Plot vs Story

Posted: April 12, 2016 in Uncategorized

I was watching a movie last night, one that I love, and I found myself contemplating some of the complaints people have had about the movie.  I mainly thought about the people who had complained that the plot reprises the plot used in an earlier movie in the franchise. Of course, that plot was taken from elsewhere as well…as all plots are. Because, you see, when you get right down to it, there are no new plots. None. You may think you have devised some new, unique, amazing plot, but I promise you, you have not. What you have devised is a new, unique, amazing story. Please do not confuse the two.

I can hear you thinking, “But aren’t story and plot the same thing?” No, they definitely are not. Think of it this way: plot is the framing—the two-by-fours, the cement foundation, the beams—for the house; story is everything else—the paneling or drywall or hewn logs, the cheap vinyl flooring (or Berber carpet), the shingles and tar paper…and also the carpets and rugs, the draperies, the furniture, the fixtures, and so on right down to the velvet blacklight posters and hot pink lava lamp and scary fuzzy beanbag. The plot is just a basic premise on which to build your story.

Experts (and non-experts) disagree on how many basic plots there are and what they are. Personally, I think it works like this: you have a very few basic plots and then you have a double handful of directions for those plots.  Lemme break it down.

Basic plots, also defined as types of conflict (because you can’t have a plot without conflict):

  • Man vs Man
  • Man vs Himself
  • Man vs Nature/the Environment
  • Man vs Society
  • Man vs God/the Supernatural

Note: Some have replaced Man vs the Supernatural with Man vs Technology. I say technology can fit into different categories depending on the situation. For instance, in Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive where the technology appears to have become sentient, I think that can definitely be classified as Man vs the Supernatural. If you want to think of Man vs Tech as a separate basic plot, by all means, do so.

Now, once you have your basic conflict, or plot, you can go many different directions with it. These directions, as put forth by Christopher Booker (who calls them basic plots), are Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy (comedy of errors, not just anything humorous), Tragedy (the hero falls), Rebirth (or transformation), Rebellion, and Mystery.

Perhaps your story is a rags-to-riches tale in which a man must overcome his own deep-rooted issues to triumph. This is a Man vs Man plot with a Rags to Riches direction.

A hundred thousand writers could write a rags-to-riches tale in which a man must overcome his own deep-rooted issues to triumph. They would all be using the same basic plot, the same direction. However, no two writers would tell the same story. Some tales would be humorous, and others serious. Some would involve magic and other fantastical elements. Another might be a space western. Some might feature a fantastical creature such as a vampire or werewolf as the protagonist who must overcome. And even the stories that managed to use similar elements would be written in different styles and voices.

They say the devil is in the details, but in this case, the story is in the details. What makes one book (or movie) stand out from the next isn’t the plot, but the story—the characters and setting and mood, the dialogue and the worldbuilding, ever y big and little detail that fits together to form the big picture.

So if you’re afraid your plot is too basic, don’t be, because when you break it down far enough, plot isn’t a very big piece of the pie. Concentrate instead on your story, on the details that flesh out the skeleton of the plot and make it the unique and beautiful work that only you can write.


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