Plot and story

It might seem natural to assume that story always precedes its emplotment in a particular narrative. Thus, to take the example of detective fiction, we might reasonably imagine that an author would need first to have established that event A led to event B which in turn caused the murder of C, whereupon character D decides to hide the murder weapon E at point F in order to implicate character G, before that author could then start to turn this story into a plot by starting with the discovery of C’s body, then allowing the detective to find the weapon E at point F before unravelling the events B and then A, thus resulting in that detective exonerating character G and arresting character D.

There is, however, another point of view which states that there is no such thing as a story except in as far as it exists as an abstraction produced retrospectively by the plot. There are several planks to this argument. One is that the moment we humans start to connect one event with another, we cannot help but narrativise those events, which is to say organise them into some kind of plot. We simply cannot think in a pure and unadulterated fashion in terms of ‘story’. We can only think of story through plot. Only once a plot has been produced, that is, can we extract from it an abstract notion of its story.

Another plank in this argument involves comparing two or more narratives that ostensibly tell the same story – for instance, William Shakespeare’s 1599 play The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Arthur Brooke’s poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet from 1562 or its reworking into prose by William Painter in his collection Palace of Pleasure five years later (upon both of which Shakespeare’s play may have been based), Leonard Bernstein’s retelling of this story in musical form in his West Side Story of 1957, or Baz Lurhmann’s film Romeo+Juliet of 1996. If we were to study all these works very carefully and extract the ‘story’ from each and every one of them, the argument goes, we cannot ultimately conclude that they do indeed tell (or re-tell) the same story. Rather, whilst there will of course be some significant overlaps between them, each of them ultimately has its own distinctive story because it has its own distinctive plot – and stories, to make the point once again, cannot exist independently of the plot by which they are generated and from which they are accordingly extracted.

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