Story vs Plot

When I was starting out as a writer, one word that bothered me more than any other was plot.

I knew a story had to have a plot (well, most stories I liked seemed to have one). But I wasn’t good at coming up with them, and that weighed on me. Whenever I sat down to write a story of my own, I never started with plot. I started with an image, or a memory, or at most an idea. Then, as the writing went on, I’d be struggling to do other things, like getting to know my characters or choreographing a scene or putting words together with beauty and precision, the way my writing idols did.

I usually put off thinking about plot as long as I could. The idea of it seemed too mechanical, too structured for the messy, meandering, intuitive way I got a story onto the page. And I thought that my way was wrong -- that I should be good at plot, that it was vitally important. And that belief blocked me and oppressed me as a writer.

I liked the word story a lot more. Story was something I felt I knew, deeply and intuitively rather than as an intellectual abstraction. Like most people, I’d grown up being told stories, reading stories, making up my own stories (often to get out of trouble, or start some). Even today, if someone starts to tell a story, I can feel the kid in me relax into that calm readiness to listen.

At some point as a writer I remembered this truth: that story lived deep in me in a way that plot didn’t. Eventually I stopped worrying so much about plot. What I was doing was telling a story. Or growing one, maybe. That seemed a better metaphor. A story is something that grows. 

And I also began to notice that short stories didn’t necessarily need a lot of plot, that in fact they were often better without much of it. 

Novels were a different matter. When I first started writing a novel I discovered that plot was more important to think about, but not too soon, and not too much.

Now when I write I still try to put off thinking about plot for as long as I can, and just let the story grow. I know that sooner or later I’ll have to grapple with plot. But it’s not really a struggle anymore, it’s more like a useful tension. Plot is part of the process. Or maybe it’s the bones, the skeleton in whatever the story is growing to be. 

Image by T Wharton



Unknown said...

I still don't get it, whats the difference between story and plot?

Thomas Wharton said...

Good question and I will try to answer it in another post!

Michael said...

I'm looking forward to this answer too. M