One of the most basic and fundamental distinctions we need to draw in our analysis of any narrative is that between its plot and its story.
(This is where we need to warn you that the word ‘story’ is often used in two quite distinct senses in discussions of narrative: one very general and one very specific. This is admittedly rather confusing but, since it is standard practice, there is nothing we can do about it except make you aware of the problem. In any case, in its very general sense ‘story’ is often used to mean something like ‘tale’ or even ‘the narrative’ as a whole. Someone might say, for instance, “Huckleberry Finn is a really good story” and mean by that “Huckleberry Finn is a really good book, the way it tells its story is really exciting.” Whenever ‘story’ is contrasted with ‘plot,’ however, it can only be used in the very specific sense outlined below).
So, what is the difference between plot and story? Well,
Story (in its strictest narratological sense) is the sequence of events arranged in the order in which they take place.
Plot is the sequence of events arranged in the order in which those events are narrated.
It is simply impossible for the plot of a narrative to be exactly the same as its story. What is more, the differences between them are so significant that if we overlook those differences we cannot in any sense claim to have read the work of literature in which they appear as a work of literature (or watched the relevant play as a play or film as a film).
The reason plot and story are so different is that they each involve a different way of organising and experiencing time. Indeed, this distinction is such a pervasive feature of all narratives (literary or otherwise) that some scholars claim that narrative itself represents a basic human strategy for coming to terms with time, process and change.
We can see how time is structured and experienced differently in a narrative’s plot from the manner in which it is structured and experienced in its story by separating out three key qualities of time: its order, its duration and its frequency. (Please click on each of those links in turn for a more detailed discussion of what they entail).
Plot’s manipulation of time is only one of the ways in which plot serves both to express a particular worldview and to shape our emotional and intellectual responses to the narrative we are reading or viewing. It can also give particular shape to the storyworld it opens up, as well as capture our attention, intrigue and/or confuse us through its use of such things as single or multiple plot lines, frame narratives, and open or closed plots.
As a device for ensuring that the experience of reading a narrative engages the reader or view in a sense of the passage of time, moreover, plot can likewise create specific expectations in us as to what we think we are going to encounter in the book, play or film to come – and then play with those expectations and thus surprise, frustrate, delight, reward, but in any case engage us in the course of our reading – through its use of such devices as flashbacks and even ‘flashforwards’ or by appearing to follow the familiar plot structures of specific genres or other kinds of grand narrative.
In order to explore each of these plot structures and structuring devices further, along with the contribution they make to our understanding of the narratives in which they appear, click here.
If you like conundrums of the ‘which came first – the chicken or the egg?’ variety, you might find the ongoing discussion narratologists have about ‘which comes first – the story or the plot?’ interesting. We summarise that discussion briefly here.
Return to Elements of narrative