Plot vs Story

I just watched this very interesting clip of an interview with Martin Scorsese, in which he talks about the distinction between story and plot. (Go ahead and watch it; it’s only 2 minutes).

Essentially he defines plot as the bare bones of what happens in a movie–the basic outline.  Story involves the characters, the cinematography choices, the casting choices and the emotions portrayed by the actors on the screen.  And he concludes by saying that he finds story more compelling than plot, that the movies he’s drawn back to are those with the best stories.

Scorsese is of course talking about film, but it struck me as I was watching that the same can easily be applied to novels.  I realize, of course, that it’s not a completely clear-cut either/or kind of a question.  Plot and story ideally inform and assist each other, and just as plot without story is lifeless and dry, you can have the best story elements in the world and still wind up with a complete yawn-fest of a novel unless you have a compelling plot to drive them.  But in general, yes, I do agree with what Scorsese says: it’s the story elements of books (and films) that stay with me the longest and draw me back again and again.

I think it’s a misconception many first-time or aspiring writers have–I know I had it myself, to some degree: the idea that once you have a killer plot idea for your novel, you’re all set.  Don’t get me wrong, a killer plot idea is a great thing to have.  But every writer is different, and for myself, I actually discovered a few books into my career that trying to start my writing process by outlining the bare bones of a plot didn’t work for me at all.  I’m still a huge planner and I still love outlines.  But what I discovered was that in order to making outlining work for me, I needed to start with a fundamental understanding of my characters: identify their strengths and weaknesses, their deepest desires and goals.  Then from there, I come up with a plan for what their character arc is going to be: how do I want them to have grown or changed over the course of the novel?  At this stage, I map out several key emotional scenes that will take them from their emotional state at the beginning to where I want them to be at the end–and that’s the first glimmer of the plot, beginning to take shape.  Then once I have an emotional arc for all the characters that I’m happy with– then I can clearly see what my plot needs to be, what events need to happen in order to allow for that character growth.  Essentially, I imagine the story first, and then rely on that to give me the plot.

A few ideas for helping you to identify possible key and compelling plot points if you’re the ‘story first’ kind of a writer like me:

  • What does your character believe absolutely to be true?  Challenge or even shatter that belief.
  • Who does your character lean on most for support?  Yank that support out from under her.  (Could be through a fight, illness, a move . . . )
  • What is your character most afraid of?  Force them into a situation where they’ll have to directly face that very fear.
  • What does your character want above anything else in life?  Imagine a situation where achieving that goal suddenly seems completely hopeless.

But what if you do have an absolutely fabulous plot idea but nothing else just yet?  What if you want to start there as a launching point for crafting a compelling story?  Like I say, this isn’t really my modus operandi, but here are a few thoughts you might keep in mind.

  • Why does the central conflict/goal of your plot matter to your main character so much?  What are their personal stakes in the drama?  Say your plot revolves around a research team racing to find a cure for a deadly virus that threatens to wipe out the world’s population.  Exciting, yes, high stakes, yes.  But it makes for a much more compelling story if your main character’s wife or son is already infected with the virus.  What happens if midway through the plot, the wife or son dies?  What does that do to the main character’s motivation?  (And yes, that’s an incredibly cheesy and cliched example, but you get the idea: personal stakes in the drama are key).
  • What obstacles or challenges does your plot present?  How can you  craft your characters so that those obstacles are even harder to overcome?   Say your plot involves the rescue of a group of hikers from a mountain in the midst of a blizzard.  Lots of possibilities for excitement.  Heck, you could throw in a crazed killer roaming over the mountain in search of his newest victim.  (I’ve read that book, actually; it was pretty fun).  But you can still mine your main characters to ratchet up the excitement and tension.  What if your main character actually suffered a horrific climbing accident under weather conditions exactly like these?  What if her climbing partner was killed?  In attempting this rescue, she’ll also have to confront her fears from the past trauma, her feelings of grief or possible guilt . . .  Essentially, plot points are great, but they’re only half the picture.  You can always use your characters’ personality traits and backstories to make the plot resonate and hum with excitement even more.

To sum up what, for me, is the key difference between plot and story:  Plot takes our characters on a wild, exciting ride.  Story makes our readers feel as though they’re on that ride themselves.

How do you construct your stories?  Do you focus first on story or on plot?

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

Comments

    • says

      I’ve been yanking away my poor MC’s support system in my current work, and while it can be painful to imagine, it’s a really interesting way of finding out exactly what your character is made of. S/he may well surprise you!

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  1. says

    Thanks for enriching my writing vocabulary, Anna. I’m one of those numbskulls who thought that plot and story were synonymous, if I thought about it at all. Duh. I now see the plot as a new paper doll book with the cartoon of a little girl in her undies with wardrobe options surrounding. Story is the completed doll with dress, shoes, accessories, a saucy hat and a mission (trip to school, tea party, play date?). Barbie in swim suit and beach buggy. Action and intrigue beckon….
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..Defined Playgrounds:

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  2. says

    This post was thought-provoking for me. I’ve been dabbling in freelance work for a bit and thought I’d try writing a novel last year. I made pretty much every newbie mistake out there. One of them was, as you described, not getting to know my characters well enough. As I entered into the revision stage I realized I didn’t want to get to know the MC more and set the work aside. Wonderful learning experience I’m still trying to navigate through as a writer. Interestingly, I still like my plot. Your article brings out new dimensions for me to think about.
    Julie´s last blog post ..Finding Your One Thing

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    • says

      You may find you use the same plot in a future work, Julie, just with different story components. I’ve definitely done that myself. No writing experience is ever wasted; as you say, it’s all about the learning process.

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  3. says

    I always start with a character – and that character will come to me in a shadowy form – mainly, I’ll see some quirk about him/her, or some inner expression that tells me they need my help, or some longing or wish or whatever – I’ll see them standing as if from far away so that I can’t see them clearly but I feel them and their angst or worry or longing, and one sentence will usually pop into my head and I write down that sentence, and then another and another until I have a novel.

    It’s not the best way I suppose because my books tend to be character driven and not plot driven – even with the new book where it has more of a plot than any of my other books, I still pretty much did it the same way with the only difference being I had a clearer picture of the overall “plotty thang” of it than with the other books and that has made me a little more “directed.”

    Now I will go listen to His Brilliance since I read your words first – a nicely crafted post, Anna!
    kathryn Magendie´s last blog post ..Work-Out Writer “tip” of the day . . . Form, y’all

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    • says

      Thanks, Kathryn! I firmly believe that there is room for both character driven books and plot driven books, and both equally have the potential to be great.

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    • says

      Aren’t we all always trying to come up with better systems, Vaughn! :-) Honestly, I’m not at all sure my system is perfect–I’d by lying if I told you it eliminated all the angst-ridden moments of the writing process– but at least I do wind up with a finished book at the end. Which of course makes all the angst worthwhile.

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  4. says

    Your post concerns the very things I’ve been grappling with lately. I’m a plotter, a planner, a rabid outliner, but, now deep into revisions, I’m still getting to know my main character and her most fundamental desires, and, as I do, I find I like her so much better than I did the first time through.

    And hearing Martin Scorsese say it just drives the point home even more forcefully. Thanks for including the clip!
    Christina Kaylor´s last blog post ..Mick Kinney: A Song in His Heart and a Pencil in His Hand, Part 1

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  5. says

    Thank you for this post! While yes, I do agree story can make readers feel as though they’re on the ride, I would argue that it also makes the readers *care* about the ride in the first place.

    This post reminds me of Maass’ fabulous WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION, which I’m finding immensely helpful to me as I work to navigate the somewhat muddy waters of the third draft of my WIP. I’m still working on finding the balance of balancing story and plot (I consider myself a recovering pantser), but I feel I’m getting there.

    Thanks again!
    Amanda Helms´s last blog post ..Alas, poor NaNoWriMo! I knew him, Chris Baty.

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  6. says

    I recently read a book by one of the superstars of the writing world. And yes, the plot was fabulous. Complex. It kept me guessing the whole way. The problem I had with the book is that I wasn’t emotionally attached to the characters.

    I didn’t care when one of them died.

    I didn’t care when the others were in trouble.

    I was more interested in the stories behind the secondary characters who had several pages of screen time but where never actually named.

    I think this is the risk you take when you spend so much time working out a huge plot; your story falls to the side. Your characters are flat. Your prose doesn’t evoke an emotion in the reader so while they might be thrilled with the ride during the book, they will close the cover and forget about it entirely.

    Just an observation.
    SelenaBlake (@SelenaBlake)´s last blog post ..Review: Tucker’s Fall (aka: My favorite Yet!)

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    • says

      It’s a very good observation, and I completely agree. We’ve probably all had that experience of reading (or watching) something and just never really feeling a great connection to the characters.

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  7. says

    Very helpful post! I, too, tend to start with characters and a story idea, which isn’t quite the same as plot. I recently had a portion of my WIP critiqued by an editor who told me almost exactly what you say in this post: get to know your characters, know them really well, their needs, their wants, their obstacles, and the plot will develop from there. Thanks for the reinforcement and encouraging me to dig deeper into my characters.
    Mary Incontro´s last blog post ..Memory: Building Materials for a Story

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    • says

      Not everything I know about my characters makes it into the finished, book, but I’m always glad for everything I do know about them, it gives me a whole wealth of information to call on whenever I might need it. Good luck with the digging deeper, Mary, I’m sure it will be well worth it!

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  8. says

    Great post. Wise words from one of the best. I usually start with a plot idea and from there I outline how the character is going to react, change, grow, etc. from the wild ride that is the plot idea.
    H.L. Pauff´s last blog post ..Into The Past

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  9. says

    E.M. Forster, in one of the first “writer on writing” books, and still one of the best, distinguished them thus: Story is: the king die and then the queen died. Plot is: The king died and then the queen died of grief. That was in Aspects of the Novel back before 1920. His point was that “story” is a sequence of events, “plot” is causality that structures or gives narrative meaning to those events. He then talks about character, and how plot comes from character. Character in action.

    The grammar of rhetoric, and of style, points to the same thing: noun=character; verb=action. (Style, by Joseph Wlliams) Description, scene – those are the adjectives and adverbs. I’d say the dependent clauses are the minor characters.

    What Scorsese is talking about is the “who cares” part of narrative. If it’s all “what happens next,” then once we know what happened, who cares. But if it’s “why does it happen to this person, who I care about,” then even after we know “what happened,” we still return to the story-character-plot, because there’s more to all of them.

    Thanks for the clip. Very insightful. And the post.

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  10. Carmel says

    We probably tend to re-watch movies more than we re-read books. Plot is a great thing, especially in a mystery or thriller, but as Martin Scorsese says, once you know the plot, you’re no longer interested.

    My favorite author over the years has been Miss Read, and I’ve read each of her books many times. The plots are minimal and the people are ordinary but, by the time you finish, you feel as if you’ve gained a village full of friends and you can’t wait to go back and visit them.

    My own goal is to have an interesting plot played out by characters you hate to leave behind.

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    • says

      Carmel, I love love love Miss Read’s books, too! Have you ever listened to the audiobook versions? I love those, too; I can listen again and again. I want to live in Thrush Green! :)

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      • Carmel says

        Anna, I just got an iPod and have started listening to audio books (which I’ve found is a *great* way to absorb a book for the purpose of improving your writing). Even though I have hard copies of all the Fairacre and Thrush Green Books, I already have two Miss Read books on audio. :o)

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  11. Denise Willson says

    Great reminder with perfect timing. After reading twice I printed and pulled out my highlighter. Thank you, Anna.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  12. says

    I start with one or two sentences to create my idea, and then I construct my plot and outline, which is the map for my story. Initially my focus is on my plot and outline, until my story becomes envious and he gate crashes the party, along with his buddies, character profiles, subplots, secondary themes, and, pivot points. After that, the focus has to be compromised. Sometimes plot gains more attention, and sometimes story gets the upper-hand.
    Brian B. King´s last blog post ..I’d rather change a baby’s poopy diaper,

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  13. says

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful post, Anna. My first book had such a haphazard process, that I wasn’t sure how to start the second, and your post totally helped me wrap my head around it a little better. I’m also a character first writer and I think that’s so important to know before writing the story. It really does affect the approach you should take. Thanks again!

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  14. says

    My ‘story’ is roughly based on historical events. The plot cannot change because it already happened. So, that is the music. Story, on the other hand , is the lyrics that I use to pull the music right into the readers’ hearts and make them want to dance with the characters. I want my readers to be wondering ‘Why do I feel so deeply for this man or this woman? Why do I care?’ It’s because the music pounded at them until they felt the characters’ struggles alongside them. A tango of unrelenting emotion until the last bar is played and the curtain falls on the happy couple. They close the book and then find themselves wondering how the heroine and hero are doing, now that the ball is over.
    Jennifer Major´s last blog post ..The Sunshine Award? Who ? ME?

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  15. Leslie R. says

    Very helpful post, Anna! You’ve so clearly laid out the differences between plot and story. This definitely helps me identify some of the problems with my current WIP – and you offer useful tools to solve them, too!

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  16. says

    Hi,

    Great way of putting it. Like several others who commented, I tend to start with story. I’ve written (but not yet published) one novel, and I have several others in various stages of completion, and the first thing that comes in is either the theme or the setting. I’m very good at world-building and character-building, but then deriving a plot from that is difficult. As a reader, I prefer character-driven or theme-driven novels, though.
    Caroline´s last blog post ..Completed Cycle

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  17. says

    Thank you so much for posting this. It’s great to see a great master share his thoughts. I too subscribe to the idea that a great plot is very important, but not enough to create a novel. In my view, strongly developed characters and the emotional response that you fire in your reader, are the two items that must pile over the plot to get a great story.

    Thank you for this post!

    Iulian
    Iulian Ionescu´s last blog post ..Writers – Protect Your Data

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  18. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Thanks for the clip, it’s a well spent two minutes. And for your follow up.

    It kinda boils down for me this way: Story = plot + character.

    Plot=the stuff that happens.

    Character= react to the stuff that happens, and change because of the stuff that happens.

    Without the plot I’d be bored outta my skull. With the characters and their reactions and changes, I wouldn’t care about the stuff that happens.

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  19. says

    I too agree with the posts above – to me story is made from plot, character and setting working together like cogs in a clock – take one out and none of it works

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  20. says

    Plot and story are two different things. Plot is the stuff that happens, that must happen. For example, in Shawshank Redemption, the only stuff that has to happen is that Dufresne’s wife has to be murdered; he has to be charged; he has to have a personality that’s so logical and detached that he turns off his jury; he needs to not have done the murder; he needs to go to jail in Shawshank where he meets the other characters; it needs to be a crappy experience; he needs to escape successfully. That’s it for plot, and by itself this is maybe thousands of movies of its type.

    But Shawshank Redemption is different because of its story. Dufresne’s character and his quirks; Red’s character and his quirks–and Morgan Freeman’s voice, a smooth, silky story-telling voice if there ever was one. How the story is more about hope, about not letting life’s unfairness trap you.

    So, in a nutshell, the plot is the stuff that must necessarily happen. (Murder mysteries are heavy on this; Silence of the Lambs stands out because it’s a gruesomely unfolding murder mystery and it’s also very character-driven storylines. Starling’s memories of the screaming lambs is more theme and story than plot.) The story is the stuff that the characters make happen; or, at the very least, it’s the way that the characters make the necessary plot happen.

    I don’t do plot outlines for this reason. My plots are usually pretty simple, as Shawshank’s also is, by itself. If anything, I have to outline more about my characters and their lives and decisions.
    Steven E. Belanger´s last blog post ..Golden Globes

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  21. says

    Anna I really like this article! I have written 2 fiction stories now and currently writing another, but I always thought plot was the most important, and actually saw plot and story as the same thing. I found some encouragement watching the short clip and reading what you have to say because I feel when I write I focus on story more, but felt maybe my stories would be stronger if elevate the plot and make it legendary. I agree in story being the most important part of writing. When I read books and even watch movies, the ones I find rememberable and keep going back to area the ones that focus on the character development.
    Crystal´s last blog post ..Inspiration Of The Week

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  22. Ronda Roaring says

    Thanks, Anna, for this video. I enjoyed hearing what Scorsese had to say and agree with him completely. I grew up reading French novels and watching French movies. They tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. I think that’s the reason why I write the way I do and why I feel novels need to have strong, realistic characters and good dialog. Plot is definitely secondary to me.

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  23. says

    Thanks for the great article, Anna. In my view, a plot is basically the inner structure of a story. It’s the steel beams, rebar and concrete that allow a building to reach skyward. But the environment, and especially the characters, are what give that building…well…character. You can have a story with a great plot and people will look at it and say, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive that you got a building that high.” But they won’t necessarily be wowed by it. It could actually be a pretty ugly building.

    Characters add the richness and beauty to a story. Thinking of the stories that I personally like the most, the characters are what I remember most about the story.
    Brandon Andersen´s last blog post ..Saying goodbye to characters

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  24. says

    Very interesting! Somehow, I tend to read or view stories the other way around; I describe story as the physical action – what happens – and plot as the emotional action, or what happens TO the characters. Both are important, but I have loved books with strong plots even when there is, on the surface, not much story. OTOH, books with lots of story and little or no plot (as I’m defining it) make me feel manipulated.

    My two cents! Fascinating post.

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    • says

      Oh- I agree with David, above. Plot is character and motivation. It’s what makes us care. Or me, anyway.

      It’s very interesting that so many people define plot and story so differently. Now I can see why I have a hard time understanding certain critiques!

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  25. says

    Great post, Anna. We just had a story vesus plot discussion in our writing group the other night, so this is perfect timing. Scorsese’s comments on plot-heavy films having less re-watch value than story-heavy films really puts it in perspective.

    I think some of us writers cling to plot because it has structure, it can be mapped out, tested, reinforced, proven, and so on; it can be that thing that reassures us everything is in its place. I have used plot as a starting point for a long time, but I’m coming around to a point where I like to focus more on story as a starting point. Your tips are great seeds!
    Jason LaPier´s last blog post ..The Fictional Dream

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  26. says

    As a short story writer and poet, I am struggling with my first full length novel. I have this gritty perception of my characters life that I want to hold to throughout his story, but the back story/history seems to be drowning out the core of what is happening in his life at the moment. I am writing his story over a course of 24 hours. One day in his life and so, reflecting back on his past just seems to be filler and taking away from the real, human, boring and raw moments of this mans day. If this makes sense, can you help me by maybe offering some advice as to how I can give him more depth without so much history in boring paragraphs.
    kellie´s last blog post ..Behind a Waking Smile

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