Story vs. Plot

“Story” and “plot” are not synonyms, but even editors are guilty of using the words interchangeably. At some point in our career, we’ve all sent off a piece of work and had it returned with the words, This is not a story. What is the editor really saying? You had character. A theme. A setting. Even an incident.

You had no plot.

The distinction can be easily made: story is a series of events recorded in chronological order. Plot is events arranged in a specific order to reveal significance. Grandpa died, Grandma died soon after VS. Grandpa died, and Grandma died of loneliness. One is a story, one is a plot. Let’s take a another example. A fatherless girl cooks and cleans for her stepmother and sisters. A ball is arranged asking all the fair maidens, despite their place in society, to attend, but her stepmother makes it impossible for the girl to go. The young woman finds a way to the ball through a generous benefactor, meets the forward-thinking prince, and they fall in love beneath a moonlit sky. On her way home from the ball, she trips, losing a sparkling glass slipper. The prince uses this slipper to find its and his true mate.

This is a story. You may describe this series of events in beautiful and luscious detail, from the gritty soot ground beneath the girl’s fingernails, to dew-dripped grass beneath her glass slippers and gossamer, fairy-winged gown, but it would still only be a story.

Let’s turn it into a plot:

A bereaved stepmother can no longer bear to be reminded of her dead husband, who has left her with a title but still penniless, so she takes his only treasure–his daughter–and turns her into the housemaid she can no longer afford. The daughter, wanting so much to be loved, does everything she’s told. When the ball is announced, the stepmother refuses to see her dead husband’s daughter as an equal and takes only her daughters, next in line for her title, to the ball. A generous benefactor, who has watched from afar, decides to intervene. The world is evolving, the prince himself has declared every maiden attend, no matter their stature; equality among classes is a radical idea this benefactor supports. But she can only do so much, the dress will fade at midnight. The young, unfortunate maiden, having lost a mother and a father and aching so much to be loved by a stepmother, doesn’t trust the Prince’s love should he discover the truth. She flees the ball, tripping on the steps, leaving behind a slipper. She keeps the other shoe as a reminder. When the Prince shows up on her doorstep, she realizes it wasn’t just a moment in the moonlight, but true and real love, and feels confident to reveal herself as a housemaid and the woman he loves.

Let’s go further: maybe the story shouldn’t begin with the father dying, or even the invitation to the ball. Maybe the plot begins as she slides her slipper out of her threadbare pocket, before the breathless the prince, his dukes, and her step family. Maybe that simple gesture and the Prince’s reaction to it, changes the future of all those watching and society.

See the difference? The story answers and then…The plot says because. Sometimes, the plot’s answer is helped by dropping us into the event where it makes the greatest emotional impact. The story has us asking, “and then what?” the plot has us asking, “why?” Your work may be eventful, full of twists and turns and great adventures or poignant moments, but does it show the inevitability of motivations, actions and consequences? While our natural human curiosity is to know what happens next, our greater human desire is to know why it happened it all.

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