Now that I’m finally past putting googly eyes on the minor mountain of pre-orders for my new book, (and seriously, thanks guys and gal. You’re the best!) it’s high time I wrote up another article for this little blog-that-could. Well, that, and my wife/manager is giving me side-eye to prompt me to put forth more content instead of just running amok in Monster Hunter World looking for the best fantastical animal to murder and turn into a new hat for my anthropomorphic cat sidekick.
It’s a very serious game, you guys.
Today, I wanted to talk about plot, and story. On the surface level, it’s easy to see how the words might be used interchangeably. In language mechanics, they really can mean the same thing. But that’s a damn fine way to screw over your writing faster than you can say “what if I wrote a story where vampires could only survive on the blood of Speed Racer cosplayers?”
I know what you’re thinking. Please don’t.
But sure. Mechanically, the words can be swapped. But functionally, they are completely different animals, neither of which are good for hunting down to turn into fresh armor for your anthropomorphic cat sidekicks, and good LORD I have played entirely too much of that game. Moving on.
To get this rolling, I’ll give you an example. I’m going to ask you fellow geeks a simple question:
What is the plot of Star Wars, specifically A New Hope?
You’re probably playing the film in your head right now—or you should be, what is wrong with you?—which means you’re actively thinking about what happened to the characters along the way. You’re remembering key moments of action, or set pieces, or bits of dialogue and exposition, or … well … the use of screen wipes between scenes. Or just how cool lightsabers are. It’s fine. No judgment here.
I’ve quizzed you about the plot, and you’re thinking about what happened. A sequence of events. Got that? Good. There’s a reason I asked you that question using the word plot first. Now then…
What is the story of Star Wars, specifically A New Hope?
Hopefully (a-ha-ha-ha) your mind is already taking a different route with answering this one. There’s a reason for that, and it has a bit to do with how we’re conditioned from youth to approach and appreciate story. We tend to couch talking about a story in terms of emotion, our experience with it, and what was learned. So the copy on the listing for that particular streaming service entry for Episode 4 might read:
Star Wars: the story of a young farmer (Luke) who learns to trust himself, and his new friends, as they fight to stop a tyrannical Empire.
We tend to look at the morality, lessons and themes when talking about story, and I use Star Wars because it’s the prepackaged Hero’s Journey with all the accompanying life lessons and emotions that would make Aesop nod appreciatively. In short:
Plot = Things that need to happen to move the story from point A to B and so on.
Story = What those things mean, and what we take from them.
Or, to simplify things even further into hashtag-able bites:
Plot = #actions
Story = #themes
Yeah but, does it really?
Makes sense. So why am I talking about this at all? It’s fairly clear at this juncture, right? Well, no. Because now as a writer, you get to do the GREAT BALANCING ACT of keeping both of these juggling pins in the air, with your third being narrative. Don’t worry, I’m not going into the latter’s school of thought just yet, because that’s a whole other library of info that you don’t need poured into your head. Let’s just say it has to do with your style, and leave it at that. Back to the focus.
A bit ago (and included in my new book, hooray shameless plugs!) I wrote up an article about “What Characters Want”, and the importance of being able to answer that question when going through your own tale. What they want is their motivation. Their motivation finding itself at cross purposes with another’s motivation is conflict. Conflict drives the narrative forward. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Well, being mindful of Plot and Story adds another layer of finesse onto that equation, because now there’s the consideration of what the character wants overall, and what they want at the time. And that can change by scene, or by moment. Honestly, you might be wanting to save up for that new car overall, but right now you might just want a sandwich. Incidentally, now I want a sandwich, and I kinda blame you. It’s cool. We’re still friends.
This methodology also lends itself well to character decisions and actions, and climaxes. A character’s action could be weighed in terms of plot, or story, or both.
I’ll give you an example from that galaxy far far away. A great story character decision, which also just happens to be a great thematic climax, is the moment Luke trusts in the Force to make that shot that takes out the Death Star. Did he need to for plot? Not necessarily. The previous scenes already made clear that Luke is confident enough in his combat piloting skills that he brags to a fellow rebel about how he used to make that kind of shot all the time.
Luke letting go per Obi-wan’s instruction is more about the character, and the theme of Luke accepting his place in “a larger world” via the Force; taking another big step along the path to becoming a Jedi. That story arc covers three films, mind, so Luke’s surrender would be the natural break point for “act one”. But in this case, Luke taking the shot to destroy the Death Star is a function of plot; what needs to happen. The focus on the how that comes about for Luke and the choice he makes is a function of story; what it means for the character.
What this means for the character is that he’s way into pastel-shaded milk.
But what about actions that serve both? Let’s choose the moment Han Solo comes back to help the rebels at the Death Star. It’s a bit of character development as Han overcomes his natural inclination to be selfish, yes, and while that could be seen as a bit of the story it’s also used as a plot decision. The plot dictates at that moment that something needs to happen to give the hero some hope in a desperate situation. Any other of the dozens of rebel fighters whizzing about over the surface of that space station could have arguably come to Luke’s aid. But no. To serve both plot and story, the clear choice was Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon.
The climax of the plot was the destruction of the Death Star. That’s pretty cut and dry. The climax of the story? Well, that’s open to the eye of the beholder. You could look at it by character, or simply from the last image that stuck with you during the credit roll. To wax meme-tastic, it really boils down to what left you with an overabundance of “the feels”.
Plot and Story are the Ego and the Id. They play together rather nicely in a balanced soup of writing, but they serve different roles in the larger view. By paying a bit of attention to both, you can round out both characters AND the sequence of events. You go from just asking “is this serving the story?” to “Is this the best action for the character, the plot, or both?”.
And once you’ve cracked that code, things smooth out rather nicely going forward. Write on with confidence, badass.
Until next time, Horns Up.
Dig on content like this? Consider supporting my work! You get some stuff, and I get to keep on living. I think that’s a fair exchange, yeah?