The difference between story and plot

Plot is not ‘what happens next’. It makes sense that writers would think this, because that’s really how we describe ‘story’ but if you think that way you won’t create a good plot. […] Plot is an intricate choreography of actions by the hero and the opponents designed to surprise the audience.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby


Story is the chronological series of incidents that make up a narrative. Story is much larger than plot. Story is all of the subsystems of the story body working together: premise, character, moral argument, world, symbol, plot, scene and dialogue. Story is a “many-faceted complex of form and meaning in which the line of narrative [plot] is only one amongst many aspects.”


Plot is the under-the-surface weaving of various lines of action or sets of events so that the story builds steadily from the beginning through the middle to the end. More particularly, plot tracks the intricate dance between the main character and all of the main character’s opponents as they fight for the same goal. It is a combination of what happens and how those events are revealed to the audience.

Plot is the ordered narration of those events, but that order isn’t necessarily chronological. The plot controls the way in which the questions readers ask about the story are answered, what information is given immediately and what information is deferred. As well as altering the order of the events in the story, a plot can manipulate the story by the duration of events–the amount of attention it gives to particular events–and by the frequency of events–the number of times it tells about them. Plots are made up of narrative summaries and scenes. The writer has full control of pacing at any given point. A summary might condense five months into a paragraph. A scene might cover five pages.

In other words, story is the chronological order readers discover when they ask “what happened next”?  And plot is the order readers experience when they pay attention to what happens next as they read.

Suspense is what you call the tension between discovering the story and experiencing the plot.

Not all stories have plots. Lyrical short stories are sometimes called ‘plotless’. Plots are highly encouraged if you’re writing for a wide audience, but as Michael Foley writes in his book The Age of Absurdity, stories with plots have a downside. He’s basically describing the ideology of the Literary Impressionists:

Plots are effective–everyone wants to know what happens next–but the denouement of plot-driven novels is often implausible and disappointing. Is that all it was? This is because there are no plots in real life — only a complex web of continuum and connexity — so the reader has the unpleasant sensation of having been conned. And plots are instantly forgettable. Try explaining the plot of the thriller you read only last week. The pleasure of plot is all expectation and sensation, illusory and short-lived, so plot-driven novels leave no residue of beauty. Whereas a novel that reproduces the texture and feeling of life will be harder to read, but provide richer satisfactions and live longer in the memory. The bad news is that such novels are rare. Proust and Joyce showed how to succeed triumphantly without plot but this lesson has been forgotten by the age of potential. It is common now for reviewers to rate novels as ‘well-plotted’ or ‘poorly plotted’, as though plot is an essential feature, and to express astonishment and consternation at the absence of plot.

Michael Foley


It is writers who think in terms of story versus plot. Critics tend to think in terms of story versus discourse. Story refers to the chronological sequence of events in a narrative. Discourse refers to the re-representation of those events (all the various ways the story is told). Discourse includes plotting but also refers to wider aspects of narration, metaphors and other imagery. Rather than talk about ‘plotting’ they might talk about a ‘re-ordering of the temporal sequence’. On screen, analysis of discourse will include camera angles and all the other cinematic techniques.


The terms come from Russian Formalists, an influential group of structuralists.

The words Fabula and Sjuzhet basically line up with English ‘story’ and ‘discourse’ respectively.

Header painting: Lee Lufkin Kaula – Mother Reading with Two Girls

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