What is Plot … and is it the Same Thing as Story or Narrative?
For the next four weeks, we’re going to be look at “Developing Better Plots”. We’ll be covering what plot is (and isn’t), how to create a better plot, how to fix a plot that’s gone wrong, and more. Make sure you join the newsletter so you don’t miss out on any posts.
What exactly is plot?
While many elements of storytelling – like dialogue – are easy to point to, plot can be trickier to pin down.
Here are a few definitions:
A plot is a sequence of events in which every cause has an effect, pulling the story towards its conclusion.
(from What is Plot?, Ruthanne Reid, The Write Practice)
Plot is the chain of connected events that make up a narrative. It refers to what actually occurs in a story and is one of storytelling’s major pillars. Some will say that if characters are the who and theme is the why, then the plot is the what of the story.
(from What is Plot? An Author’s Guide to Storytelling, Reesy)
The plot of a film, novel, or play is the connected series of events which make up the story.
(from “Plot”, Collins Dictionary)
Do Plots Need to be Complicated?
I’m a more character-driven than plot-driven writer, so I have to fight against my tendency to think that “good” plots must be really complicated and tricky to work out.
Plots needn’t be super-detailed and intricate in order to work well, though.
Often, a “good” plot simply means putting things in place that will come together further down the line – particularly elements that can be brought together in an unexpected (but very plausible) way.
For instance, a mistake that your protagonist makes midway through your story might seem not to have any ramifications immediately … but combined with a crucial piece of information that you slipped in during the first few chapters, it could prove really dangerous at the climax of the story.
Should You Figure Out Your Whole Plot in Advance?
Some writers like to plan and outline a lot before they start writing; others prefer to have a rough idea about characters, themes, and key moments along the way – and then launch in.
You don’t have to work out all the details of your plot before you start writing. You might go back and work things in to add intricacy to the plot. Ultimately, so long as you’re willing to revise and rework your story, it’s fine to begin writing without having a full plot worked out. (I like to at least have the ending in mind, though.)
Are There Really Only 6/7/20/36 Plots?
There are a lot of books and articles out there suggesting that there are a set number of “basic” or “archetypal” plots. Here are a few of them:
- Every story in this world has one of these six basic plots (article based on research from Washington State University and the University of Vermont)
- The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (book by Christopher Booker)
- 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them (book by Ronald B. Tobias)
- 36 Dramatic Situations (handy pdf based on Georges Polti’s Les trente-six situations dramatiques, published in 1896)
No story can be truly unique when you take a very “zoomed out” view. The basic building blocks (like “boy meets girl”) are going to be there in stories from centuries ago, as well as in the stories yet to be written.
Beyond these very broad strokes, though, your plot will be your own. The events you choose, the way you shape them and put them together, and the narrative choices you make will all be unique.
What’s the Difference Between Story and Plot?
Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it…
– E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel
While we often talk about novels as “stories” (and we have “short stories” not “short plots”!), as an author, you’re not just telling a story.
As E.M. Forster explains in that classic quote above, story tells you what happened, and what happened next.
Plot, however, involves causality.
In your novel or short story, events affect one another.
Sometimes this effect might be immediate (your protagonist stands up to a bad guy and gets beaten up as a result); sometimes the wheels are set in motion a long time before (fifteen years ago, your protagonist had a youthful fling that — much to his surprise – leads to him discovering that he’s now the parent of a teenager).
What’s the Difference Between Plot and Narrative?
Narrative is how the story is told.
You could keep the events of your plot exactly the same but rewrite your novel as a book that reads very differently purely because of narrative choices.
There’s definitely an overlap between what we call “plot” and what we call “narrative”, especially if your story involves cutting between different times, using flashbacks, telling things out of chronological sequence, and so on.
But narrative also encompasses things like the “voice” of the story — plot is generally concerned purely with the events.
When you’re plotting a story, you don’t necessarily need to decide (for instance) whether you’re going to write it in the first person or third person, or in the present or past tense. Those decisions are narrative choices.
Another way to look at this is that plot is objective and narrative is subjective.
Ultimately … it doesn’t matter too much whether you use the word “plot”, or something like “outline” or “story” to describe the events of your novel or short story. What matters is that you’re conscious about your plotting (whether that means doing it up-front or after the first draft), and that your plot is interesting and engaging for your readers.
Want to develop stronger plots for your short stories and/or novels?
Over the next four weeks, we’re going to be talking more about plot: how to add more conflict, how to research effectively, whether your plot needs to follow a specific structure, and more.
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I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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