Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Plot vs. Story

The moving parts of a piece of fiction are well known to every writer who has been able to sell work consistently to the larger publishers.

Every workshop I've taught in where I've watched other writers analyze student work has shown me clearly that every single writer who has perfected a system (any system -- everyone invents their own working system) for producing completed works of fiction knows these moving parts.

And most really successful writers are self-taught so they have invented terminology for what they perceive and need to manipulate in order to produce salable work.

I've seen the words Plot and Story used interchangeably, with some other word used to designate the Plot when the word "Plot" is used to designate the "story."

It can be terribly confusing for beginners, and I suspect that's why writers are mostly self-taught.

Learning to write is a process of discovery.

Recently, on LinkedIn, I answered a question about whether you write for love or for money, and I said LOVE.

You can only write for love, really, because getting money for your writing is more a gamble, like venture capital. Venture capitalists love what they're doing enough to gamble on it.

BUT -- having love igniting your need to write, your true personality shows through and you land somewhere on a spectrum from utter carelessness of maybe "well writing is an unskilled profession anyone can do" or egotistical "I can do anything without half-trying" all the way down to a choked-up, self-defeating "I don't know HOW because nobody ever taught me, and everything I produce is embarrassing trash."

Well, nobody ever will teach you. But you don't already know how to write if you haven't put in the necessary effort to teach yourself.

And if you truly love what you need to write, and truly need to have that message reach someone you don't even know, then you will be greatly moved to learn the craft of writing, and maybe even delve deeply into the art behind the craft.

Again, your true personality will show through, along with your absorbed values, in the manner in which you approach this task.

You may go to amazon and buy a lot of expensive books on the theory that they will "teach" you. (personally, I'd hit the free local library first) Or more likely today you'll Google up some instructions.

So learning "to write" is a process, and the first step in the process is learning that you don't know "how" to do it. You know how to read a novel, but you don't know how to reverse that process into writing a novel until you've really taught yourself and then practiced what you've learned.

Reading is the first step in learning to write, but it's reading that is very different from the reading that readers do. A writer reads to reverse-engineer the fiction into its moving parts, it's necessary components.

You already know all the unnecessary components of your own story that you must write for love. The unnecessary parts are the really interesting parts for a reader, and it's the payload the writer must deliver.

But the second step in learning to read like a writer is learning to be interested in the VEHICLE that delivers the payload. That vehicle has a chassis composed of these moving parts we've been discussing individually. The same chassis can carry a large number of different genre-vehicles.

Now, in response to questions asked in the comments section of these blog posts, we are going to look at how to connect the moving parts we've examined into a chassis strong enough to carry that payload which you are creating out of love of it.

Writers who muddle their way into the craft and teach themselves to get to consistent, professional (make a living at it) word production eventually discover the nature of these mechanical parts of the composition and discover how the writer manipulates these parts to produce that final, polished work.

But being self-taught, or taught by someone who was self-taught, they use different terms to refer to the parts of the chassis and the connecting links.

So, like everyone else, I've adopted some terms from my teacher, and I've sorted out the moving parts of the composition, and given them names and learned how to mold them into place.

Maybe my terminology will illuminate these interior (necessarily invisible in the finished product) moving parts for you.

So let's see if we can walk and chew gum, juggle a few plates, and spin a lug-wrench at the same time.

On http://editingcircle.blogspot.com/ which is for learning exercises for writers, back in March 2009 Ozambersand raised a question which I answered at length in the comments section of one of my posts.


In July, I posted two explorations of Scene Structure on this Alien Romance blog which now contains over 800 posts, so here is one of the URLs


That's Part 2, and you'll find the link to Part 1 in there.

In the comments from Part 1 and Part 2 on Scene Structure, one of Linnea Sinclair's writing students, Kathleen McGiver and a new commenter here Sharon, asked about the difference between Plot and Story. ozambersand kindly searched out that bit that I had written in a comment, and here it is for the record excerpted from the comments on worldbuilding-trunk-ated.


PLOT is the sequence of things that happen, EVENTS. Events must be displayed in a because-chain to make a plot.


Because Obama was elected President, Stem Cell Research will be revived, and because of the research Somebody will be cured of paralysis, and then be elected President. PLOT. EVENTS. BECAUSE.

STORY is what those events mean to the characters emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, or in life.

Story is also linked to Because and is the result or cause (motive) behind (BEHIND) Events in the Plot.

Because Obama fulfilled his lifelong dream to be President, he has discovered that he doesn't know everything and can't do everything at once. Now, he doesn't know why he can't seem to hire enough of the right people to fully staff his administration. "Oh, why are the people I admire tax cheats?" The Events leading to his discovery of the answer to that question is his STORY. The Events themselves are the PLOT.

The BACKGROUND is President and White House and Recession and Bank Crisis and Middle East. Everyone reading the story knows all that.

The FOREGROUND is winning election, choosing and hiring people, admiring people, being admired, spending political capital, making risky choices, living with the HUGE consequences.

Look at a painting, say a portrait -- Mona Lisa. The chair, the blurry sketch of buildings and hills, sky, even her dress is BACKGROUND. The FOREGROUND is her face and hands.

Take a genre - Urban Fantasy - the URBAN part is background, the FANTASY is foreground because you have to explain the laws of magic etc in that universe and to be worth explaining they have to generate plot.

STORY is the character's personal experience and responses to the things that happen - the psychological and spiritual lessons learned.

The story of a man who falls in love with a thief only to discover the folly of attempting to reform her and decides to learn her craft and join her.

The BACKSTORY is all that went on before the plot begins, the things that happened that made them what they are.

BACKSTORY - The son of an ex-Nun and a seminary student who married for Love, falls in love with a thief and learns the folly - etc.

Who his parents were is backstory -- they never appear overtly in the novel, but their presence is in every word he utters, every decision he makes whether he knows it or not. You don't have to tell the reader the BACKSTORY (often it's better if you don't -- that's why you need all these other tools, so you'll have other ways to convey the information where necessary).

But you have to know the backstory to keep everything in the novel consistent and believable.

The B-story is the story arc of a character who is a confidant or intimate-enemy of the A-story's main character.

As I pointed out previously, the B-story character is often the last invented and is a sub-set or factor of the A-story main character -- someone he/she confides in and spills his guts to. In a film, the B-story carries your THEME.

The A Story main character pours out their heart (in a few choice lines) to the B-story character, thus informing the audience what's inside the A-story character that maybe even the A-story character does not know.

The glue that holds plot and story together is the THEME. I've done a number of posts on theme here, especially in the posts on Worldbuilding.

When the THEME does not glue the Plot to the Story, or bolt it on firmly with lots of grease so it moves nicely, or weld it so it can't move, when the THEME doesn't connect the plot to the story, then the EVENTS in the plot happen, but they don't happen TO ANYONE. The events become meaningless and readers get bored.

When the STORY doesn't change the characters actions, then the EVENTS don't proceed from the story through the theme, and again readers get bored reading about a single character's angst without events that illuminate and change that angst.

A well written composition will have the plot and the story so tightly welded or so perfectly articulated and well greased, that the reader can't tell the difference between plot and story. Each event and each reaction will be both at once.

But to create that effect, the writer has to know the difference.

In addition to doing all that, the World you build to cradle your plot and story has to explicate your theme. It's rooted in your theme. And the fastest, most efficient way to build the right world for this plot and story is to build the world from the theme.

Remember, art is a selective recreation of reality, not reality itself. It's what you select to leave out that makes it art, and that communicates your theme.

Theme is a game you play with your readers.

No two writers do this process of inventing moving parts of a story the same way.

Even a given writer will invent stuff in different orders for different projects. That's called creativity. It isn't a science. It isn't reproducible by other people. It's "magic" -- and its procedures depend more on who you are at that moment than on what you're trying to accomplish.

In other words, how you go about inventing the moving parts that will form the chassis that will carry your payload to your reader depends on where you are on that spectrum I mentioned above. Remember too that you as an individual can move along that spectrum from too timid to too confident, and may in fact rattle back and forth between the extremes during the writing of a particular work. Rattling back and forth may be a sign that the writing is going well!

Yet there are rules. Creating a work of fiction is not random or chaotic. It has a system behind it. Your system. Not anyone else's. (Rattling might be part of your system, but I don't advise teaching that part.)

When your work of fiction is all done, it can be reverse engineered to expose the moving parts and their relationship to each other (glued, bolted, welded).

In fact, most of the enjoyment that a reader gets out of a novel comes from their "kitten-and-ball-of-twine" unraveling of the beautiful, polished composition you've presented to them. But keep in mind, the reader who is not a writer doesn't really want or need to win that game with the writer.

Take Mystery Writing, for example. Readers want to joust with the writer to solve the mystery before the writer reveals all. But if it's too easy, the reader doesn't enjoy the game and won't read that writer's stuff again. If it's too hard, the reader who is not a writer likewise won't enjoy the game and won't read that writer again.

Getting it just right, hiding the moving parts of your composition, is an artform, and a game you play with the readers. It has to be fun or it isn't worth it.

Reverse engineering fiction to understand the story gives one the illusion that one understands the everyday world better. And since it's magic, the illusion can become reality. Magic is done via imagination and emotion, both of which are best delivered via fiction.

The theme is what communicates most loudly to readers, the handle by which they remember the novel and your byline. That's why the title has to be the theme, so they can remember it and recommend it. A theme portrays the world as the artist's eye sees it. A theme can say the world has meaningfulness, or that life has a meaning, or that life is meaningless and futile, or that the world is merely a figment of your imagination.

Fiction that bespeaks a theme that explains a reader's reality with verisimilitude can change the way the reader sees their world, and thus change the story of their life, and thus change the plot of their life as they make choices based on this thematic insight.

Or a work of fiction can just be loads of fun to read and not affect the reader much if at all.

Which way a work affects a reader is not the writer's choice. But it is a sobering consideration when tossing off a trash novel under a pseudonym or as a work-for-hire.

So the writer has to work at inventing and arranging the moving parts and putting them together to make a picture so that the reader can take the picture apart and understand it as pieces.

How can writer and reader work together to have the most possible fun?


That's the answer to almost everything about writing craft.

Theme is the organizing principle, and it is the subject about which writer and reader are communicating.

So no matter what the sequential order in which the writer invents the moving parts of a work of fiction, at some point before finishing the composition, the writer has to step back from creativity and take a long, jaundiced look at what has been created and exercise that artistic selectivity.

Which pieces to use, which to showcase, which to emphasize, which to show and which to tell can all be determined by reference to the theme.

To find the theme of this particular piece, ask yourself "What am I trying to say, here?" What's the take-away these readers should hold onto?

Do I want to say, "The business cycle can not and SHOULD NOT be eliminated?" Or do I want to say "Recessions and Depressions are a natural part of human commerce and we just have to live with them or commerce will stop."

Either statement could become an "in your face" approach to some non-human culture that arrives in Earth Orbit ready to trade for primitive artifacts like iPods, bound books and quaint little discs called Blu-Ray. (Argsel! You won't believe this! The pictures are all flat! It's abstract primitive art! We'll make a fortune!!!)

A novel, or a series of novels set in a well built world, has to take a stand on some philosophical point, and ask and answer (even if tentatively) a set of questions about that point. A set of questions. Set. They have to go together in a chain like a movie Detective interrogates a prisoner.

So if the plot is a Romance, then the core theme has to be something akin to LOVE CONQUERS ALL. But a specific Romance could say it's a good thing or a bad thing that love conquers all.

Whether it's good or bad depends on, well, for example, if you're the King who needs his Heir to marry fellow royalty for the alliance, but love conquers your plan and the Heir runs away with a peasant, then "love conquers all" is a real bad thing.

The social and economic problems that proceed from that runaway Heir and his heirs could make for a wildly successful series of Action Romance novels. Drop a comment with series that follow this pattern if you can think of any. There are quite a few.

So in the case of the Runaway Heir and his 10 kids raised on a farm, the STORY is that the Heir tussles with his responsibility to the throne and in his final epiphany (in the first novel) wrenchingly decides that his personal revulsion for being King overrides the Kingdom's need for him to be King. And he escapes (from some trap the King created) and goes running off to rescue his Beloved.

That's the story.

Here's the Heir's Character Arc, his story. "I have to become King. I love this Peasant. I have to marry this Princess-Shrew (who's a great manager and ought to be a Queen). I don't want to become King. I would make a terrible King and probably murder that Princess-Shrew. I refuse to marry Shrew. I love Peasant Woman. I WILL NOT ACCEPT MY FATE." That's the story arc, from accepting the fate of becoming King after his father, to rejecting it.

The PLOT is the sequence of events that TELLS THAT STORY.

Now if the story is the arc from accepting fate to rejecting fate, then the THEME (underneath the Love Conquers All theme) has to be something like "Birth is not Destiny" or "I am a person who can make my own decisions" or "Fate is not decreed by God." Or maybe "God Makes Mistakes and I'm One Of Them".

Pick a theme that EXPLAINS WHY the character goes from Accept to Reject to Action.

Using that theme create the PLOT. And don't forget that all this is cast in SCENES.

But before you break the narrative into scenes, you need the 4 cardinal points of the plot structure (unless you are a pantser today).

Say, for example:

Open - a huge gala PALACE BALL introducing Heir to Princess-Shrew, Peasant serving in the kitchen?

1/4 - Heir causes the Princess to reveal her nasty personality and hatred for the Heir's kingdom and contempt for the kingdom's King.

1/2 - Heir compares the two and chooses Peasant as the better person, tries to get Peasant qualified to become his Queen. FAILS (1/2 to a HEA ending is the FAILURE part)

3/4 - Heir arrives at his long foreshadowed epiphany about his destiny and rejects the Kingdom and his father. Princess-Shrew was right not to respect the King. 3/4 result is that Peasant is imprisoned by King to prevent contact with Heir to force or blackmail Heir into marrying Princess.

END - Heir breaks Peasant out of prison, does something definitive to thwart the ambitions of Princess-Shrew, and Heir and Peasant take a powder, riding off into the sunset to an HEA.

OPENING OF FIRST SEQUEL - the King dies, throwing the Kingdom into political chaos. Nobody knows where the Heir went. He's probably dead. The Bells Toll.

I can already plot out 3 sequels, a multigeneration series, with the original Heir dying at 95 and telling his 30 year old grandson that the grandson is actually the King of Whatever and that's why the grandson has fallen in love with the Queen of Whichever (Whatever and Whichever are your Worldbuilding elements). Royalty is best off marrying Royalty and there's no hiding the fact of Royalty. (That is, the Heir's character arc has continued full circle back to his childhood acceptance of his role in the world).

Note how the STORY is all about "I" and how I feel about things and what I want and what I reject.

Note how the PLOT is "Heir" + ACTIVE VERB

In this plot, "Heir" is the main POV character. "It" is his "story." The story arc is all about what's going on inside Heir, therefore it is his story, therefore he's the main POV character, gets the most lines of dialogue and the most face-time.

Because it's his story, it is his PLOT. The important EVENTS that change the SITUATION are all generated by his ACTION. Every other character's arc and story and plot-moves all support the Heir's story and plot.

The cast of characters has to be organized like that, in heirarchy, to create a neat composition for the reader to reverse engineer. It's easy to organize the characters once you have the themes organized as I showed you in

Note how both the story and the plot illustrate the THEME. Maybe the theme of the first novel in this Heir And Princess series is "I won't take it any more."

If the Heir's story arcs back (at age 95) to acceptance of his Royalty, then the theme the writer is displaying to the reader, the bit of "reality" the reader "takes away" says things like there is an inherent difference between people because of their genes or the status of their birth parents. Or perhaps it says, the old Greek Myth lesson that you can't escape your destiny, all is foretold at birth. Some of us aren't people, but rather objects on the chessboard. There can be no HEA if you resist your destiny.

How the arc develops and ends bespeaks the theme.

The moving parts of any work of fiction aimed at a wide audience will always have this kind of mechanism. The best writers hide that mechanism beneath layers of flesh and blood.

The exact same mechanism can support literally thousands of tales, none of which even remotely resemble the others, but all of which will delight pretty much the same audience.


Here are 3 posts I did on THEME




Now everybody run quick and post a comment THANKING OZAMBERSAND for finding this tidbit on plot and story that I had lost.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. This is just so dang brilliant. ::Linnea grovels::

    We've been discussing the craft of writing, its foibles and fancies on my Yahoo Group because a couple of the students from the Romance Divas class have decided to hang out there at 'The Bar.' ;-) And I note a bit of confusion from some of them and I believe your comment on terminology is spot-on.

    I keep telling them: Follow No Rule Off A Cliff ::bows to CJ Cherryh:: but the corollary to that should also be, Don't Get Hung Up On Terminology. And Don't Sweat the Small Stuff In The First Draft.

    Writing "Rules" only work if you 1) internalize them and 2) personalize them. No one can tell you how to find theme. They can tell you how they found and understand theme and how others they know found and understand theme, but you still need to discover theme for yourself. The same goes for Plot, Story, etc.. That's why JL's post is so brilliant. It breaks it down so that anyone can internalize it.

    Writing well isn't memorizing rules. I have my Writer's Thought Cloud (posted earlier) but it's a CLOUD. It's a tad nebulous and, you ever look at clouds? They move, change shape, morph. One person may see a castle. Another sees a starship. Clouds get very personal.

    Writing fiction is like that. Part craft, part art. You need both. The craft part of clouds it that they're so much water vapor and so on. The art part of clouds is the ability to utilize the water vapor to see a castle.

    But how does understanding that a cloud is water vapor help me visualize that castle?, you ask. I don't have to know a thing about science to see a castle in the cloud. I just need my imagination.

    Ah, that's true. The first time. But what if you want to see it again? What if you had no knowledge at all what a cloud was, where it was to be found? You might look for it in your basement, your closet, the sales rack at TJ Maxx. No clouds.

    But once you understand the basic essence of what a cloud is--water vapor occuring in the atmosphere--you have a much better chance of recreating the experience. You at least would know to look UP. Going outside in the daylight would also help (though some clouds are visible at night). You also might learn, as you study what makes up cloud, that the kinds of clouds that take big puffy shapes aren't found in winter skies, but in summer skies. So now you know another fact, another rule, to help you see that cloud castle again. To help you exercise your imagination successfully.

    That's the understand you need to bring to the structure that Jacqueline so beautifully lays out. Don't get bound by it. Let it free up your creativity.


  2. Linnea:

    YES!!! Your cloud analogy is spot-on.

    As I was taught by Alma Hill, "Writing is a performing ART."

    Commercial ART has to be produced mostly from the subconscious. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? PRACTICE! Until you've forgotten more than your students will ever know. "Forgotten" being internalized, relegated to the subconscious.

    Learning to write is like learning to drive a car. At first there's so much to remember, so much to do consciously, you make mistakes. But little by little, more and more is done so automatically you stop at every stop sign or red light JUST SO and hardly know you've done anything.

    Your cloud analogy can also be used to figure out which idea floating in a pre-writer's mind actually has commercial potential.

    The trick is to inventory what you already know, and what your audience already knows, find the overlap and create with that material.

    It's just like learning to look UP to find castles in the clouds.

    To achieve any goal in the Arts, you must come to conscious knowledge of what everyone else just feels is "common knowledge" or takes for granted. Then re-internalize that common knowledge as a tool for your artistic creations.

    Maybe that's put badly. I suppose I should work on it. I hope someone reminds me to cover that topic.

    Thank you for the neat commentary! And your Cloud post was memorable. You should go to Cafe Press and make it on a platter or something.

    Maybe it'd wrap around a coffee mug.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg