Did you know that story and plot aren’t necessarily always the same thing?
In casual conversation the words are more or less interchangeable but when you’re actually sitting down to write something, it’s important to understand that these two are independent factors that you must consider.
It can be kind of difficult to understand the difference and why that difference is important, so stick with me for a second. To put it simply, plot is two people shooting at each other. Story is why they’re shooting at each other.
The why here isn’t because the hero has to beat the bad guys so we can disable their big doomsday weapon. That’s still plot. The ‘why’ is what’s going on internally with the character. This is story – what the narrative that you’re crafting is about.
At its core, story cuts to the heart of why the characters are doing the things that they’re doing and where they are. The plot is then the sequence of events that they go through that tie the novel or movie together.
The plot is comprised of the things that they actually do, the events that move them from one scene to the next. If plot is what where when and how, then story is who and why.
Video Transcript (cont’d)
How To Come Up With A Story Plot
Notice that he didn’t say that he wanted to go blow up a space station or even to beat the Empire but that’s what happens at the end of the movie. Luke has a drive that is relevant to the physical quest that he goes on but doesn’t completely define that quest.
His internal desire of the force stuff, the legacy stuff, wanting to be a hero – that’s the story. The plot is about stopping the bad guys. This is important to understand because any two given movies or books or TV shows or whatever could potentially have the same plot.
For example, acquire a bunch of money illegally but the emotional context behind why the characters are doing the things that they’re doing could be vastly different. In the same vein the emotional context could be approximately the same but the events could be vastly different.
Now this may sound like some high concept nonsense that only has a place in like a pretentious French art house theater or a college classroom somewhere in Southern California. Like this only applies to your highbrow stuff here, citizen Kane’s here, 7th seals but this stuff applies to everything.
The relationship between story and plot can make or break a narrative. If your film or game or book or whatever, it doesn’t have some kind of central story holding it together, adding meaning to the proceedings, then it’s just a bunch of people doing things in a linear progression to the conclusion.
Look at any below-average episode of a crime drama ‘oh no someone has been killed!’ The characters interview some people, picked up a false lead, chasing guy or two and eventually have a shootout with or arrest the person who did it. How exciting.
This is an example of a narrative that’s basically all plot and no story. I think I’ll just come back for the season finale when all the emotional stuff is gonna happen. On the other hand having a film that’s all story and no plot means you wind up with the kind of pretentious fluff that film critics love but general audiences can’t sit through.
Movies about people sitting in a room and being depressed. They go places and talk to people but never really do anything. A lot of people just don’t like watching these films because there isn’t much happening.
Now if you’re some kind of genius or insanely lucky you can theoretically get by with just one of these. Maybe your film has such flawlessly perfect technical execution and it’s just so thrilling and charming that you don’t really need a deep story to become invested in it.
Or maybe your story is so emotionally evocative and your lead actors are so magnetic that you don’t really need much of a plot to steer them along. The thing is, if you lean more in one direction or the other, your success is really going to depend on execution.
If you’re writing a novel or whatever you’ve just got to play to your strong suits.If you’re a good enough writer that you can make your book work leaning heavily into either plot or story then good on you, but especially from a screenwriters perspective for film and television it’s usually a safer bet to try and balance both, unless you’re writing for a specific filmmaker.
Let me explain what I’m getting at. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a really good movie, it’s a classic and people love it. It’s also definitely more plot heavy than story heavy. There’s a bit going on with Indies faith in his relationship with Marian but at the end of the day the movie is about punching Nazis.
It works because spielberg is a master of directing kinetic compelling action. The film is tightly paced and the whole thing has a nice easy flow to it but in the hands of the wrong filmmaker the movie would probably be a disaster.
If you asked Michael Bay to make Raiders of the Lost Ark – indeed, yeah it’d probably be pretty good. This script plays in strong suits but if you handed this script to Woody Allen he wouldn’t really know what to do with it.
In that same vein, if you hand Michael Bay that ‘Lost in Translation’ script, he’s probably not going to handle it with quite the same precision as Sophia Coppola did, but you know Woody Allen would probably make a halfway decent movie from that script.
I know I’m making some serious generalizations here but I hope that you can understand my point. I just want to demonstrate that you can really lean heavily into one or the other camp but it requires a particular skill set a mastery of whatever form of entertainment you’re working in be it an episode of a TV show or a film or a novel or whatever.
So now that we understand how these two can work on their own when they’re in the right extremely talented hands, let’s talk about why putting them together is a special kind of magic. What’s important to understand is that neither of these things is necessarily more important than the other.
A lot of times when you’re sitting in a classroom setting it can kind of sound like story chasing after the themes. The deeper meaning and symbolism or whatever can trump the actual action of the story but that is not necessarily the case.
Creating something super deep and symbolic and inaccessible actually takes a lot less effort than creating a narrative with a compelling story and an accessible driving plot. In the best case scenarios you’re actually going to be looking at a final product where either half the equation is strong enough to support an entire film on its own.
‘No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley’, the history is going to change. What if they say ‘get out of it kid, you got no future’? I mean I just don’t think I could take that kind of rejection. I’m from the future. I came here in a time machine that you invented. now I need your help to get back to the year 1985.
You could just have a movie about a guy trying to make a name for himself and better his family and you could just have a movie about a guy who gets trapped in the past and has to find the energy supply necessary to return to his own time.
Either of these could be their own thing but together they produce a movie that people seem to like quite a bit. The movie is fun to watch and it’s fun to think about or in other words it’s good to chill with and it’s good to get hot with.
On that subject let’s briefly look at The Incredibles, which is another movie that’s so good to chill with and good to get hot with. It’s got two distinct halves that blend together to make something stronger than the sum of its parts and that can be enjoyed on different levels.
The story is about a guy going through a midlife crisis. He hates his job and he has some family problems but he’s gonna get over himself so the whole family can get along and be a better healthier unit. Mow that’s a nice story in theory but without a plot it had just be two hours of people arguing with each other and being sad.
The most exciting scene in the movie would probably be this bit, if it even made the final cut. On the other hand, the plot is about a superhero getting called out of retirement to come and kill a robot but it turns out that the robot is a specifically designed superhero killing machine.
The story on its own is interesting but it might get a little bit too serious. The plot on its own is exciting but after you watch the movie once or twice and see all of the neat explosions and fight scenes, there really wouldn’t be a whole lot to draw you back in.
But with the two combined you have an exciting, well paced film that keeps your attention but also has enough going on under the surface to keep it engaging upon repeat viewings. The real trick to all of this, the real thing that makes writing so difficult, is finding the perfect way of combining both elements together.
Like if you just put peanut butter on some bread and you stop there, then you’ve just got sticky bread. Nobody wants that but if you put jelly or jam on some bread and you didn’t toast the bread ahead of time now you’ve just got untoasted toast.
You can’t put that in the toaster. Now when you put the two together you have both elements blended together so that on a second to second scene to scene level you’re getting both ingredients at the same time and you can’t even really tell the difference anymore.
I don’t know, I kind of feel like I’m losing this metaphor. Maybe I should have gone with an Oreo cookie because they’ve got two different parts but you can take them apart and eat them in so many different ways and there are so many different flavors to choose from.
Wow I sure can’t wait to try watermelon Oreos. Speaking of watermelon Oreos, let’s talk about another awesome thing. This movie is so good it could just coast on flawless technical execution and a decent plot, but it doesn’t need to.
Developing A Story Plot For A Novel
Okay, just like most James Bond films, the movie opens with a big stunt sequence that is only kind of sort of related to the rest of the film. It’s an absolutely fantastic chase sequence and it’s an exciting enough scene that it doesn’t really need to be anything more than just exciting.
But this scene and the scenes immediately following it all serve to tell us about our main character James Bond. This guy is chasing this bomb maker here and the bomb guy is more agile than Bond and does a bunch of crazy parkour stunts but bond is still able to keep up with Bomberman through a combination of smarts and brute force.
He uses everything in his environment to his advantage. The bad guy basically exists in the moment. He reacts to things as they happen and doesn’t really plan ahead, so even though bond has a hard time keeping up with him physically, he’s really always two steps ahead.
We also see that bond is vulnerable. He botches jumps, he takes a couple of hits here and there and, since he’s not invincible, there’s still some tension in the scene despite his admirable intelligence and strength.
Add this to the fact that we’re told he’s chasing a terrorist and the fact that our hero is me, he’s Daniel Craig, and you’ve got a character you want to root for. The audience wants to cheer for this guy and see him succeed. This is all great plot stuff.
The other big thing that we learn about Bond in this scene is that he’s really driven and focused. He takes impossible risks to keep the chase up. The sequence is so exciting and it sucks you in so much, that a lot of people in the audience might not notice the moment when bond makes a huge mistake.
Bomberman runs into an embassy and thinks he’s escaped. Any reasonable person would call off the chase at this point but bond doesn’t. He jumps right over the fence. If you sorm into an embassy, you violate the only absolutely inviolate rule of international relationships and why? So you could kill a nobody.
We wanted to question him, not to kill him. The same drive, an obsession with victory that made Bond such an appealing hero during the chase are turned on their head. We see that, even though he was thinking ahead in terms of the chase, he wasn’t thinking ahead in terms of the big picture.
We’re trying to find out how an entire network of terrorist groups is financed and you give us one bomb maker. Hardly the big picture, wouldn’t you say? They’re doing the job properly was secondary to winning, to beating the guy, that he’d spent so long chasing.
After all that incredible stunt work and all the blood and sweat, what was he’s just supposed todo – walk away and try again another day? Come on – he earned that victory. Any thug can kill. I want you to take your ego out of the equation and you judged the situation too special.
Just like this, in the first twenty minutes we’ve pretty much set up the conflict that Bond we’ll be dealing with for the entire run of the film. We know that Bond will pursue his enemies well beyond the point of reason and save lives as a result, but we also know that same blind passion and drive to win will see the people around him get hurt or worse.
The plot is about stopping some terrorists from getting some money. The story is about Bond contending with his own faults. He’s so self-assured and confident in his abilities, that he takes unnecessary risks and lands himself in trouble. Because of it you lost, because of your ego.
This is good storytelling right here. You see how much we learned about this guy just from one simple chase scene and the dialogue following it and how it sets up something interesting and relatable for the rest of the film.
Now all of this may be really obvious to some of you but other people gotta be filled in on this kind of stuff. Writing anything really great is not easy. It takes a little education and years of practice to get good at this kind of stuff and it’s not restricted to a hoity-toity artsy nonsense.
In fact, I would say they’re writing a truly good story that can be enjoyed by just about anyone is infinitely harder than writing some abstract or symbolic material. Plots and story are two important tools for engaging your audience and making sure that whatever you say sticks with them along after they’ve moved on.
Learning the difference between the two and mastering how to use them in conjunction is one of the most important tricks that a new writer can learn. Thanks for watching this whole shindig. I’ve got some other videos you might like and hopefully I’ll get around to making some more videos about writing and storytelling in the near future.
Hard to say for sure, when you’re a busy college student. If you want to see someone break this sort of stuff down on a scene to scene across an entire feature film, you should check out Pirates of the Caribbean, accidentally genius by reality punch films. Really awesome video – can’t recommend it highly enough.
Or you could stick around and watch me talk about how one of the biggest video game publishers in the world sabotage one of their own releases and their own reputation with a horribly mismanaged marketing campaign. Bye.