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Pretend someone asks you this: “How was your flight?”
What do you tell them: the story of your flight or the plot?
The plot is easy. “After a brief delay, we took off at New York LaGuardia, ascended to 35,000 feet, and then landed safely in LAX.”
But that’s not what people want to know. We think in terms of stories: the experiences that ebbed from our original expectations and the emotional context.
The story of the flight was that the delay took too long, there was a baby crying in coach, and I almost lost my bag because a stranger picked mine up—it turned out, we tied the exact same color ribbon to the handle.
What is a storyline if not a plot, and vice versa? It’s the difference between those two answers. If you want to know how to write a story that resonates with people, you’ll want to understand plot vs. story — especially when it comes to your own fiction.
Imagine you’re a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. You look around and you see the rich world of Middle Earth: jagged distant mountains, mythical forests, winding rivers. Then you look at your map and see various points plotted between you and your destination of Mount Doom.
The difference between plot and story is the same as the difference between that map and the world around it.
Your story is the entirety of the situation you write, especially what happens to the characters who inhabit that world. The plot is the series of events necessary for the story to unfold.
They might sound like the same thing. After all, a story is just a series of events, isn’t it?
Not exactly. Consider the classic poem, Dante’s Divine Comedy. The plot is nearly geographical, as Dante descends the circles of hell and then climbs the mountain of purgatory to heaven.
But the story is about the perils and joys Dante encounters on his journey back to divine love. By focusing on the inner world of his narrator and the powerful emotional events that unfold through the plot, Dante weaves together a timeless story that transcends his nearly mechanical world-building. Plot vs. story, in this case, couldn’t be more clear.
The plot consists of the nuts and bolts of the story, but the story is the emotional engine that drives our interest.
That might sound like it minimizes the role of plot vs. story, and it shouldn’t. The plot is simply a list of checkpoints to move a story along and capture our interest. Effectively told, a plot consists of the literal sequence of events that unfold for our characters. These often overlap with the story itself, true. But they don’t sum it up.
How do you weigh plot vs. story? You can tell if you have a good plot if it works in isolation. In James Cameron’s Titanic, we could describe the plot simply: a poor young man and rich young woman fall in love as the ill-fated journey of the Titanic unfolds. That’s a description of the plot, but it sure has elements of an engaging story: the conflict and tension are built right in.
It’s not as complete as a story, but as a plot, it’s enough to make us wonder: When the characters face a challenge, what happens next?
How to Write a Plot
The plot may contain some of the most formulaic elements of your story structure. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. These elements comprise a “formula” because they work. You’ll need the following:
- A protagonist. It’s Alice in Wonderland, after all, not The Wonderland. Without a protagonist driving and experiencing the action, there won’t be much plot to go on.
- An inciting event. There wouldn’t be a Miracle on the Hudson without that first bird strike and engine failure. They don’t make movies about regular flights. And your plot doesn’t kick into gear until the protagonist’s world has been turned upside-down in some way.
- A “step through a doorway.” It’s not enough to have an inciting event. What if the main character can just walk back into their own life and say, “Well, I’m glad I turned that opportunity down”? A plot doesn’t feel like a story until you’ve introduced an element that says, “There’s no going back.” In Star Wars, this happens when Luke Skywalker returns home and finds his family has been killed by the evil Empire. There’s no going back for him.
- A devastating fall. A plot tends to be more engaging if there is still the possibility of total failure. Let’s stick with Star Wars. Remember that the fate of the Rebellion hung on a thread by the end—either Luke was going to nail his shot and destroy the Death Star or everything would be lost.
- A climax. Han Solo takes his money and runs, the Rebellion is running out of fighters, and the Death Star is approaching the rebel base. The climax is the events that unfold and create the make-or-break action that will define the entire story.
There’s one more important element to mention. A plot doesn’t feel organic unless it springs out of real-life decisions and consequences.
A plot shouldn’t merely happen to the main character. It should happen because of them. Even in real life, the Miracle on the Hudson wouldn’t be quite as enthralling if Captain Sullenberger had let autopilot do all of the work, would it?
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The story is the whole shebang: the experience, the emotional context, and the changes your characters face as a result of the plot. What is a story if there’s no transformation by the end?
In context, the story is much bigger than a synopsis of the plot. Let’s go back to Titanic. The story is about Rose—her life before Titanic, the experiences and troubles during the sinking, and the changed woman she was after the rescue. The plot keeps us interested; the story keeps us caring.
How to Write a Story
To write a story, you need two important elements:
- A meaningful change in the life (or lives) of the characters
- A thematic spin that provides the events with context
The simplest way to see how stories work is to look at children’s fables, because both elements will be obvious.
Take Cinderella, which has them both. Cinderella undergoes a literal transformation from an oppressed young woman to royalty. There’s your meaningful change. The story is about the power of kindness and hope overcoming even the most terrible circumstances. There’s your theme.
A story needs both elements at some level to work in any satisfying way. Without a change, readers wonder, “Why am I reading this story where nothing happens?” And without a theme, we ask, “What was the point of reading that?”
Is the whole plot vs. story dichotomy making sense yet? Good.
Now let’s throw a wrench into it.
You might hear about movies and books having great premises. The premise is the lay of the land. It’s the choice you make to set the plot and story into motion, but not the plot or story themselves.
One of the great premises you’ll ever see came in the 1993 film Groundhog Day. The premise goes back to the beginning, the blueprint of the story itself. What if someone lived the same day on repeat? The plot is that a TV weatherman uses a repeating day to eventually rediscover his love for life. The story is the moral redemption of Phil Connors.
Let’s bring it back to the map analogy for a moment. The premise is the lay of the land. The plot is the map of landmarks that guides you through it. The story is everything else, especially what changes from one side of the landscape to the other.
How Does the Premise Relate to Plot vs. Storyline?
Think of a good premise as a good start, but not the entire story. There are premises so tantalizing or fraught with kinetic energy that they beg us to start reading.
- Stephen King’s Under the Dome starts with a small town suddenly trapped under a great translucent dome.
- David Benioff’s coming-of-age tale City of Thieves requires its two main characters to find eggs for a wedding cake—only behind enemy lines during the Siege of Leningrad.
- Emily Carpenter’s The Weight of Lies features a main character investigating the murder behind her mother’s best-selling novel.
What do they all have in common? They’re ripe with potential. Note that these premises don’t really tell you anything about what happens as the events of the story unfold. They’re simply the unique scenarios against which the stories are set.
All three words here relate to what happens as you write a story. But if you understand the role that each plays in the development of your story, you’ll have a much clearer outlook on how to get started.
Begin with a premise and characters, weave the events together into a plot, and then start looking for the thematic elements that turn it into a story worth reading.
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