Plot vs story. What's the difference?


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Thread: Plot vs story. What's the difference?

  1. #1

    Plot vs story. What's the difference?

    Kyle R suggested I start a thread to discuss my #2 writing 'rule' posted in the 'My Writing Rules' thread. I don't know how much discussion it will generate, but here goes.

    The 'rule' as i wrote it is this:

    Focus on story above all else (not plot -- story -- there's a difference).

    To me the difference is easy to see; plot is made up of the events which happen in your book. The story is how you weave those events into a fully functional rug using characters, setting, and your own voice.

    The plot of Jaws is simple; A great white shark stakes out a feeding ground off the beaches of an island and starts eating people, threatening the summer tourist trade. Three men with wildly different backgrounds set out on a boat to kill the shark. Ta da.

    The story of Jaws is far more complex and involves the relationships between the men (how many of you know that, in the book, the marine biologist Hooper has an affair with Sheriff Brody's wife, and is also eaten by the shark?), the island culture of Amity, the tension between Quint and the townsfolk, the dialogue, the setting, and so forth.

    Plot is part of story, but just a part. Too many new writers think, just because they have a neat idea, they have a story. They don't. Plots without story are boring. Taking that plot and developing it into something bigger, something engaging, is the essence of storytelling.
    “Fools” said I, “You do not know
    Silence like a cancer grows
    Hear my words that I might teach you
    Take my arms that I might reach you”
    But my words like silent raindrops fell
    And echoed in the wells of silence : Simon & Garfunkel


    Those who enjoy stirring the chamber-pot should be required to lick the spoon.

    Our job as writers is to make readers dream, to infiltrate their minds with our words and create a new reality; a reality not theirs, and not ours, but a new, unique combination of both.

    Visit Amazon and the Kindle Store to check out Reflections in a Black Mirror, and Chase

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  2. #2
    Hell. I know 'professionals' that think that. I'm relatively unversed in the details of story as I get 'centipeded' easily. It's simpler for me to just invent what I need atm than to try to remember what a participle is. But even such a yutz as me knows that plot isn't story. Character is story, right?
    *laughs*
    Oh wait, that'd be litfic. Adventure is story? Extrapolation is story?
    Interaction is story. Therefore conflict is plot?
    Wait. This is hard.
    I hated that affair, btw. Better off out of the movie, even though it titillated the fourteen-year-old me.
    Sooo, life is story? Or story is life?
    I know people who have the entire story be personal interaction and dispense with plot. They go to dinner with Andre and the audience is left waiting for Godot.
    Here's a plot:
    Call me, Ishmael. We're having a great white sale. Ahab is in rehab and we need the shekels.
    Feel free to lampoon me for such silliness but the story often lies between the lines.


    eta: 171-word flash fiction. Heh.
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    "From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it." - Groucho Marx

  3. #3
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    Absolutely agree with this.

    I tutor part-time and sometimes play a little game with the kids by having them think of the last movie they enjoyed and then ask them to write a paragraph-long synopsis sticking only to what actually happens on-screen.

    I ask them to try to avoid using any emotive language and anything about the characters other than their name and/or what they are (anima/vegetable/mineral) and simply write what they see/hear. I tell them to think like aliens who don't know what things like 'love' or 'greed' or 'jealousy' or 'pride' are and avoid attributing those kinds of words. Once they understand what I am asking for (which takes awhile) we have some fun reading out the result. From what I remember one kid wrote Toy Story something like this.

    "A doll called Woody is leader and king of the toys that live in a boy's bedroom and only move and speak when the boy is not there. When the boy receives a new doll called Buzz for his birthday Woody begins to compete for the boy's time and resources only to be superseded by the newer doll. After both dolls accidentally fall into the hands of another boy king they end up attempting to escape and eventually succeed in escaping."

    I believe what was written was mostly accurate as far as an overview of the plot but of course when I asked the other kids if that was the entire movie it was a no. So we then talked about what was missing and, of course, it was everything that actually mattered. Even when the plot is explained in further detail, there are still missing pieces; Buzz Lightyear's delusion, Woody's need for approval and affection, the various themes surrounding the passage of childhood and the fickle relationship between children and their possessions.

    Anyway, it was all pretty clear with careful explanation even to thirteen and fourteen year olds what the differences were between a plot and a story, so I think a lot of it really comes down to understanding over what these words mean and that they are NOT synonymous. Plot is not the entirety of a story anymore than the stock market is the entirety of an economy.

    (Tangentially, thank you for mentioning Jaws -- I am probably one of the few people who read the book before I saw the movie (I loved sharks as a kid but it was considered too adult so I satisfied myself with reading the book instead, which ironically is far more adult than the movie) and I remember being amazed when I saw the movie at how different they were, especially since one of the scenes that frightened me the most in the book was the part when Hooper died and Benchley describes his 'guts compacting' and the black eye of the shark in the cage)
    Last edited by Blackstone; March 29th, 2018 at 03:49 AM.

  4. #4
    Thanks for clarifying, Terry.

    And yes, I completely agree—story goes beyond plot (or even character). Though pegging it down feels a bit harder than identifying its individual components.

    I'm currently reading Steamborn by Eric Asher, and it's a slow burn in the beginning. Not boring by any means, but slow in terms of "plot" development. A common expression comes to mind: "It's taking a while to find the plot", and yet, at the same time, the author is doing a lot of other things: introducing the characters, establishing the story world, showing the relationships between the characters.

    There isn't any unified sort of direction to the conflict yet (indeed, the main conflicted hasn't even arisen yet), but it's still engaging and page-turning. Or, as this thread seems to contend: it's still story.

    Some of my favorite moments in novels (or film) are the lulls in the plot, where the characters actually converse and open up to each other. It's the parts that I used to roll my eyes at or skip over when I was younger. ("Enough talk! Let's get back to the explosions and shark attacks!") But now I'm seeing the strength of those quieter scenes. They're more "story" oriented, even if they're not necessarily required for the plot—and they often linger in the reader's/viewer's minds due to the very fact that they seem to be "outside" the plot itself.

    Or perhaps I'd say that story is what happens when a writer takes a plot and breathes life into it. Maybe.

    It's a slippery topic to think about, but fun all the same.
    Last edited by Kyle R; March 30th, 2018 at 04:58 AM.

  5. #5
    I's say plot vs writing is a better way to say it. Story is the emotional whole, while plot is the road-map between "Once upon a time," and "The end."

    Plots are easy. It's making the story seem so real that if someone swings at the protagonist the reader ducks that's hard. And plot is only meaningful in retrospect. Writing, though, is moment-by-moment, with the reader experiencing events in real-time. It's making sure the reader never feels lectured to. It's entertaining them on every page. It's making them care.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Terry D View Post
    Kyle R suggested I start a thread to discuss my #2 writing 'rule' posted in the 'My Writing Rules' thread. I don't know how much discussion it will generate, but here goes.

    The 'rule' as i wrote it is this:

    Focus on story above all else (not plot -- story -- there's a difference).

    To me the difference is easy to see; plot is made up of the events which happen in your book. The story is how you weave those events into a fully functional rug using characters, setting, and your own voice.

    The plot of Jaws is simple; A great white shark stakes out a feeding ground off the beaches of an island and starts eating people, threatening the summer tourist trade. Three men with wildly different backgrounds set out on a boat to kill the shark. Ta da.

    The story of Jaws is far more complex and involves the relationships between the men (how many of you know that, in the book, the marine biologist Hooper has an affair with Sheriff Brody's wife, and is also eaten by the shark?), the island culture of Amity, the tension between Quint and the townsfolk, the dialogue, the setting, and so forth.

    Plot is part of story, but just a part. Too many new writers think, just because they have a neat idea, they have a story. They don't. Plots without story are boring. Taking that plot and developing it into something bigger, something engaging, is the essence of storytelling.
    I tend to use plot and story interchangeably, but I see your point.

    When there's believability issues, would you say that's a plot problem or a story problem?

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Jack of all trades View Post
    I tend to use plot and story interchangeably, but I see your point.

    When there's believability issues, would you say that's a plot problem or a story problem?
    Good question, Jack. IMO it would usually be a story problem. The writer didn't execute the story well enough to make the reader fully suspend their disbelief. Outlandish plots, say a zombie apocalypse, can be done well enough to seem believable. On the other hand, even completely plausible ideas can be made into woeful caricatures through poor execution. I'm thinking of just about any episode of the new S.W.A.T. TV series.
    “Fools” said I, “You do not know
    Silence like a cancer grows
    Hear my words that I might teach you
    Take my arms that I might reach you”
    But my words like silent raindrops fell
    And echoed in the wells of silence : Simon & Garfunkel


    Those who enjoy stirring the chamber-pot should be required to lick the spoon.

    Our job as writers is to make readers dream, to infiltrate their minds with our words and create a new reality; a reality not theirs, and not ours, but a new, unique combination of both.

    Visit Amazon and the Kindle Store to check out Reflections in a Black Mirror, and Chase

    Hidden Content






  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Terry D View Post
    Good question, Jack. IMO it would usually be a story problem. The writer didn't execute the story well enough to make the reader fully suspend their disbelief. Outlandish plots, say a zombie apocalypse, can be done well enough to seem believable. On the other hand, even completely plausible ideas can be made into woeful caricatures through poor execution. I'm thinking of just about any episode of the new S.W.A.T. TV series.
    I'm thinking of things like breaking the laws of the universe or the nation. That sort of thing seems like a plot problem to me. Unless you're creating a new universe, friction slows things down, gravity pulls things down, and a US mail truck would have to be returned at the end of the day, and you're not likely to bump into the president during a tour of the White House. (Although I can think of a way to make the last one believable.)

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by Terry D View Post
    Good question, Jack. IMO it would usually be a story problem. The writer didn't execute the story well enough to make the reader fully suspend their disbelief. Outlandish plots, say a zombie apocalypse, can be done well enough to seem believable. On the other hand, even completely plausible ideas can be made into woeful caricatures through poor execution. I'm thinking of just about any episode of the new S.W.A.T. TV series.
    I agree with this as being the most common problem, however would want to emphasize that errors in the plot are often just as severe a threat to credibility as poor characterization and execution.

    I usually don't get too fastidious on this, though. Sometimes the nature of the text itself makes small plot drifts forgivable. I didn't mind, for instance, that the parents at the end of Back To The Future were somehow employing Biff Tanner, despite the fact in that same timeline he had attempted to rape Marty's mother and bullied George mercilessly, but that was only because the kind of movie it was (and to a degree the era in which it was made) seemed to allow this obvious problem. In something with more sober subject matter, though, that kind of headscratcher can really be a problem.

    Also junk science, as Jack alluded to. I'm thinking like the movies Armageddon or Day After Tomorrow which (regardless of what fans claim) were marketed with some degree of scientific authority as part of the platform, yet have plots that make no sense to anybody with even rudimentary knowledge of their subject matter (nuking asteroids, etc). These are issues of fundamental credibility and are at the core concept of the plot. Even an excellent script and wonderful characters would not have avoided it. On the other hand, not always. Jurassic Park's bogus stuff about mosquito DNA did not cause me to not take the movie seriously. In that case it was because I found the overarching theory - that dinosaurs could be brought back to life through cloning - to be sound enough and Crichton did a good job of forming a plot that was sound but for the issue of how the dinosaur DNA was retrieved. Plus I didn't get the feeling he was asserting any kind of factual basis - was not saying 'this could happen' unlike the first two examples.

    Add to the list of almost any Hollywood historical movie since 1990: minor oversights, anachronisms/errors in details and fictionalization/sensationalism of characters and events is all okay, especially in a movie that does not sell itself as being 'history' but when it's a book or movie that tries to advertise some degree of fact but contains a central plot that runs entirely against what is known to have actually happened that's a credibility problem in my opinion.

    So basically, yeah, I agree with you, I just want to underscore that it sometimes is indeed the plot that hurts suspension of disbelief.
    Last edited by Blackstone; March 31st, 2018 at 09:50 AM.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Jack of all trades View Post
    I'm thinking of things like breaking the laws of the universe or the nation. That sort of thing seems like a plot problem to me. Unless you're creating a new universe, friction slows things down, gravity pulls things down, and a US mail truck would have to be returned at the end of the day, and you're not likely to bump into the president during a tour of the White House. (Although I can think of a way to make the last one believable.)
    Quote Originally Posted by Blackstone View Post
    I agree with this as being the most common problem, however would want to emphasize that errors in the plot are often just as severe a threat to credibility as poor characterization and execution.

    I usually don't get too fastidious on this, though. Sometimes the nature of the text itself makes small plot drifts forgivable. I didn't mind, for instance, that the parents at the end of Back To The Future were somehow employing Biff Tanner, despite the fact in that same timeline he had attempted to rape Marty's mother and bullied George mercilessly, but that was only because the kind of movie it was (and to a degree the era in which it was made) seemed to allow this obvious problem. In something with more sober subject matter, though, that kind of headscratcher can really be a problem.

    Also junk science, as Jack alluded to. I'm thinking like the movies Armageddon or Day After Tomorrow which (regardless of what fans claim) were marketed with some degree of scientific authority as part of the platform, yet have plots that make no sense to anybody with even rudimentary knowledge of their subject matter (nuking asteroids, etc). These are issues of fundamental credibility and are at the core concept of the plot. Even an excellent script and wonderful characters would not have avoided it. On the other hand, not always. Jurassic Park's bogus stuff about mosquito DNA did not cause me to not take the movie seriously. In that case it was because I found the overarching theory - that dinosaurs could be brought back to life through cloning - to be sound enough and Crichton did a good job of forming a plot that was sound but for the issue of how the dinosaur DNA was retrieved. Plus I didn't get the feeling he was asserting any kind of factual basis - was not saying 'this could happen' unlike the first two examples.

    Add to the list of almost any Hollywood historical movie since 1990: minor oversights, anachronisms/errors in details and fictionalization/sensationalism of characters and events is all okay, especially in a movie that does not sell itself as being 'history' but when it's a book or movie that tries to advertise some degree of fact but contains a central plot that runs entirely against what is known to have actually happened that's a credibility problem in my opinion.

    So basically, yeah, I agree with you, I just want to underscore that it sometimes is indeed the plot that hurts suspension of disbelief.
    I'd still put plausibility in the 'story' box almost every time (except for those instances where the plot directly contradicts historical fact, unless there's a good reason for those 'facts' to be ignored -- as with alternative history novels). Without the breaking of 'universal' laws, most science fiction would not exist. For instance, there's no way to travel faster than light without violating the laws of physics. Even wormholes and Tacyon drives, though mathematically possible, still create problems that slam head-on into physics, but that hasn't stopped writers from using FTL drives for decades.

    The plot of Armageddon is a comet on a collision course with Earth and what to do about it. That's a good plot -- it's actually going to happen someday. The story they told around that plot is what sucked. Since the plot of The Day After Tomorrow hinged on the rapidity of the climate change, I'd agree that one is a plot issue. Plot issues do happen. I'm not trying to say every plot can be saved by a good story, but I think it's far easier to save a questionable plot idea with some terrific story-telling than it is for a terrific plot to overcome a bad execution.
    “Fools” said I, “You do not know
    Silence like a cancer grows
    Hear my words that I might teach you
    Take my arms that I might reach you”
    But my words like silent raindrops fell
    And echoed in the wells of silence : Simon & Garfunkel


    Those who enjoy stirring the chamber-pot should be required to lick the spoon.

    Our job as writers is to make readers dream, to infiltrate their minds with our words and create a new reality; a reality not theirs, and not ours, but a new, unique combination of both.

    Visit Amazon and the Kindle Store to check out Reflections in a Black Mirror, and Chase

    Hidden Content






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