Story Versus Plot

Do you need a great plot to be a great writer? Yes and no. But you don't get a great plot to be a great storyteller. But Melanie, you say, those are the same thing. No, my friends they are not.


Classical literary analysis (the kind of stuff taught in college classrooms all over the world), boils down the difference this way. Story answers the question what happens next, plot answers why did that happen or why is that going to happen.

You can tell a great story with absolutely no plot at all. Story is how a sequence of events unfolds. For instance, "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner, is a pretty basic story about a how a town mourns and snoops on one of their citizens after she dies. Now it is known for it's ghoulish ending, but that is a story twist, not a plot twist. We are not able to get into Emily's head. We have no idea why Emily is so strange. We the reader as well as her neighbors have no insights into her character, no idea why she does anything, why she is the way she is. It is one of the most iconic stories ever written by an American writer. But it is just that, a story. Well crafted, carefully revealed, filled with suspense, but it never really answers many why questions. This is undoubtedly a great story and it uses many plot devices, which can cause confusion, but this particular story doesn't have a great plot. It is simply a great story. A compelling story. A well crafted story. A great story twist. Get the point?

Let me cite another well known story and discuss plot. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell Tale Heart" is all about plot. Poe doesn't even name his narrator, but we do get a deep look inside this man's slowly devolving mind. The narrator's insanity is the whole point of this story and Poe tells it relentlessly from beginning to end. We, the reader understand all to well why the narrator does the things he does. We understand why, as his perceived pressure mounts, he is being driven insane with guilt, if not remorse. We are taken in so close that the question of suspense in this story isn't how it will end, but when.


Now how much of your writing is driven by the story and how much is driven by the plot? Is it important to separate the two? My answer to you is simply yes. Because if something happens in your story and it feels forced, you now know where you have fallen off, in your plotting. Go back and explain why. (If you absolutely can't explain why something happened, then chances are you have broken the rules of your world.) On the other hand if your story is moving too slowly and getting bogged down, you don't have enough story and something needs to happen.

Happy Writing,

Melanie
 

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