The Difference Between Plot and Story

"Story Road"

umjanedoan via Compfight

My first writing workshops in NYC included a few lawyers with novels-in-progress based on real life cases they’d defended throughout their careers.

They were writing what they knew. Intricate and wild criminal cases brimming with drama and excitement. Endless twists. Mega suspense.

Their plots were riveting.

But there was no story. No character development. No emotion driving the novels forward.

They had built a scaffold. But not a world.

Many of the stories I edit suffer either from too much plot, or not enough.

A plot-driven story is full of action, which is essential, certainly. But it can lack the depth and complexity of character. And as brilliant and clever as the plot may be, the reader has a “so what?” reaction.

On the flip side, though, character isn’t much without plot. Character thrives with that which “happens.”

But here’s where most of us get stuck.

We believe plot and story are one and the same.

They’re actually two separate elements entirely.

What is plot? What is story?

Plot is what happens.

This happened, then this happened, then this, and so on. It’s the series of events and situations that occur along the trajectory of your story.

Story is what the events and situations do to the who that it all happens to.

It’s the emotional architecture. The character’s journey towards some kind of wisdom or self knowledge.

Screenwriter Peter Dunne defines the difference between plot and story this way:

The story is the journey for truth.
The plot is the road it takes to get there.

“Plot gives us the action. The story provides the reaction, the story’s emotion.”

Plot is generated from external, uncontrollable sources that thwart your character from getting what she wants.  These external forces could be in the form of other characters’ competing desires, acts of nature, an illness, or death of a loved one, for instance.

Story is the emotional fuel driving your character’s reaction to what happens, your plot. At each juncture, your character makes a choice in how to react to his or her plot problems.

Which should you develop first? Plot or story?

For many of us, plot would seem the logical thing we need to get clear on. And the first, most essential requirement.

Having a structure in place at the outset gives us more certainty and comfort as we navigate that vast territory of white space.

Plot gives our characters something to do, a road map for them to follow. It insures we get them from point A to point Z.

But certainty and comfort shut down the creative process. Our narratives breathe through – and ultimately transcend – uncertainty.

And readers are far less interested in what happens. They want to know who. They want to know why. They want the story.

Story First

When I first started writing, I believed that without plot, I had no bones to hang my story on. I had to satisfy the requirements of conflict before I barely knew my characters. Focusing on plot first left me feeling disconnected from my work, so much so, that I stopped writing for nearly two years.

Admittedly, for some writers, the plot first approach is best. Some of us do work better from the outside in, and if that’s you, keep doing it. Just stay open to where your characters might take you, and be prepared for them to take you off course.

But if you’re like me and work better from the inside out, here’s where Peter Dunne has to say:

A character’s “emotional through-line, the emotional structure is the first story to be developed deeply. Only then can the plot be developed to serve it.”

So plot is in service to the characters, not the other way around.

Liberating, right?

As long as your story is emotionally true, the plot can be anything you like.

Because ultimately, we will connect in every way with your character’s humanity – their story problems – even if we don’t identify with your character’s particular plot problems.

Does this mean you should abandon plot until you’ve got a fix on the emotional story?

None of this is to say we can’t be aware of plot while we’re writing. Just resist thinking of plot as an outline that you do one time and then you’re done.

Plot is a way of thinking about your work in progress. It evolves and changes the more time you spend with your characters. You can move back and forth between story and plot as you’re writing, as you revise, and re-envision your draft.

Try this on for size.

Re-read one of your favorite stories or novels. Try to extract the story from the plot.

Make the distinction between the emotional through-line and the action.

First, write down everything that happens, the plot.

Next, track the main character’s emotional movement, the story.

What happens?

What’s the emotional arc?

How does the main character react to what happens? What choices does he make as external forces press up against him, thwarting his desire?

How does the plot serve the story?

Notice the intricate weave between story and plot.

Over to you.

I would love to hear your thoughts, insights, and discoveries. Comment below, or email me and tell me what you think.


There are 2 spots left in my manuscript coaching schedule for the month of September. If you want to grab one of those spots, or are just curious about what our work together might look like, contact me here with Coaching in the subject line.  As always, thanks for sharing your struggles and triumphs!


What Is Your Story About?

“So what are your stories about?” someone at a party recently asked. “Hmmm,” I said, mentally scanning my most recent collection, grasping for a cogent response. “Loss. Regret. Grief. Disillusionment. It’s hard to explain. I actually have no idea what my stories are about.” If you’re anything like me, you routinely trip over this question….

What It Really Means To Write What You Know

  It’s a myth that writers write what they know. We write what it is that we need to know. ~ Marcie Hershman “Write what you know” is one of the most misunderstood mantras. And one of the most limiting rules to write by. Here’s how writing what we know can limit us: We write…

Beyond Your First Draft: The Drama of Desire

If we have no desire we will die; if we have no conflict we will go to sleep. ~Jiddhu Krishnamurti Desire is the heartbeat of your story or novel. It’s what keeps readers emotionally invested scene by scene, sentence by sentence. That’s why we need to resist leaning on exposition – scenes where characters are…

Thinking of Boston. And You.

  I’d been planning to publish a post this week about desire. About how, even when someone does something terrible beyond our ken, we can still understand, connect with, even sympathize with the desire behind it. Then bombs detonated during what should’ve been a celebratory marathon in Boston. A beaming 8-year old boy hugged his…

Beyond Your First Draft: Exploring Point of View

Of all the things I see tripping writers up, point of view is the most persistent. Point of view is one of the most important narrative choices you’ll make. It’s the soul of your story. And it’s one of the organizing elements that help you make other essential story decisions. But it’s often misunderstood and…

Writing Fearlessly: An Exercise in Letting Go

Years ago, a fellow writer described one of my stories as “polished.” She meant this as a compliment of sorts. I’d labored over every word, after all, chiseling each sentence down to a sparkle. But I couldn’t help feeling that, for all its polish, my story lacked emotional depth. By way of “polish” I had…

How to Brainstorm Writing Ideas

How do you nudge your way into a story? Do you start with a childhood memory? A vintage photograph? An overheard conversation? We all have our own way in. And our creative processes are as singular as fingerprints. My friend and writer, Sarah Noack describes the gateway to her stories like this: “I do horoscopes…

Should You Outline Before You Write?

Should I outline my novel/memoir/story before I write it? Or should I just wing it, flying blind? I get this question a lot from writers I work with. And while my gut response is, “Please, don’t outline first,” I know that every writer’s process is, and must be, self designed. For some of us, charting…

When Your Writing Is Criticized: How to Stay Resilient

If you’ve been sharing your writing for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered criticism that makes you want to slink away and never write again. Maybe you prefer to keep that novel tucked away in deep storage. Or write your memoir in secret, for your eyes only. I’ve been there. Many times. My first…