November 13, 2014

Plot v/s Story

I just had the incredible fortune to attend the Writer Unboxed UnConference, a unique gathering of writers in Salem, Massachusetts for a week long study of writing craft. I've attended several conferences in the past few years, but this one was like no other. Our entire focus, every single day, every session, was on craft alone. No pitching. No marketing. Nothing but WRITING.

Yeah, it was pretty much heaven.

Now that I've had a few days to decompress from taking in all of that information, I wanted to throw out a few notes on the theme that connected nearly all of the craft sessions: focusing on STORY.

It's super easy to misconstrue plot for story, so that's the first bit of info to note. According to the brilliant Lisa Cron (highly recommend her book WIRED FOR STORY):

Story is how what happens effects someone in pursuit of a difficult goal.

Plot is HOW that happens.

Story is change. It is the Inner Journey. It must be defined to choose a plot.

Plot is externalization. It is the Outer Journey. The specifics are flexible. In a way, it doesn't MATTER what your plot is, only how it creates a sense of meaning and journey of change.

If you're anything like me, it's a relief to think this way. It's a relief to LET GO OF PLOT. To know that what matters is nailing the emotional journey of your character, especially in the first draft. Now, of course I believe that certain external specifics are better choices than others, in terms of suiting your themes, maximizing your conflict, and maintaining the pace of your story.

How to put this connection into action?

There are two opportunities: before you write, and during revision.

Before you write, it's key to identify the core elements of your STORY.

What is your character's emotional arc over the course of the story? How do they start out? How do they change by the end? Even if you have zero clue about the plot mechanisms that will get you to your conclusion, you need to have this transformative process in mind for your characters. Note, that's ALL of your characters. Ask yourself the same questions about your secondary characters. Let them star in their own complicated stories. If you begin drafting with some of this character backSTORY in mind, you'll tap into the heart of the story more effectively.

Notice how I capitalized part of backSTORY? That's because I see so many worksheets asking ten million questions about character traits that honestly don't teach you much about your characters. Instead of figuring out their favorite flavor of ice cream, ask the heavy questions: what happened in your character's past that changed his or her life? How was this moment a turning point in your character's life? How did this event leave your character with a false self image, a falsity that they will not shed until they complete the journey in your narrative? Dig in for the tough stuff, and you'll have your backSTORY.

Once you hit revision, you have another chance to evaluate your PLOT choices.

Look at the progression of the overall character arc, and examine the effectiveness of each subplot and scene. Do all of your choices support your core story? Is there a way to increase the conflict by choosing a different inciting moment? By shifting to a new quest or subplot? By changing the setting and characters present in a scene?

Once you have a draft to work with, you can hone in on the right plot choices, the ones that increase tension and raise stakes. Remember, changing your plot choices is OKAY. Your plot is just a series of steps from point A to point B. You can change those steps out for a yellow brick road. You can cut through the woods instead of following the stream. You really can steer that path where you want it to go, because plot is a function of STORY--and YOU are the storyteller.

Happy writing, everyone!


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Melanie! I'm going to use these insights as I plan out the first revision of my WIP.

    1. I'm hoping this will help me in my next round of revision, too!

  2. Thanks for an interesting and useful post. I'll be posting the link on my blog.

  3. Very well explained. I've always thought that story and plot meant pretty much the same thing, but now I see the difference. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Annie. I've always had a good sense of plot as being flexible, but this made me realize just how much of a plot can change and still preserve the same story. Which is funny, because I've done plenty of that in my revisions, although maybe the changes have been more painful than they needed to be.

  4. Thank you, it makes me feel better. I am a writer who knows what emotional journey she wants her characters to go through, but no clue how that will happen. At least I have part it!

  5. Mel, this is so helpful. I'm about to start a WIP (wait a new thing? you mean I DON'T have to work on the same thing forever? :P) and I'm excited to use these ideas to springboard how to really begin it. Sounds like the conference was great and so helpful. Hope your revisions are going well. xoxo

  6. Melanie, this was great stuff...also...can I hire you to create wickedly cool graphic organizers for me, please?

  7. Thank you for this! It's such a good way of looking at it! I hadn't thought about story vs. plot before, or how story would affect the plot, or any of that, but it makes total sense. And I love what you said about character sheets that try to have you pinpoint each person's favorite flavor of ice cream, favorite color, etc. Those have never worked for me. I'd always rather know who the character is and why. An ice cream flavor doesn't say who a person is. An event in their past that irrevocably changed them? Yes. Definitely. And now I'm off to share this link with my crit group. Thanks!

    1. It's totally simple, right? In fact, I think it's something that we know already, but it's very helpful to see summarized concretely. I find the idea that the specifics of my plot DON'T MATTER very freeing. Once I have the story pinned down, then I can fine tune the events to make the story sing that much louder. :)

  8. I love when you write, "You can cut through the woods instead of following the stream." Thank you for this post. I get it. {Sometimes I really don't!} : )


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