Plot vs Story - A Guide to Understanding the Difference

Index cards being laid out by a writer under a three act structure

What is the difference between Plot and Story?

Plot and story are often used as interchangeable terms in regard to storytelling. However, plot and story do not mean the same thing. They refer to two different elements of a narrative. If you want to craft a compelling and coherent story it’s important to recognize and understand the difference. A strong narrative cannot exist with only story nor only plot; both of these elements must be present and work together. Unfortunately, plot often seems to be forgotten in favor of a sensational story. But I digress… So, what is the difference between plot and story? Simply put, a story consists of all the events which occur in the narrative, while the plot explains not only why the events happen, but how each event leads into the next…

Another way to think about this is “story” is the what and “plot” is the how. Let’s break this down even further. A story typically includes a protagonist, a goal, obstacles, and a resolution. The plot refers to the specific way in which the story is told, including the order of events, the pacing, the tone, and the use of any literary devices (i.e. foreshadowing or symbolism). See, the plot is not simply a retelling of the story's events. Instead, it's a carefully crafted sequence of events designed to engage audiences and create emotional resonance.

Related: How to Use Three-Act Structure

Why is it important to understand the difference between plot and story?

For one thing, it can help writers identify and address weaknesses in their storytelling. Just as any good mechanic must know how each part of the car works to ensure the car runs, any good screenwriter must know how to pick out the element of their narrative that isn’t working. For example, a story may be compelling and well-conceived, but if the plot is poorly executed, the audience may lose interest or worse become confused. If this was the case, the screenwriter must be able to diagnose which piece of the plot is not clearly conveying the desired effect. Similarly, a well-crafted plot can only take a story so far if the underlying story is weak or uninteresting.

Another reason why understanding the difference between plot and story is imperative is because it can enable writers to choose the most effective narrative structure for their work. Let’s look at a possible example. Say you have a story that relies heavily on the use of flashbacks and incorporates nonlinear storytelling. A story of this sort will require a different plot structure than a straightforward linear story. By understanding the relationship between plot and story, writers are able to make informed decisions about how to properly structure their work and create the most engaging and effective narrative.

Plot and story are both essential elements of any narrative and understanding the difference between the two is crucial if you wish to be a competent screenwriter. Just remember, if you find yourself stumbling over the difference or how to improve one or the other, take a step back and remember… Story contains the events and characters of your creative work. Plot is how you choose to tell your story, its order of events, and your artistic choices. Knowing this distinction will also assist you in future conversations you may have with fellow creatives or professionals.

More: Everything You Need to Know About Plot

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