The Concept Was Simple (then writers started talking about it)
No concept is more basic to fiction writing than the concept of a story. After all, that’s the whole freaking point. We’re out to tell a story. The tricky part is telling a story well, which is to say interestingly. That’s what the plot is for. At its core, that is the difference between story and plot.
Story: Everything that’s happening in your fictional world, on or off stage, known or unknown to your POV character at any given time. It is the whole of the “real world” in your made up world.
Plot: The events that actually happen in front of the reader.
Put more simply, the difference is
Story: All the shit that matters, whether or not anyone actually sees it or does it.
Plot: All the shit – and, more importantly, only the shit – that your characters and/or narrator see and/or do.
This is an incredibly simple concept. Like most simple writing concepts, writers have written about it so much, and thrown around so many opinions about it, and felt so compelled to opine grandly about it, that it’s now completely fucked up. We have books and blogs telling people that story is the emotional journey, while plot is the physical journey. Print books that say, “story tells you what happened” (OK so far) and “plot is why it happened” (and then you fucked it up).
Don’t get me wrong, there are more nuanced and insightful concepts here, particularly with regard to plot. The problem is, many writers, including some creative writing teachers, seem to have come in on the tail end of the nuanced discussion, decided that’s what plot means, and confuse that nuance for a definition. Usually ending up with a definition that comes very close to being the opposite of what it should be.
So we’re not going to do it that way. It’s a hell of a lot easier to put the horse in front of the cart, and nail the principal distinction first.
Story: A man drives to the store and buys whipping cream.
Plot: A man has a pint of fresh strawberries and decides he wants some whipped cream to go with them. He backs his car out of the garage, drives to the end of his street, and makes a right. He reaches a stoplight and, when it turns green, makes a left into the store parking lot. He parks his car, goes to the dairy case and finds heavy whipping cream is on sale. He buys a carton and pays at the self-checkout.
That’s the difference. The story is an event (or, in a novel, a whole series of events). The plot is the thought and the action that describe the event. End of (hehe) story.
The Story of Story and Plot
We can get a little help here from etymology. We get the word “story” from, not surprisingly, the word “history.” First to the Greeks and then in Latin, the word came down as “historia.” It was initially “a chronicle of events,” meaning real ones, but in 1500, the word “story” came to include recounting of fictional events. The function was the same. A story is the basic, underlying historical event, even if it’s a made up history about vampires or intergalactic warriors. It only has one timeframe, which is the order in which the events occurred. Nothing but the chronology of events matters.
Plot has a fittingly murky history (the plot thickens). It’s possible that we get the word from the middle French word “complot” (which means a conspiracy). It also derives (or complot is related to) plot, as in plot of land, which may or may not be related to plat (which is a map of said plots, although sometimes plot also meant map). In 1901 philologist, Walter William Skeat boldly predicted, “When the words complot, platform and plot (of ground) have all been thoroughly worked out, we may be confident that the mode of formation of plot a conspiracy will appear.”
Apparently, Bill and I are the only people who get geeked out on this stuff enough to care, because nobody’s gotten around to working it out. And it gets even weirder if you try to go earlier than Billy W did, possibly coming to complot via comepeloter, a really, really old fucking word that means roll a ball.
The funny thing is, no matter where it comes from, it still means the same thing when it comes to plotting stories. It is a plan, overview, map, or conspiracy. Or, I guess, the shit that gets the ball rolling, which is probably the best definition of all.
One way or the other, by about 1580, plot meant to plan or map. So, before 1600, we have:
Story: A chronology of events.
Plot: A map or scheme.
Which means we just took the simple answer and made it simpler. And probably more accurate. It’s fairly easy to look at questions of story and plot realizing that, at their base they simply mean these things. A guy goes to the store is story. He has to make a right out of his subdivision to get there is plot.
So, How’d it Get all Fucked Up?
Writers did it. It started with E. M. Forster, a genius at plotting. In 1927, he gave a series of lectures, which were later published as Aspects of a Novel. The thing is, Forster nailed it, and his explanation is brilliant. Unfortunately, his example seems to be the only thing anyone paid attention to.
‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.
In the context of his lecture, it’s a great example. Cut out and isolated, it leads to people stating, then repeating, the wrong premise. “The queen died of grief” is not the plot because it tells why she died. It is the plot because that is the character’s experience in the story. It has nothing to do with cause and effect or action/reaction or any of the other things people have spent ninety years saying plot means. It’s the plot because, instead of turning a left to get whipped cream, she turned dead because she was grieving.
In the same lecture, Forster said, “A plot demands intelligence and memory on the part of the reader, to remember incidents and create connecting threads between them.” It’s ironic, because a significant minority, if not the majority, of the people who use his analysis seem to lack said intelligence and memory, because they keep forgetting the fucking connection he was making.
Cause and effect is a huge component of plot, story couldn’t care less about either. Motivations often drive characters’ actions, which usually drive plots, but that does not make those motivations the plot. It’s just that motivations are not the story. The story is: A happened, then B happened, then C happened. Even if you choose to start your story at C, then drop back to B and only tell A through flashbacks, the story remains the same. First A, then B, then C. You are making decisions about your plot, how and when you make those things happen and reveal them to the reader with flashbacks and out-of-sequence narrative. None of that changes the story one bit.
For example, the story in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather starts with Vito Corleone’s father being killed and Vito fleeing to the U.S. He is a shop clerk, meets a shady friend, hates being ripped off by a mobster, and becomes one himself. Although the book starts long after he’s reached the pinnacle of power and not long before his death, the Story starts at a very different time and in a very different place. Because a story is always chronological, even if the plot is not.
Back to Simple Stuff that Makes Sense
If you think of your novel as a play, plot is the stuff that happens on the stage. If it doesn’t happen on the stage, it is not part of the plot. A nuclear explosion may be central to the story you are telling – and therefore be a key story element – but it probably isn’t happening on the stage. So it’s not part of the plot. Your characters hearing about or reacting to it, because that is what happens on stage, may be less important to the story than the explosion, but it is far more important to the plot. Because those reactions are the plot.
When you hear someone begin to explain the difference between plot and story with talk about how vague, nuanced, or theoretical the differences are, your bullshit meter should start going off. If it’s within the chronological list of events you are relating in your book, it’s story. If it happens onstage, it’s plot. A lot of things are both, like buying the whipped cream. It’s key to the story, it also took place on the stage, so it fits both definitions. If a thermonuclear war starts while the man is buying his whipped cream, it could be key to the story, but it will only become part of the plot when something related to it shows up on stage. Making a right out of the parking lot to head back home is a plot element, but that act, in itself, is not story.
That’s about all there is to it.