Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Story and Plot

People, even writers, tend to use the words "plot" and "story" interchangeably. In general, that is acceptable, but in a discussion of the art of the novel it is not useful. I would like to adopt E. M. Forster's distinction between the two, made in his delicious treatise, Aspects of the Novel. The examples Forster gives are more elegant than his discussion. "The king died and, then, the queen died" is story. "The king died, and, then, the queen died of grief" is plot. Story is, simply, a sequence of events. Plot introduces causality.

This distinction is not absolute truth, but it is enormously useful.

We have all read or heard endless stories that have no plot, i.e. sequences of events lacking causality. We call them "shaggy-dog stories." This happens and then this happens and then this happens … ad infinitum until the storyteller runs out of steam. Life often conforms to story, an endless sequence of events, connected only by sequence and proximity. Fiction holds to a different standard, and that is causality.

For the sake of this discussion, keep this distinction in mind. I will use the words "story" and "plot" based on Forster's insight.

Plot is the heart of the novel. Let me say that again: Plot is the heart of the novel. Many experienced writers who attempt to write novels—writers with a strong command of language and craft—nevertheless stumble trying to sustain plot. They can create characters, establish settings, and compose scenes, but that doesn't help when it comes to making a plot cohere.

The good news and my gospel is found in a very old, profoundly succinct discussion: The Poetics by Aristotle. Writing roughly 2,400 years ago, Aristotle discussed a tradition of writing, mostly drama written in verse, that preceded him. At that time, fiction had not been identified. “There is [an] art which imitates by means of language alone [that] has hitherto been without a name.” Ancient Greek had no word for "fiction." The closest word was "lie". That is worth keeping in mind: fiction is a lie, something made up, something that does not exist, which is not to say that it is false or untrue, just not factual.

It is Aristotle's discussion of plot, in part one of The Poetics, that I will focus on.

to be continued ...


  1. "They can create characters, establish settings, and compose scenes, but that doesn't help when it comes to making a plot cohere."

    This is still the greatest mystery to me. I look forward to your next posts!

  2. I love this blog. It makes me feel like I'm back at Honesdale. I tune in for my dose of inspiration then dive back into my revisions.

  3. When I do school visits, I tell the kids that they have a "license to lie" when writing fiction. They love the concept.


I look forward to your comments and I reserve the option not to make them public.