Plot vs. Story

The difference between plot and story can be hard to figure out for a beginning writer. Often confused for the same thing, the two really couldn’t be more different, or more dependent on each other. After writing for a while, you do start to differentiate them. Knowing the difference can help you gain a greater appreciation for the stories you love, and help you improve your work in ways you never thought possible.

There is one project that has been giving me such trouble, a thriller that I’ve been wanting to do since I was a good deal shorter. Everything seemed in place with a setting I loved and a topic I was passionate about. When I tried writing it though, I had to stop 15 pages in because it was clear it wasn’t working. Reading my characters, I just didn’t care. They were only going through a sequence of events, no significant changes to be had by the end. I had a plot, but there was nothing inside that put magic in it.

That’s the best way to tell the difference between plot and story. You take a look at a story you love, and at first glance it look’s pretty easy to say what it’s about. Take Star Wars for example. That’s pretty simple, a group of rebels try to take down an oppressive empire in a galaxy far, far away. It is a fun western style space adventure. But stopping there is a mistake, because that’s not what makes Star Wars special.

Ultimately, Star Wars is the story of two characters, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Vader has sided with the Empire and seeks to destroy the things his son holds dear, while Luke tries to find a way to convince his father that his views are worth fighting for. In the end, Vader choses his son over his old viewpoints and sacrifices his life to save him, paving the way for a better, more peaceful galaxy. That’s the story of Star Wars. All the space battles and lightsaber duels are just dressing for what lies underneath.

How about To Kill a Mockingbird? The plot is a lawyer risks his reputation by defending an African American man falsely accused of rape. What’s the story though? The story is about his children. Witnessing bigotry in all its ugliness, their childhood innocence is shattered, but they get it back due to an act of random kindness from a neighbor they once feared.

A story keeps your reader or viewer from asking that question ‘Why should I care?’ In all of the above listed examples, the viewer has a good reason to care. Plenty of science fiction stories came out with aspirations to be the next Star Wars, but none of them achieved the same level of success because they were nothing but lasers and space fights. Many books and films came out dealing with racism and hatred after To Kill a Mockingbird, but none had the gut punch of showing how those evils destroy children.

This is not to say that plot isn’t important. Plot is what gives a story its character, providing a unique finish that creates something completely new. You can make a quest about destroying an evil ring or killing a giant shark. You can set a tale of reconciliation in a suburban neighborhood or a high rise overrun by terrorists. You can put a tale of lost innocence on a set of railroad tracks in Oregon or on a river in Vietnam’s jungles.

Plots are the little differences between stories that allow us to tell them apart. They are ways to customize stories for any type of viewer with a variety of genres like horror, fantasy, science fiction, and action, allowing you to reach people that were otherwise uninterested. Someone might not be too interested in the tale of a working woman overcoming her past demons, but if that woman is Sigourney Weaver and those demons are acid bleeding monsters, you will turn a few more heads.

The plot is great, but sometimes it’s too easy to get lost in it and lose sight of what gives a narrative its power. It’s not hard to see why, especially in genres that rely on creative worlds, frightening imagery and spectacular set pieces, but those things can’t sustain a narrative on its own. You look something like the recent flop, Gods of Egypt. It has a simple straightforward plot and is jam packed with creative and beautiful creatures and set pieces. Underneath it though, there’s nothing. Having plot with no story is like coming to a party with the most delicious icing in the world, but forgetting the cake to put it on.

It seems my thriller fell into that same trap, with an over reliance on its premise and no real care or attention given to the characters to go through it. I asked myself why the journey was important, and realized by page 15 that it wasn’t important. That was a hard realization for me when I reached page 15. It isn’t important enough for a reader, and it’s not important enough for me to waste my time on, at least not yet. I am off to a decent start with a delicious icing of creative imagery, pretty spooky sequences, and a nice serving of tension and dread. Now it’s time for the hard part, baking the cake to put it on.

But oh, so many flavors to chose from.