Plot and Story: What’s the Difference?

When I started writing fiction, I used the terms “plot” and “story” interchangeably. I later learned there are big differences between plot and story. Recently, Writer’s Digest magazine brought together three story masters to discuss story structure. James Scott Bell, Donald Maass and Christopher Vogler shed light on the differences between plot and story.

Bell, the best-selling suspense writer, said it well. “Plot is the arrangement of story incidents. It’s a simple concept, but within that one must then use all aspects of the craft to create freshness and originality,” Bell said.

He continued, “The reason plot and structure are so crucial is that this is how readers are wired to receive a story. To the extent you ignore them, you frustrate readers and reduce the reach of your book. For some that may be what they want to do. Experiment. It’s a free country, so no problem—just as long as you understand the consequences.”

Here’s what noted literary agent Donald Maass had to say: “Plot, to me, is shorthand for the sequence of external, observable events that comprise a story. It’s the things that happen. And unless things happen it’s hard to give a story impact.

“What many authors need are stronger events,” Maass said. “Most pull punches, underplay and basically wimp out. Strong story events feel big, surprise readers and evenshock them. There are ways to do that deliberately. One is magnifying events, both in their outward, observable sense and in their inner impact. For instance, you can work backward to make a certain event a protagonist’s worst fear. Better still, you can take something a protagonist must do and make it something that character has sworn *never* to do. Or you can work with an event’s consequences, finding unexpected damage to inflict or unlooked for gifts to give. There are lots of ways to make events strong. A string of strong events is what we call a great plot.”

Read the full interview here.

Think of a novel as a home under construction. The plot is the frame. The story is the finished house. Carrying the analogy one step further, the characters are the foundation. Stories are about people—flawed people who go on a journey and emerge on the other side fundamentally changed.

Stephen King admits he doesn’t plot his novels. In his book, On Writing, King shared his thoughts on plotting:

“I distrust plot for two reasons: because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow…”

On Writing, by Stephen King, page 163

When I come up with an idea for a novel, I sit down and identify about a dozen major milestone events that will move the story forward. You could call this plotting. I agree with King to the extent that as I am writing a novel, I often discover ways of getting from Point A to Point B that I had not envisioned. I’ve also discovered that Point B isn’t the place I want to end up, and that’s okay too. That’s the “spontaneity of real creation” King spoke about.

Do you believe in plot or do you agree with Stephen King? How extensively do you plot your novels?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Plot and Story: What’s the Difference?

  1. I’ll take the frustrating middle ground and agree with both perspectives. Some stories require a plot line to keep the narrative moving. Others are more character driven, where a series of events matters to the story, but they are more haphazard and less critical to the story itself. They’re just a vehicle to illicit responses from the characters.

    Of course I can’t claim anywhere near the number of book length projects that King has under his belt, so I’ll freely acknowledge that he knows what he’s talking about. There’s room for dissent in any creative work, however. So I say, go with whatever works for you, and for that particular story. There’s nothing writing it all wrong if the finished product is a successful and satisfying story.

    • Jamie,
      Thanks for your comment. I do a lot of pre-writing and pre-outlining in my head. I make the attempt to write an outline at the beginning of a project, especially since my first novel strayed so far from what I initially envisioned. Writers do need to keep an open mind and be receptive to those surprises that pop into their heads as they unleash their creativity. Over-plotting can kill creativity. Under-plotting can lead to a lot of frustration as the writer wonders if he really has a story or not.

      Chris

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