I think the best way to illustrate what I see as the difference between story and plot is (surprise surprise) by way of a story:
Long ago, when I was a little boy, I always looked forward to the end of the day, because that was when my father would tell me a plot.
Most kids hate bedtime but I loved it, because my father was such a wonderful plot-teller.
“It’s plot-time, Dad,” I would shout when the clock struck eight. I’d hurriedly brush my teeth, put on my pajamas, and hop into bed. Then Dad would come into my room and sit on the edge of my bed.
How vividly I remember the comforting scent of tobacco from his knitted sweater (he smoked a pipe, much to my mother’s dismay, and then one day he just quit, cold turkey, and started competing in marathons). I remember the deepening winter twilight outside the window, and the feeling of being safe and cozy in my bed mingling with the exciting certainty that I was about to be swept away into the abstract realm of narrative schematics.
Sometimes I asked my father for the same plot I’d heard the night before, and sometimes I’d ask for a new one. Dad was very good at setting the plots out clearly and concisely so that I could follow the narrative sequence without the hindrances of mood, atmosphere, evocative sensory detail, tension, suspense, or anything else having to do with style and imagination.
Before he began, Dad would always hem and haw for a bit, pretending that he just wasn’t feeling very structuralist tonight. I would protest and whine, and then at last, once he’d got me sufficiently fired up, he’d finally give in and start to tell a plot.
“This is the plot of The Sword in the Stone,” Dad would state in his most clinical and detached voice. “The protagonist is Arthur. The exposition is as follows: as a baby Arthur is given to Sir Ector to raise in secret so that no one will know the child is the son of King Uther. Arthur grows up in Ector’s household. One day Sir Ector and his son Kay travel to London for a tournament. Arthur goes along as Kay’s squire. The inciting incident occurs when Arthur forgets Kay’s sword. There isn’t enough time for Arthur to run back to the camp to get the sword. Then he sees a sword sticking out of a stone in a churchyard. Protagonist breaks taboo: Arthur pulls out the sword and gives it to Kay. Sir Ector recognizes the sword as the one from the stone and asks Arthur how he got it. Kay lies and says he drew out the sword (minor setback). Then Kay admits that Arthur did it. They return to the stone and Arthur puts the sword back and draws it out again. The news spreads and people gather to see what’s going on. Other knights try to draw the sword, but only Arthur can do it. There is much anger and confusion, creating mounting tension leading to the turning point, when Merlin the magician appears and announces that Arthur is able to draw the sword because he is the rightful heir to the throne of England. A new equilibrium is reached, with the protagonist elevated in status.”
What a wonderful plot. One of my favourites. I asked my father for that one many times, and each time I’d sink down into my pillow, letting the pure temporal logic of a well-constructed sequence of narrative events carry me toward sleep…
Okay, I’ll stop there before my own story puts you to sleep.
Image from Henson's The Storyteller
Most of the time all we want is to enjoy a good story. We don’t think about plot. We don’t care how it works. It just does.
But if you’re a reader who also wants to write, then you might want to study the way your favourite writer grabbed you and kept you hooked from beginning to ending. And one of the most important elements of story for grabbing and holding the reader is plot. So study plot. Make a plot outline or a plot diagram of your favourite book. Make plot diagrams of your own writing. Sometimes an outline or a diagram can show you why a story of your own isn’t quite working (maybe there’s way too much exposition at the start, or you’ve placed the crisis point too early, or too late, or there is no crisis point -- the story just peters out...)
But my advice is not to get too caught up in plot construction, in sticking to a pattern of inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, etc. That’s the road to formula, to a story without surprise, without risk, without life. Usually it’s best to just trust your story instincts (we all have them; we’ve been absorbing Story all our lives).
There’s so much more to a good story than a sequence of events. No one ever really said “Tell me a good plot.”
To my blog readers: if there are any other elements of story that you would like me to talk about, let me know.