Writing: Plot vs. Story

Okay, spooky ones. I’ve noticed when some writers, even those who teach writing, speak about plot or story, they tend to use these terms interchangeably. However, I’m here to tell you something important:

Story and plot are not the same!

“So then, creepy one,” you ask, “what’s the difference?” Here it is, bats and ghouls:

Story: What your characters want, and what gets in their way. What gets in their way and creates the conflict can be an internal or external force, typically both that dovetail at some point.

Plot: What happens in the story.

For example:

Your character¬†wants to solve a mystery, some¬†murders, and they need to do it with an unlikely partner. Because of past issues, perhaps one or more traumatic events, or maybe a prejudice, your character does not get along with their partner. This compromises the investigation because the characters’ distrust sabotages their chances of solving the mystery. The character needs to overcome both this and the search for the killer in tandem, changing their perspective in the process. This is the story.

The murders and any developments in the investigation are the plot.

Misconception: Stories are either plot-driven or character-driven. Literary fiction tends to be character-focused, and genre fiction tends to be premise/plot-focused.

All stories are character-driven because characters are the story. A story is not the Hero’s Journey or the Three-Act Structure. Those are helpful plot guidelines to propel the character to change by testing them.

Typically, the story addresses a flaw, a misconception the character has about their place in the world (I will go more into this in a later post), and they need to overcome this flaw because of the stakes; if the character fails to change, there needs to be the potential of a dire consequence, the more personally devastating, the better.

The reason it’s important to address this is that I feel like writing is often taught backwards. Story needs to come first, but when I was a wee neophyte, I learned about active/passive voice, dialogue tags, and (avoiding) adverbs. It wasn’t until a year ago that I could articulate what makes a story: Character, Conflict, and Consequences (The Three C’s–I will also speak about this later).

I had all these great premises, but it was all window dressing because I didn’t address the characters’ motivations. While the technical parts of writing are important, it is absolutely crucial that fiction writers know what constitutes a story because it is the very core of your project. No matter how beautiful the language is or how active the voice is, if there is no story, there will need to be massive revisions. True story: I once wrote a story that was more like a string of vignettes because while the conflict was hinted at, I didn’t place it at center stage. I started that project in high school, and after completing other book projects, I’ve returned to it after a hiatus.

This is the seventeenth draft.

Everyone’s process is different, and I’m not going to prescribe a method for everyone, but in urging you to think about your story first and foremost, especially if writing (and publishing) is a professional endeavor for you, I am trying to help you save time (and misery) on a draft that may have to be 90% thrown out and rewritten. When you start working on a deadline, it’ll be a pain and an emotionally grueling task to revise your novel. (And the only gruel you should eat is bat wing gruel. Don’t worry, the wing is tofu, no bats were harmed.)

baby bat writing
See? They’re fine.

For more info about this, check out this interview with Lisa Cron, the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius: How to Outline Your Novel Using the Secrets of Brain Science (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).

See you later, spooky ones!

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