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Plot vs. Story – A Definitive Guide to Writing Elements

Plot vs. Story – Every profession has its own myths. Doctors always stay healthy, teachers only work 6 hours a day, all firemen are MensXP models; writers are creative. Among various myths that find mention in writers’ folk tales, there is always one that says this or at least some form of it “there can’t be a plotless story in a book”. Go to a publisher and the first thing they ask for is reading fees… and then probably a plot. Book plot – it’s not even a consciously thought-worthy element for many writers at all. And yet some of them have one of the most tight-knit plots in the literary world. Your reading this and finding the visible lack of a plot in your story is something that this write-up is going to address. So here we are debunking all myths and shedding some sunshine on the difference or similarity between plot and story.

Plot vs. Story – Approach to book writing

“No one is capable of writing a 200 page or 500-page book! Period. What every writer does is write a 5 chapter – 50 chapter book. Writers or to-be-writers, are commonly asked “what’s the plot you’re working on? What’s your story”. And it’s generally asked like those two terms are interchangeable. And as if plot and story were not enough, writers also have to concentrate upon the theme, characters, inflections, research, narratives, and whatnot. Instead of finding all of these in one’s ideas before writing a book; it’s better to uncover them one-by-one. Or as Anne Lamott would say “Take it Bird by Bird”. That’s what her mantra of success is – “unfold your passion and its intended outcomes one by one”. But that still doesn’t answer the question, “what’s the difference between plot and story?”

Difference between Plot and Story

Think of it in terms of how one looks at one’s own book/novel idea. Everything but the very idea of your book itself is the plot. The simplest version of your book is its story. The journey of a young boy to avenge his parents killed by a wizard – Harry Potter Series. How a shepherd finds an unknown treasure he saw in a dream last night – The Alchemist. Kinsman to the Scottish throne, a subject beguiled by witches charts his path towards becoming the King – Macbeth. All examples of stories…

But ask yourself, would Harry Potter have worked without Hermoine, Severus Snape, Tri-Wizard Cup, Deathly Hallows? Would you’ve read Alchemist without the Soul of the World Sandstorm in the camp, the Crystal Merchant in Tangier? Even Shakespeare would not have written the Macbeth without Malcolm or Lady Macbeth herself, or perhaps the assassination of Banquo. Binding agents of a story meant for keeping the reader on track, together form the plot of a book. A story is as much a necessity for any book as the plot is.

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Kurt Vonnegut version of Plot vs. Story

To say that books and novels are dependent on stories and plots would be misleading for any writing aspirant. Plotless stories like Hamlet can become the greatest masterpieces of all time. Self-help books seldomly have a holistic plot or story at all, it’s generally blatant narrative. ‘Multiple plots in one story’ has been the conventional ‘rabbit-out-of-hat’ trick for writers. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley, anyone??

Still confused? Let’s go the Kurt Vonnegut way! Mechanical Engineer by education this American writer professes the idea of scientific thinking in writing. All stories and books can be plotted on a cartesian plane (2D graph) according to him. Here listen to him for more detail.

All stories have a beginning and an end between which they rise and fall through an index of happiness to sorrow. That’s how ‘plot’ and story adjust for any book. The status of narrative with respect to the emotion it inflicts upon the reader forms the combination of Story and Plot.

Change of facts in a book refers to the progress of the story, while its rate of change is what’s defined by the plot.

‘Plot’ adds volume to a story, like sand to a concrete mixture; it binds the book literally. Margaret Atwood cannot emphasize enough that one cannot control how the reader would lead with a story. She’d never suggested that the prime character of her ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ was ‘June’. It’s the readers who made that decision from the first print edition. A plot offers the reader a direction, and if not that it at least keeps them from leading astray.

Elements of a Plot – Freytag’s Pyramid

There’s a lot more to the ‘beginning, middle, end’ scheme of any book. Every book is not meant to have closure, nor are books meant to have an origins explanation. Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and White’ leaves one with a feeling that a chapter or two are missing. ‘Catcher in the Rye’ abruptly opens with a character un-introduced to fresh readers of Salinger, in post World War 2 times. No one knows where this character came from, which is actually from a previous fiction novel written by him. This volatility in the plots is also evidently a proof of their uniformity explained by something called the ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’. It explains the 7 elements which every novel, every book, every literary piece eventually follows.

Freytag’s Pyramid – Elements of Plot Structure

  1. Exposition
  2. Inciting Incident
  3. Rising Action
  4. Climax
  5. Falling Action
  6. Resolution
  7. Denouement

Exposition – Big Bang or Genesis (depending on your religious inclination, pun intended!) of your story. Contradictory to the popular sentiment, the exposition does not necessarily mean introducing your characters. Books may open with geographical-political-social setup. London and its Lincoln’s Inn Hall come to life at the exposition of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. The intriguing expression of weather and chores of court leading subtly to an order that’s going to be pivotal in the later parts of the story acts as the perfect hook.

Inciting Incident – When Harry and friends found the thief’s door at the restricted 3rd floor in the Philosopher’s Stone, it changed everything for the book. They tried to find out about the ‘3-headed dog’, ‘Nicholas Flamel’, and ‘Snape’s absence’. That’s an inciting incident for any writer. When the letter addressed to a Mrs. Bixby signed by Abraham Lincon is read by Gen. George C. Marshall to his 3 War Department Colonels about the grief and load of writing to a mother of 5 that all his sons had been taken by the war – the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ changed its course.

An incidence – any trivial as it may seem – but leading to a series of actions that hurls the reader into a chain of events that form the core of the story. Mostly formulated by action-reaction or cause-effect relation between the protagonist and other elements of the story.

Science of plot vs story
Kurt Vonnegut – Science of Writing

Rising Action – The map that the reader follows to find what the writer wants to show. Ordered events with each penultimate act laying the premise for the next one to come, strongly leading to a convergence where all information finally starts making sense. Everything in Don Quixote (Miguel De Cervantes) after he’s been knighted by the innkeeper is ‘rising action’ right till the moment he meets the Knight of White Moon.

Want to write a good ‘Rising Action’? Make it emotion-neutral. The reader, whatever meaning he-or-she might have assumed from the story till now, has formed a unique opinion exclusive to his-her consciousness. Lean not on your expertise but the very ability of your reader to explore the deepest ends of their own mind.

Read More: about the typical journey of a book from ideation through writing and finally publishing. Visit the Journey of Book [Infographic] here.

Climax – For the better part of the plot, literature stays in control of the story, but not after the ‘Climax’. The ‘Climax’ is a converging point where the plot makes changes evident enough to suggest a shift in this status quo. Now the story – protagonist or for better or worse – an antagonist is controlling the story. It’s intentional – not suggesting the necessity of climax in any plot, because not every plot needs one. ‘Hamlet’ never had a climax, while most would think that Hamlet stabbing Polonius in Act III is the main climax of the play but so is Act IV Scene IV when Hamlet renders his “‘thoughts be bloody’.

Falling Action – Not necessarily indicative of fall in the enthusiasm of the story ‘Falling Action’ is a process of leading towards the closure. Incidences aimed at closing all portals opened at the time of rising action. It could also mean the redemption of the protagonist-antagonist to establish the character of their becoming; either their culmination, reversal, satiation, expansion, or proclamation. In the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata after the great battle between Kauravas and Pandavas is done and dusted with, death of Duryodhana, the curse of Gandhari, death of Pandav sons, destruction of Krishna’s clan all fall in the category of falling action.

Resolution – For all writers seeking to write a genre-specific manuscript, here’s a fun fact – ‘it’s the resolution that decides if your story is going to be a tragedy, comedy, or something altogether different’. Loss of love makes the story tragedy, victory in war makes it. Resolution is where all the other elements of your story transfer their energy to anyone singular element; character, promise, conflict, or anything else. Careful! The resolution does not lend an end to the plot, but the meaning of it.

In the Red Dragon, Will Graham, having considered that Francis Dolarhyde is dead, moves back to Florida only to find him attacking him and his family once again. In the final gruesome fight between Will and Dolarhyde, Will surfaces victorious as Molly (his wife) shoots Dolarhyde. Although everything that the story had built till now has transpired to this moment, that doesn’t mean that it has ended. There’s still more and yet the reader has found sole satisfaction in this moment and the remaining story is just ‘bonus’.

Denouement – Guilty pleasure of the writer! The portion where the writer converts the reader interest into their dismay – a longing for an extension. The free fall of ‘story’ from a satisfying instance to the last page, the writer fluctuates between various moods so frequently that they almost appear neutral. Every element of the story is now brought to the same speed and suggested as a means to the end. It is here that the writer lays another opening – a second or third book – or complete closure.

In the chapter ‘Alice’s Evidence’ when Alice presents her case at the trial and finally finds that Wonderland is indeed a making of her imagination in dreams; that’s when Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carrol) is spinning the story around the axis of Alice’s puerile being. Finally retracing the plot in the view of her sister allows the reader to affirm the story as a fantasy story compared to the action-packed quest. A happy ending – just like children’s books ‘SHOULD HAVE’.

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Into the Plot vs. Story Territory – Elements of Story

But ‘plot’ is something that you don’t begin with. A common mistake of amateur writers is to start with the structure, how the story would flow, how it would open and end. Ask any of the writers who’ve written 20 probably 50 stories; they’d tell you that their novels start from some incidence that’s happening after what might seem like the 50th page of the actual manuscript. Thus one starts with more mortals elements, characters, plot coupons; anecdotes.

It’s appropriate to say that story are coordinates, combination of happiness or sorrow with respect to the time elapsed in a story; stacked in order or disorder while Plot is rate of change that the stack goes through, the differential of story; the derivative of its elements both in the literal and academic sense. But like a plot, what are the elements of a story?

Elements of Writing

Elements of Plot

Elements of Story

Exposition

Promise

Inciting Incident

Conflict

Rising Action

Character

Climax

Narration

Falling Action

Dialogue

Resolution

Point of View

Denouement

Tone or Mood

Promise – Read this one. It’s not like the common report that you’d watch on tv in prime time news. It’s not a lecture at Albert Hall wherse you have to carry your lunch and pay for the DVD.

Attribution of readers’ interest towards the belief that this manuscript is a unique, interesting and enlightening read is a PROMISE. A suggestive glimpse of characters to come, premise of any event, conjunction between two chapters (consecutive or apart), and flashbacks are some of the known ways to induce a writer’s promise.

But promises are tricky and the most mathematical elements of writing a book. They’re intended, measured, positioned for calculated outcomes. Checkov’s Gun is a common practice of eliminating promises which do not add value or are rendered irrelevant due to delay or falsification. Anton Checkov used to say “One must not place a loaded rifle on the stage if it’s not going to go off”.

Q & A by Vikas Swarup (Slumdog Millionaire) made a promise to the reader right at the beginning that the protagonist Ram Mohammad Thomas has already won the quiz show (Who Wants To Win a Billion?). The remaining book was going to be a thrill ride about how he actually managed it. There were other promises in the story like the killing of Mr. Shantaram – the drunkard father of Gudiya – his childhood friend, whom he had promised to protect like a brother. To know more about these, drop the movie and read the book.

Conflict – Conjunctions make a ‘story’ what it really is. ‘But, if, because, then, yet, so’; there would be nothing worth reading in a  story without these mini-obstacles. Conflict is the restriction of a story to unwind itself, the element of writing which keeps the story from ending without having accomplished anything.

The existence of an intergalactic peacekeeping force that maintains order in the universe is a mad man’s dream, just like a UFO sighting. But then the sudden rise of a long-dormant league of villains who might disbalance the universal political order – now we’re talking about a screenplay, a book, perhaps a movie – Star Wars – The Phantom Menace??

Probably one might need to have what we call an ‘Intention’ to begin with, in order to have a conflict but that’s not at all necessary. Also, the more formidable a conflict is the wider the interest of the reader is.

Observe the story through your reader’s glasses and ask yourself, had the reader been in the current situation; what would have stopped him/her from moving on. Et voilà !! We have our conflict.

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Characters – If a writer were asked “who are the owners of any story”, the appropriate answer would be ‘Its Characters’. ‘Story’ is what falls upon a CHARACTER, or what they do. The population of a book by actionable figures is the development of characters. They need not be living. Gryffindor’s Sword is as much a character of Harry Potter as Harry himself.

However, it must be noticed that characters are never real unless it’s a biography. Only their illusion is real. No one in their right mind could imagine a creature made of multiple human body parts powered by electricity and developed in the attic of a deranged doctor. But as long as it gives the reader an experience, they’d formulate his image from the detail given.

Characters need to be visible though, they need to be additive, and perhaps closer to protagonists or antagonists. Deciding a character’s need is defined by acts of a story, characters are what they do in a story; their need is self-fulfilling. Remember, whenever the natural course of a story requires influence to suggest creative awe or change in the flow; a character needs to be there.

Bishop Aringarosa was villain enough to obviate the need of Sir Leigh Teabing as the antagonist in the Da Vinci Code. But the story demanded a ‘false protagonist’ to keep the non-prejudicial treatment of ‘Knights Templars – Priory of Sion’ and still fill the gaps opened by the narrative of the ‘Teacher’.

Narrative – Writing gel that fills up spaces? False. In fact, a Lie! Narrative doesn’t fill up spaces. It’s what the story actually is when it’s not the character, the action or the object. ‘Narrative’ is breaking up a perfectly coherent story into pieces and arranging them separated by other elements of the story so as to keep the story intact.

It’s imperative to understand that narrative is the story minus any other element. Usually, elements come in pairs, in triplets, sometimes all of them put together in one paragraph and a reader needs a break to recant what has been read and what is to come. That’s what narrative accomplishes.

‘Narrative’ is talking about itself and within that again talking about itself into an infinite loop until the story has thoroughly contrasted against all viewpoints. But it still has to be simple enough, or else it might become yet again a non-narrative.

While Mowgli (The Jungle Book – Rudyard Kipling) was learning to become a village citizen, trying to figure out how money works in the civilized communities until he got named a Shepherd who was to keep the buffaloes. And then once again when he met ‘The Gray brother’ while taking the buffaloes away from the village after calling Buldeo a liar – both of these parts might seem irrelevant when being read for the first time, but they are very much significant inclinations towards the fact that buffaloes had something to do with the climax of the plot – death of Shere Khan. The Nobel winning writer carefully unspooled portions of the story itself to suggest an upcoming portion only to make it an evident observation that the reader might credit him/herself with.

elements-of-plot-vs-story-infographic
[Infographic] Elements of Writing

Dialogue – The most realistic element of the whole writing facade. Want to write good dialogue, write it the way you’d do it. It’s a practice in discovering the aspects of other elements of the story, most probably the character itself. It’s progressive, informative, emotionally rich part of the story that gets to tell more than what it actually means.

Fun Fact  – Shakespeare iambic pentameters are rhythmic arrangements of dialogue syllables in such a way that they form a crest-trough set of five. Human speech tends to pair syllables in a phonetic arrangement of stress and release actions. Shakespeare frequently used this device in his dialogues for all his plays. Example – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Dialogues mostly have to be short, two-way, and most probably grammatically free of any guilt. No! Slang is not allowed, but one might occasionally take the cover of ostensible grammar hiccups. Monologues have to be written most carefully unless they are an anecdote, a subplot in itself, no one imagines a monologue to be real enough – ultimately a disconnected reader.

Plot vs. Story – A final word

It’s not that all elements of writing a book are summed up within the bounds of a plot or a story. There are still more elements which either fall within the ambit of these two or exist independently and are equally important. Red Herring for once is a literary device that we readers commonly use to plant false evidence and mislead the audience in order to eliminate any chance of the reader in identifying the obvious revelations of the story. Trusting in the narcissistic intuitive ability of the reader is an old writers’ habit. Or, Magical Realism – something that’s written in the real image of regional observations from the world which defy common understanding of the reader so vividly that it seems unreal. For now, the Plot vs. Story remains a miscalled debate which can only be resolved by knowing that each holds unique but not exclusive importance for any reader or writer. Write on! And you may find the answer in your own way.

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