Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Meat and Potatoes: Plot v Story

Maybe you've heard this story versus plot thing before, and you've wondered exactly what it is. Simply put:

Plot is the sequence of events at it's absolute most basic.
Story is everything else.

Here's an example to illustrate.

PLOT: Ships land on a foreign shore, and the people who came take resources from the new land. Boy from ships falls in love with native. Stands up to his people...

Now, if your STORY is that the Invaded People are blue and 8 feet tall, and Boy is in a wheel chair, then you've got AVATAR.

But if you're STORY is that the Invaded People are Native Americans, and Boy is a blond Londoner, you get POCAHONTAS.

Think of PLOT as the meat and potatoes. STORY is all the seasonings.

If you stick some meat and potatoes in a pot and boil them, you can make a meal. But without any seasoning, it's going to be very bland.

And you wouldn't eat a bowl of ketchup, pepper, and curry, would you?

It is possible to have a solid plot, with very few story details, but it feels generic to read. And plot, without story just feels pointless.


We hear from time to time, "There's just no plot." (When you hear it from me, you'll probably hear "Nothing Happened!") From the earlier analogies, it sounds kind of impossible. How could you forget to put the 'food' in your food? Wouldn't you notice if you only had condiments in the pot?


Maybe not.

Every year, on January 1, people around the world make resolutions about how they will be better this year. Clearly, they've had failings in the last year (and the year before that and the year before that...). Sometimes, they realise that they really haven't done anything in a whole year. Obviously they've done stuff. They got up every morning, and they showered, and they ate, and they watched tv, and read a book or two. But they haven't DONE ANYTHING. They're the same person at the end of the year that they were at the beginning.

They got all caught up in the story, and forgot about the plot.


Here are a few tips to find plot troubles! If you have difficulties doing any of these things, plot may the culprit.

1. Write a 1 page synopis or a query.
2. Draw a flow chart of the action in your story.
3. Summarise each chapter with a single sentence.


If your story doesn't have enough plot, brainstorm and see what cogs you can through in the wheels. Can the MC discover something he or she didn't know? Can some outside circumstance derail the MC's plan?

If your plot advances too fast, you can add some scenes that flesh out more character. Or use a minor character or subplot to slow the roll. If your plot is too slow, you can focus a little less on character and setting description. Or tone down or subtract a subplot. Or you can add elements to the main plot.

You can crank up the tension by playing around with your plot order. (Note the story always happens in the same order, but plot order can change for effect. For example: the first thing that happens in a murder mystery, is the murder, but you don't know whodunit 'til the end.) Write the chapter summaries on index cards and move them around. You can also add plot elements to put more at stake.

Chapter summaries and flow charts can also help you find plot holes. You can see at a glance where the plot doesn't flow smoothly, and you can add/change elements to help it along.

I'm really not an expert, so I hope this can be of some use. Here are two other articles on story v plot here and here. I think what the second defines as story is more premise, but they have great examples of plot.


carla said...

oooh I needed this today for my workjob (as opposed to my bloggingjob :))

have you read McKees book STORY?

I adore it.


Unknown said...

This is really good. I've never heard it put this way.


ElbieNy25 said...

Claire you wonderful wonderful women. Please help me figure out how to finish off my sequel? I am so close and I'm sure (or hoping) you miss reading my stuff. You always have such amazing insight and I've been bone dry for months now.

Anne R. Allen said...

Excellent advice--and very well put. I love the idea of summarizing each chapter in a sentence. So simple, but a great tool. So often, a number of chapters say the same thing over and over.

Anonymous said...
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Natalie Aguirre said...

Great post. I loved the meat and potato analogy even though I am a vegetarian.

Marsha Sigman said...

I love this...and I love meat and potatoes...with ketchup.

Jan Morrison said...

Excellent and very helpful. A good distinction which could help locate a story or plot gone missing! I'm in revision and I think your plot helps will be great...
Jan Morrison

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Amy Holder said...

You really have a great way of explaining things. I love your examples and analogies. Good job!