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?

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.