5.1 PLOT VERSUS STORY
What is the difference?
You can have a story without a plot, but there can be no plot without story. Ideally, of course, you’d have both.
The story is simply the dry timeline of events that happen in your work. It takes the reader from A to B by simply answering the question ‘What happens next?’
The plot is the device that tells you why it happens in the way it does. Plot is what keeps your readers interested in what happens next.
One famous example of story versus plot goes like this:
‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story – it tells you what happened. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot, because it tells you (at least a little of) why it happened.
Let’s look at a more detailed example.
‘Elena got up in the morning. After she dressed, she went downstairs to the kitchen, kissed her father on the cheek and then sat at her place. She ate her toast quietly. Once she’d finished her breakfast, she made her way to school. At lunchtime she ate her sandwiches in the playground. The afternoon passed quickly, and after school she met her friend Abby in the café in between their houses, sharing a milkshake. She got home before her father, made jacket potatoes for their supper, then did her homework. After supper she washed up, said goodnight to her father and went to bed.’
That’s a story. It’s pretty dry and dull, but it is a story and it takes us through a basic sequence of events.
Story is what happens.
Plot is why it happens.
To write a plot you have to explore and interrogate why an event occurs, who it’s happening to, and what that means for the story, the characters, and the reader. Some questions a plot should answer include:
- Who is the protagonist? What is their goal?
- Who is the antagonist? What is their goal?
- What are the conflicts faced by protagonist and antagonist?
- What impact do the protagonist, antagonist and conflict that have on what happens next?
- Why is it important?
So let’s look at the above again, only this time we’ll add a few whys to the mix and see what we get.
‘Elena got up in the morning. After she dressed, she went downstairs to the kitchen, kissed her father on the cheek and then sat at her place. She ate her toast quietly, letting the bread turn to mush in her mouth so she wouldn’t disturb her father with her chewing. Once she’d finished her breakfast, she made her way to school. At lunchtime she ate her sandwiches in the playground, grateful to avoid the attention of Miles Miller and his gang of thugs in the cafeteria. The afternoon passed quickly, and after school she met her friend Abby in the café in between their houses, sharing a milkshake. Abby had texted while Elena had been in maths, saying she needed to see her urgently. Elena had felt the buzz of her phone, hidden illegally in her schoolbag, against her foot, and had coughed to cover the sound, though she hadn’t fooled Miles Miller, who’d turned in his seat and smiled nastily at her. She got home before her father, made jacket potatoes for their supper, then did her homework, barely able to concentrate, her thoughts returning to what Abby had told her. After supper she washed up, said goodnight to her father and went to bed.’
While this example isn’t going to win any literary prizes, what it does do is illustrate how a few whys have introduced the elements of plot to the paragraph. The story tells us Elena lives with her father, but the plot tells us he is possibly a strict and easily irritated man – we know this because Elena tries very hard not to disturb him, to the point of not chewing her breakfast – so we can ask ourselves why is he like this? We know she ate her lunch alone outside, because she was trying to avoid someone called Miles Miller and his friends in the school cafeteria. This potential conflict is referenced again, when Elena realises Miles Miller has heard her phone vibrate, so now he has something he can hold over her. And we know this because Elena thinks of her phone as being illegally in her schoolbag, and by the way she tries to hide the sound it makes. Finally, we know she met her friend Abby who told her something, something so distracting she keeps thinking about it.
We have a basic plot! We have a protagonist (Elena), an antagonist (Miles, and possible also Elena’s father), we have conflict (Elena and Miles), we have intrigue (whatever Abby told Elena). A plot exists inside the story.
Another crucial point is that while plots can change, and those changes will alter the direction, tone and even genre of the story, basic stories usually don’t. The same basic story can be plotted in multiple ways. Let’s look at another example, using the original text.
‘Elena got up in the morning, snoozing her alarm three times before she managed to drag herself from her bed. After she dressed, she went downstairs to the kitchen, kissed her father on the cheek and then sat at her place. She ate her toast quietly, distracted, ignoring her father’s concerned eyes on her. Once she’d finished her breakfast, she made her way to school, her heart racing in her chest at the thought of seeing him, soon. At lunchtime she ate her sandwiches in the playground, pretending not to watch Miles Miller playing football with his friends, pretending they hadn’t been awake until 2am, messaging back and forth, pretending it didn’t hurt that he wouldn’t look at her, smile at her, talk to her when his friends were around. The afternoon passed quickly, and after school she met her friend Abby in the café in between their houses, sharing a milkshake, listening to Abby talk about her boyfriend, all the while wishing she could tell Abby she’d met someone too, wishing she hadn’t promised not to tell anyone. She got home before her father, made jacket potatoes for their supper, then did her homework, one eye on her phone, praying it would light up. After supper she washed up, said goodnight to her father and went to bed, waiting for Miles to text.’
Now we have a different plot. Now we have a young girl who seems to be in a relationship of some kind with a boy who doesn’t want anyone to know about it – a definite source of conflict: will it stay a secret? What happens if it doesn’t? Why does he want it to be a secret? We know the relationship means something to Elena, we can surmise it probably means more to her than it does to Miles given he is the one insisting they stay hidden – what does that mean for her, will he use her feelings against her? We also know her father in this version seems like a kinder man, he’s worried about her, he knows something is wrong with her – will he step in? Will Elena’s relationship with him deteriorate because of it?
You can begin to write with either a plot, or a story. Writing from a story-based beginning means you likely know how it begins, how it ends, and the major story beats, but you haven’t yet worked out all of the nitty-gritty in between. You might not have a full cast of characters yet, but you have a solid structure to work towards. You have the skeleton of your tale and a healthy sense of direction and purpose.
Writing from a plot-based beginning means your tale is character led. Your ideas about what will happen throughout are vaguer and less fixed, but allowing your characters to lead the story means unexpected things can happen which won’t derail the story structure should they begin to behave in ways you hadn’t anticipated.
Neither approach is right, neither approach is better, and both can have critical pitfalls. Starting with story can sometimes mean a tale is light on plot, so it’s hard to get readers invested and engaged – rather than a book, you’re left with a series of vignettes or scenes with little connecting them or justifying them. Starting with plot can make for meandering stories that wander all over the page and are frustrating to write, as you feel no one is in control and there’s no sense of direction. The lack of focus can be disheartening at best, and boring at worst.
The best books happen when story and plot work together and inform each other. For every big beat you want to hit, make sure the whys of it are explored and justified. For every detail and emotion and you provide, anchor it to something solid in the story.
Suggested writing task
Look at what you have planned for your novel – is it story or plot? Where can you add some detail of the ‘why’ to the ‘what’ happens? Sit down now and add in this new detail to your plan or outline or synopsis.
Melinda Salisbury is the bestselling author of YA fantasy The Sin Eater’s Daughter series, the political fantasy Sorrow duology, and most recently Scottish folk-horror, Hold Back The Tide. Her books have been licensed in fourteen countries to date, and she’s been nominated and shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Carnegie Medal twice, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and the Edgar Awards in the US. She is a fierce advocate for working-class writers.
Melinda is a Spark Mentor.