The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” E.M. Forster.

How are plot and story different? What is at the heart of a story? How is plot driven forward? As a reader none of these matter. As a writer they are key to creating a novel that sticks in the mind of your reader.

So what’s going on? Let’s start with Story:

Any time you recall a series of events, you are telling a story. LOTR tells Frodo’s story – how he got the ring, and how he got rid of the ring. At first consideration it sounds dull and clinical but then we remember that the story is told from someone’s POV, interpreted according to that character’s emotion and agenda, experience and baggage. Add to that the voice of the character, narrator, and author and the story comes to life.

So what is Plot then?

Plot is how you, the writer, choose to have those sequences play out in your novel in order to present them in the most engaging way. Plot provides dramatic effect, picking out certain scenes over others on which to focus.  Plot is Gandalf falling from the bridge of Khazad-dûm, and not being seen again until he is discovered by Pippin and Merry in Fangorn Forest.

So, you need both, right?

Most of the time, yes. And this is often the key to writing a truly memorable book – get the balance between plot and story right and you’re on to a winner: an engaging, exciting novel, with depth and meaning.

A novel without plot is likely to be a whimsical exploration of character, with a lot of talking or thinking, but nothing much happening. 

A novel without story will be all bang and flash and you’ll be riding those rollercoaster scenes and be thrilled. For a while, until you realise that you just don’t care anymore what happens.

It can be done – but the execution must be flawless. In movie terms, think Raiders of the Lost Arc (all plot, very little story) or Lost in Translation (all story … possibly no plot at all!)

The trick is for the plot to complement the story, and vice versa, both showing the other in its best light.

Here’s another example:

Consider all the TV adaptations of the Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler books. The story in each remains the same, but to make them longer, the screenwriters add additional plot.

One of the key points to remember about plot is that it should be character-led. 

Practical tips to achieve this:

  • Make sure you’re working from a solid story by mapping out the sequence of events in a chronological time line, as a passive onlooker
  • Find the heart of your story by examining theme, character want and need
  • A balanced story should be able to be simplified into a pitch: Character/Goal/Obstacle/Stakes
  • Your characters should develop – make sure they are changed by their experiences
  • There are lots of different tools to help you plot – see: Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s journey; Kurt Vonnegut’s visual maps; Dan Harmon’s circle of return and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, to name just a few
  • To ensure your characters are driving the plot, present them with a clear goal and obstacle, which in turn leads to a decision with consequence, preferably in every scene
  • Plan set pieces, then use the story to knit them together
  • For younger readers, plot more or less following the story timeline. For older readers you can play with what you reveal, and when

Keep in mind: Too much plot, plods. What plot adds to pace with one hand, it can take away with the other.

A very quick word on Sub plots

Sub plots serve to enhance the main storyline by adding depth and emotional meaning. They are often love stories or clashes between secondary characters, think Aragorn and Arwen, Boromir and Denethor. They raise the tension around the central story thread. Use them sparing and ruthlessly – they must contribute, or die (and not be more interesting than the main plot!)

A task to challenge you on your plot v story spotting skills:

Watch any Pixar movie and see if you can identify what is story and what is plot. Pixar are masters at both, weaving them together until they are barely discernible.  

Emma was once a very sensible biologist. Now she uses her transferable talents such as attention to detail, patience and fine motor skills, to extract Lego from under the sofa. And of course to write children’s books.

Her favourite things in the world are: badges, Death On the Nile, hats, foxes, deserts, desserts and Buck Rogers. Her one regret in life is never having trained to be an astronaut.

When not writing her own books, you can find Emma helping other writers at WriteMentor, as a Spark Mentor and a course tutor.