Story vs Plot

Plot-Holes_No15When I was starting out as a writer, one word that bothered me more than any other was PLOT.

I knew a story had to have a plot (well, most stories I liked seemed to have one). But I wasn’t good at coming up with them, and that weighed on me. Whenever I sat down to write a story of my own, I never started with plot. I started with an image, or a memory, or at most a vague idea of what I wanted to do.

So I usually put off thinking about plot as long as I could. The idea of it seemed too mechanical, too structured for the messy, meandering, intuitive way I got a story onto the page. And I thought that my way was wrong — that plot was one of those elements of writing that I should be good at, that without understanding it and becoming expert at it, I wasn’t really a writer.

I liked the word story a lot more. Story was something I felt I knew, deeply and intuitively rather than as an intellectual abstraction. Like most people, I’d grown up being told stories, reading stories, making up my own stories (often to get out of trouble, or start some). Even today, if someone starts to tell a story, I can feel the kid in me relax into that calm readiness to listen.

At some point as a writer I remembered this truth: that story lived deep in me in a way that plot didn’t. Eventually I stopped worrying so much about plot. What I was doing was telling a story. Or growing one, maybe. That seemed a better metaphor. A story is something that grows. 

And I also began to notice that short stories didn’t necessarily need a lot of plot, that in fact they were often better without much of it. 

With each writing project I know that sooner or later I’ll have to grapple with plot. But it’s not really a struggle anymore, it’s more like a useful tension. Plot is part of the process. Or maybe it’s the bones, the skeleton in whatever the story is growing to be.

Many beginning writers are uncertain about the distinction between story and plot, or simply use the words interchangeably without thinking about what they mean.

Maybe the best way to illustrate what I see as the difference between story and plot is (surprise surprise) by way of a story:


Long ago, when I was a little boy, I always looked forward to the end of the day, because that was when my father would tell me a plot.

Most kids hate bedtime, but I loved it because my father was such a wonderful plot-teller.  “It’s plot-time, Dad,” I would shout when the clock struck eight. I’d hurriedly brush my teeth, put on my pajamas, and hop into bed. Then Dad would come into my room and sit on the edge of my bed. How vividly I remember the faint, comforting scent of tobacco from his knitted sweater (he smoked a pipe, much to my mother’s dismay, and then one day he just quit, cold turkey, and started competing in marathons). I remember the deepening winter twilight outside the window, and the feeling of being safe and cozy in my bed mingling with the exciting certainty that I was about to be swept away into the abstract realm of a narrative schematic.

Sometimes I asked my father for the same plot I’d heard the night before, and sometimes I’d ask for a new one. Dad was very good at setting the plots out clearly and concisely so that I could follow the narrative sequence without the hindrances of mood, atmosphere, evocative sensory detail, tension, suspense, or anything else having to do with style and imagination.

Before he began, Dad would always hem and haw for a bit, pretending that he just wasn’t feeling very structuralist tonight. I would protest and whine, and then at last, once he’d got me sufficiently fired up, he’d finally give in and start to tell a plot.

“This is the plot of The Sword in the Stone,” Dad would state in his most clinical and detached voice. “The protagonist is Arthur. The exposition is as follows: as a baby Arthur is given to Sir Ector to raise in secret so that no one will know the child is the son of King Uther. Arthur grows up in Ector’s household. One day Sir Ector and his son Kay travel to London for a tournament. Arthur goes along as Kay’s squire. The inciting incident occurs when Arthur forgets Kay’s sword. There isn’t enough time for Arthur to run back to the camp to get the sword. Then he sees a sword sticking out of a stone in a churchyard. Protagonist breaks taboo: Arthur pulls out the sword and gives it to Kay. Sir Ector recognizes the sword as the one from the stone and asks Arthur how he got it. Kay lies and says he drew out the sword (minor setback). Then Kay admits that Arthur did it. They return to the stone and Arthur puts the sword back and draws it out again. The news spreads and people gather to see what’s going on. Other knights try to draw the sword, but only Arthur can do it. There is much anger and confusion, creating mounting tension leading to the turning point, when Merlin the magician appears and announces that Arthur is able to draw the sword because he is the rightful heir to the throne of England. A new equilibrium is reached, with the protagonist elevated in status.”

What a wonderful plot. One of my favourites. I asked my father for that one many times, and each time I’d sink down into my pillow, letting the pure temporal logic of a well-constructed sequence of narrative events carry me toward sleep…



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