Story vs Plot

What is the difference between story and plot?

This simple question is one that a lot of writers have trouble answering. Mostly because the dictionary definition is based on each word individually and not how they interact or influence each other from a writer’s point of view. How can we thinking of Story vs Plot.

Story

For me story is the journey the character must make, their character arc, the goal they wish to achieve. This is what you tell people when they ask you “what’s your script about?”. Let’s look at the movie Titanic for example. The story is about a woman that comes from a high class English family. At this time in history many of these families were falling into bankruptcy due to the cost of maintaining the huge estates and lands that had been amassed over the years. Their pride and social standard prevented them from taking the sensible move and selling. In Titanic the family is solving this problem by marrying their daughter to a wealthy American.

The main character, the girl being married off, isn’t in love with the American who is abusive and controlling. She feels trapped by her life and is desperate for true love and happiness.

During the trip to America on Titanic she meets a penniless artist and falls in love. Her love is tested as the ship sinks, as we know from history many of the rich survived while the poor died in their hundreds.

This is the story of the movie Titanic. We didn’t look at any of the plot elements.

Plot

Plot is what you make them do. The series of events, the trials and obstacles you but in front of your characters to show how they change.

If we stay with Titanic and look at plot elements.

  • They needed to show that she wasn’t marrying for love. So there is a scene where she is confronted by her mother who is warning her not to destroy this opportunity and her family by not making this man happy.
  • They needed to show her fiance’s anger and how he considered her a possession. So there is a scene where he flies into a rage because she didn’t sneak into his room, he expected her to anticipate and be willing to fulfil his desires.
  • They needed to show that she was trapped and depressed by her life’s prospects. So profoundly depressed she attempts suicide. This is how she meets Jack the artist, during her suicide attempt.

Jack is wild and free, everything she wants in life. They needed to show that she was resigned to the future she was facing, but Jack offered and escape.

These scene are plot devices used to answer the question “how are they going to show me that in the story”.

Story Plot

After you have constructed all the plot elements to build your story you need to place them in order. This is one of the most important parts of the plotting process. If your plot elements don’t feed each other the story will not work. You can’t have a scene showing someone falling in love, if they are already in love with that person. It just will not make sense. Some people say this is when structure comes into play. That is partly correct.

Discovery should be near the front. This is when the audience is discovering things about your story and characters. Then there should be demonstration and answers. This is where we see them act the way we discovered and see how they are trying to get to their new desired state. This is also where answers will be answered “will they fall in love?”. Finally the conclusion, this is where we see the result of everything the story was about. Basically a start , middle and end. Start things should be near the front, middle stuff – well in the middle and the conclusion at the end.

This has been a quick discussion on Story vs Plot. I hope it has helped. Look around the site, there are more articles, some book and even some short films.

Craig Griffiths

Craig Griffiths is a screenplay writer and best selling author. His books on screenwriting are available via the Books page on the website. He has written and produced several short films with his feature scripts in production. Craig has been involved in numerous podcast including Canada’s “The Bunker Project” and was the host of “Making Business and Sales Work” a top ranked podcast on iTunes for many years.

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