the other. However, as you noted, the precise nouns give more of a sense of the character and setting. Those are necessary, but they’re usually not going to be as strong at providing the narrative drive (the sense of action, movement, change, emotion, etc.) at the story level.

Also, as I said in the post, even when our characters don’t change, they still struggle with obstacles. And while the obstacles might be interesting, I think as humans, we want to see the struggle. Striving for something is relatable to everyone. 🙂

Like in the murder mystery example, the detective is striving to find the answer obviously, but there might also be story in why the answer is so hard to discover. (How is the villain striving to cover their tracks? How are others striving to hide their involvement? etc.) In other words, the story might be found behind the obstacles. 🙂

Does that help explain what I was trying to say? LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung May 5, 2016 at 9:16 am

Yeah, it does. For instance, the lead scientists of a sci fi universe may struggle to find the perfect cure to a disease, but there are unforeseen long-term harmful effects. So they struggle to find a cure for that too and try to develop much more effective drugs. The people who have taken the drugs endeavor to still live a functional life even after experiencing the harm this new medication did to them.

Oh no, I agree that as humans, we like to watch the striving towards the goal rather than just the goal itself. 😀 I’m very into descriptions of psychological turmoil, whether they are short and dispersed throughout the book, or are both very long and numerous like Dostoyevsky’s. It could indeed be harder to relate to or empathize with if we don’t get at least some hint of the characters’ interior worlds, thoughts and feelings, whether they change or not.

Get better soon!

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Jami Gold May 5, 2016 at 11:50 am

Hi Serena,

Ugh. The past few months have just been one health problem after another. 🙁 But thanks for the good wishes!

Glad that helped explain my perspective, and that’s a great example. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Miri May 3, 2016 at 12:35 pm

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! I don’t think I have commented before, but I do subscribe to your newsletter and read them. 🙂

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Serena Yung May 3, 2016 at 8:28 pm

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. ^^

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Jami Gold May 4, 2016 at 6:35 pm

Hi Miri,

Great example! Thanks for sharing. 😀

So maybe we could say that in some cases, the point of the plot might be to reveal a concept or worldview. Very interesting insight–thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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Julie May 3, 2016 at 1:16 pm

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 I tend to think Story is both a meta and micro thing while Plot is The Stuff that Happens, pretty much, on one level of Storytelling. Story is the gestalt while Plot, Setting and Characters are what the Story rests on. IMHO. I’d love to discuss this more.

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Jami Gold May 4, 2016 at 6:47 pm

Hi Julie,

“Getting there is the plot.”

Yes! Great way to put it. 🙂

These are all ideas we’ve heard before, but sometimes hearing the same concept from a different angle can help us gain a deeper understanding. Hence the verbs. 😉

As you pointed out in your examples, stories can be similar at the high-level. And to bring it back to the verb perspective, we might be able to compare how what the characters were striving for or against was similar. Were the struggles similar?

So yes, I absolutely agree with what you said, and I was just trying to come at the question from a different angle to help those who needed a different perspective to understand. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

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Julie May 5, 2016 at 10:45 am

The verb angle is an interesting one, and one I hadn’t thought of before (obviously). And you ask great questions; after all, who wants their characters essentially acting out on a gerbil’s wheel instead of progressing in a maze to a goal? (Unless, like Dhalgren, the point *is* that the events are rather pointless…at least, to me they were)

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Jami Gold May 5, 2016 at 11:54 am

Hi Julie,

Oh yes, there are always exceptions to everything. LOL! I tried to include lots of most, often, etc. qualifiers in the post. 🙂

And that’s a great analogy of a gerbil’s wheel versus something like a maze where progress is made. That sense of progress often is a story’s narrative drive. Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Emerald O'Brien May 3, 2016 at 2:28 pm

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.

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Jami Gold May 4, 2016 at 6:52 pm

Hi Emerald,

I don’t disagree with that definition at all. 🙂 As you pointed out, that definition encompasses change to a character and a pursuit (like those verbs 😉 ) of a goal.

But as you pointed out, some genres focus more on flat arcs, so I wanted to come up with a way to define “story” when the character doesn’t change, and that’s when the idea of the struggle hit me. Even in a flat arc, the characters still strive for a goal, and I think even villains become more relatable if we understand what they’re striving for and why. I hope that makes sense. Thanks for the comment!

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Tina Radcliffe May 4, 2016 at 2:07 pm

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

Thanks so much. Your posts are super meaty!!

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Jami Gold May 4, 2016 at 6:53 pm

Hi Tina,

Aww, thanks so much for the share and kind words! 🙂

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Julie Glover May 11, 2016 at 1:16 pm

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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