Plot vs Story

[Updated Jan. 25, 2016.]

Somehow the word ‘plot’ has become elevated above the word ‘story.’ Perhaps E. M. Forster is to blame, for his canonical, “the queen died, the king died” as a model ‘story,’ based on the assertion that a story is intrinsically chronological, while a ‘plot’ is intrinsically causative (“the queen died, the king died of grief”).

Story = “The queen died. The king died.”
Plot = “The queen died. The king died of grief.”

[See this on Amazon for Forster’s entire brilliant and priceless 1927 lecture series. Note that I have reversed the characters’ roles to make it more poignant and perhaps more modern.]

To my way of thinking, story-telling is quintessentially human, and serves as the basis of virtually all forms of learning beyond the mirror-neurons, and probably involves plenty of those as well. Thus ‘story’ is a crucially powerful concept, while ‘plot’ is a notion arising from the study of literature and story-telling.

I am comfortable with Forster’s notion that “of grief” makes it a plot. What I don’t like is relegating story to the mere sequence of events, because we already have a word for that—history.

Plot has been defined, since Aristotle’s Poetics, as the significant events, causally related, that explain the story, so let’s leave that definition alone.

What marks the art of story-telling is the artist revealing a plot by recounting “historical” events augmented in various ways by additional elements and events and techniques that serve to actualize the plot without dwelling on the bare sequence of events. Therefore I propose replacing Forster’s definition of “story” with the word “history.” Further, I propose promoting the word “story” to the art-form created by the story-teller.

Furthermore, are we to accept that the putative ‘plot’ version is itself not a story? It seems self-evident that some stories do have plots, and remain stories even when they incorporate a plot. Thus Forster’s definition of plot is perfectly valid and useful, but does not logically imply that it makes what was a story now not a story. Plots are ingredients along with character, setting, etc.; stories are the full meal.

So to return ‘story’ to its proper place in the taxonomy of itself, here is my re-exemplification of terms:

History: The queen died. The king died.

Plot: The queen died (and so) the king died (of grief).

Story: The queen became sick and died. Winter came. The king died.

Now the word ‘history’ can be used to refer to the uninterpreted sequence of eventsthe stuff that makes the teaching of “History” in schools so deadly boring when in fact the story surrounding the events is so endlessly fascinating.

Further, ‘plot’ can now refer to the underlying (necessarily interpretative) causal relationship between the historical events. Since these relationships tend to become quite complex, so does plot, even though the events themselves remain strictly parallel or sequential. A plot can jump back and forth in time, run forward or backward, or whatever the writer cares to do with it, but it’s still a delineation of the chain reaction of causality.

Finally, ‘story’ can regain its meaning as the art of conveying more than history through more than plot. History implies total objectivity (not that such a thing is possible), while plot requires attention to the way things work. Story exists in an utterly different domain: feeling, compassion, understanding, implication, evocation. As in the micro-example above, story can operate entirely on the basis of inference—after we hear that the queen died and winter came, we’re told the king died. The causal relationship is much greater than just the death of the queen, or the (historically irrelevant) season, and it’s also not even stated. It makes us think about the king, what he experienced, and how he thought and felt about the queen. This is story.

Postscript: Although Aristotle asserts that a plot must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and in some sense even the most convoluted time-jumping fiction usually can be unraveled to reveal these components, some excellent modern short fiction is devoid of history, and therefore of plot per se. We need a definition of story, therefore, that can stand on its own, independent of prior theories.

A decent definition of story might begin by expanding on what we called (above) “more than history” and “more than plot.” A story is inevitably a sequence, because we read it or listen to it over time. But the sequence is not necessarily one of temporally-related or causally-related events. In fact, the usual notion of events may well be irrelevant in itself: consider a creative rant, delivered dramatically by a character. This isn’t an essay; it’s a story. It has no plot, no historical sequence, and relates to no specific events other than the ranting itself. What makes it a story? It is a story because the artist created in skillful prose an impression of something meaningful, whether happening or just existing, in a manner that was engaging and potentially transformative for the reader.

We might even say that the essence of story is that it is a “telling” of something addressed to the right brain, the inner listener whose attention is holistic and associative and responds to language interpretively, rather than to the left brain, whose preferences are denotative and bound by language rather inspired by it.

[See this extraordinary treatise for more on hemispheric differentiation in brain functioning.]

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One Response to Plot vs Story

  1. Allen Cobb says:

    Author’s postscript:

    There is another, perhaps much more important, reason for transcending Forster’s mechanistic definition of ‘story.’ In the evolution of humanity, and in the growth of individual people from infancy, through childhood and adulthood, the phenomenology of story and story-telling plays a central role in the acquisition of knowledge. This role spans basic linguistic skills and broad socialization and orientation to the world as a whole. It is arguable that the perception of both emotive and causal content in stories forms the basis of all human learning. Details and technical skills are organized on more generalized frameworks acquired through experiencing stories. Every aspect of one’s sense of self and one’s place in the universe may well come from a hierarchy of story experiences and their embedded value systems. For these reasons, calling ‘story’ nothing more than a historical sequence of events seems to imply a deep disregard for the true role of story in modeling human thought and behavior.

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