Plot and Story
I sat in on a lecture recently, at that writer’s conference I went to, which other than being one long advert for the guy’s book, the speaker discussed act structure and the need for an inciting event for every story. He discussed the difference between character arcs and story climaxes, and he spoke of the old theory of beginning, middle, and end. According to this guy all protagonists must either be likable or the reader must aspire to be them.
Dude could stand more education on all those subjects. In short, I disagreed with everything he said. The conference runners videotaped the lecture, and I’m likely in the background shaking my head, mouthing the words, “Nope. No. Wrong. No. Jesus.”
I’ll discuss his misconceptions another time. For now, let us concentrate on plot. Story and plot are two separate things (unlike what that dude was teaching). How is plot different than story? This is super important when you’re writing for movies and television. In simplest terms, story is what happens. Plot is how it happens.
Confused? I’ll start with a story you may know.
Dorothy Gale is swept away to a magical land in a tornado and embarks on a quest to see the Wizard who can help her return home.
It’s a log line and summary of the story. Of course we could also use the pithier summary.
Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.
The first one sounds a bit like plot (“in a tornado”, “who can help her return home”). It’s also a poorly written log line because it does sound too much like plot points. Common mistake. We want to put events in a sequence which is why plot exists. Story doesn’t care about causality in the way plot does.
Plot is the events that link together to create the story. How does the girl get to this other land? How does she kill a woman? Why does she embark on a quest? How does she team up with a group of strangers? How does she meet the Wizard? What happens when she meets the Wizard? Why will she kill again? When an agent asks you to write a synopsis they’re asking you to summarize your plot points, your who, why and how.
Story is your what. A girl is transported to another land and attempts various ways to return home.
Next time, why beginning, middle, and end are not three act structure.