The distinction between story and plot is a deceptively simple one.
Story: what happened
Plot: the artful rearrangement of what happened in a way that keeps your readers engaged.
Why is this important? From Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction:
…Yet readers still want to wonder what happened next, and unless you make them wonder, they will not turn the page. You must master plot, because no matter how profound or illuminating your vision of the world may be, you cannot convey it to those who do not read you.
To illustrate the difference between story and plot, I’ve got outlines for two novels. In each case I start in with a list of events. (If you’re interested in how the process itself works for me, I’ve written about that in various places, for instance, here.)
One: Fatal Car Accident
A police report is a story told as a series of facts, in chronological order:
August 29 2008. At approximately 10:16am Officer Rodriquez and I were dispatched to the site of an accident on northbound State Route 12, approximately 500 yards north of Exit 15. Witness J.M. Corrigan had called 911 and was still at the site with his passenger, Maria Corrigan, of Tyler. The witness stated he had been traveling behind a 2004 Ford Explorer when that vehicle suddenly veered sharply to the right, left the highway, broke through the guardrail, hit the cement barrier, flipped end-over-end and then plunged over the precipice falling approximately 200 feet. While the witnesses did not see the impact, they heard it clearly.
Witness JMC stated he had been traveling at about 70 mph, as was the accident vehicle. On examination and photographing of the scene we discovered no skid marks. Witnesses JMC and MC both stated unequivocally that the vehicle’s brake lights never flashed.
Multiple fire departments were at the impact site at the bottom of the cliff. The fire had been put out by the time we reached them. Two victims released to the coroner at approximately 11:45 am. No identifying documents survived the fire. The wreckage is still being processed. The case has been handed over to Detective Ann Uribe.
These are the facts, and they are singularly unsatisfying. Was this a mechanical malfunction, or something more sinister? Detective Uribe’s report will not directly address this questions. It will simply provide more facts and raise further questions.
The victims have been identified as Georgia Jackson, age 34 and her daughter Milly, age 3.
Forensics report no immediate evidence of mechanical failure. Preliminary findings from the coroner indicate no alcohol or drugs in the driver’s system. The mother’s driving record was clean. No criminal history. No history of psychiatric illness. The driver was a pediatric nurse at Stanley Memory Hospital. No overt hostilities with coworkers.
Married to Robert Jackson, a pediatrician. The marriage was, by all reports, a functional one without conflict or financial difficulties. One son survives, James, aged six.
Robert Jackson has no document history of drug abuse or any other compulsive behavior. Both father and son were visiting with Robert Jackson’s sister Rayanne and her family in Springfield, and had been there for three days at the time of the accident.
Six weeks ago Milly Jackson was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. According to the doctor treating her, she was responding well to treatment and her prognosis was very good. Interviews with family members, coworkers and friends indicate that there were no overt suicidal gestures. We have been unable to contact the driver’s mother, who is traveling in South America. An interview with her might provide more insight into her daughter’s state of mind.
There are some strong indications here of what might have happened, but we only have part of the story. And still, the facts you do have, the things you know add up to something that won’t let go. You want to know what happened, and why Georgia and her daughter died.
Every novelist will approach this differently, but here’s a method that has worked well for me in the past. My experience is that old-fashioned index cards are the best way to proceed. On each card I enter one fact about Georgia’s life based on what I know already. I lay out the cards in chronological order, and consider. What other events in Georgia’s life are important? As I work, facts and scenes, bits of dialog come to me. Each goes on a card, until I have a chronological accounting of major facts in her life:
1. Georgia Adams is born into a middle class family in a small town.
2. When she is three, her younger brother Michael is born.
3. In grade school she is praised for her meticulous, careful ways.
4. At age seven, her brother dies of leukemia.
5. She gets through high school and nursing school, still careful and thorough in all her work.
6. As a pediatric nurse she is fiercely protective of her charges, who love her. However, she never manages to make a connection to parents.
7. She marries a pediatrician she works with, someone she admires for his skill and perceptive way with children.
8. They have two kids, a boy named James and three years later, a daughter they call Milly.
9. At age three, Milly is diagnosed with leukemia.
10. On a cold February morning, Emma takes her daughter to the hospital for a chemotherapy treatment and everything goes as expected.
11. On the way home, Georgia purposefully drives the car off a cliff.
Now you’ve got something – but it’s still only in its infant stages. We know the facts, but it’s all very clinical. We don’t have a plot. This is where you start shuffling your index cards, because the truth is, you could start telling this story anywhere. As the characters take on form, possibilities suggest themselves:
Card #6: start with a scene in which Georgia is being peppered with questions by the oblivious and disruptive parents of a sick kid, and she comes close to losing her temper – but doesn’t. She never does.
Card #11: Officer Rodriquez tells his mother the story of the accident. He’s only been on the job for three months, and he’s finding it difficult to cope with such a tragedy.
Card #3: Georgia wins a city-wide spelling be because she is the only fifth grader who can spell intravenous. Her parents are absent.
Card #11: We experience the funeral from Paul’s perspective, or his father’s.
Card #7: From Georgia’s own POV we walk through the house she and her husband are thinking of buying when they are newly married. In her mind she keeps comparing it to her childhood home.
Card #11: Detective Uribe interviews Georgia’s husband Paul.
There are dozens and dozens of possible starting points. Any of them could work, but only one will work best for you.On the other hand, most readers don’t think of plot as a four letter word. They don’t think of it as a word at all. They want a compelling story, and a reason to turn the page. The trick is, finding that starting point.You’re wondering why you can’t tell the story from beginning to end. Of course you could do that, but most authors can’t afford to take the chance. You’ve got maybe two pages to hook your reader. You might be able to do that with beautiful prose about Georgia’s childhood home, her mother’s diffidence about having children, the stunted apple tree outside the kitchen window. There is one genre that values prose and imagery and characterization above plot. If you’re hoping to catch the interest of the lit-criterati, that stunted apple tree might be the perfect place to start.
The index card approach works well for me, because it makes me really think. Once I find the right place to start, I may never refer to my index cards again. Or if I do, I might see how the story evolved in a different direction than I had anticipated.
Best of all, it gives me a way to watch Georgia grow up and turn into the woman who drives over that cliff with her three year old daughter strapped into her car seat. Because I understand how she got there, I can, if I do my job right, make you see it too.
Two: See what you can do with this story. Where does your plot start?
- Marge Lawson is born to a middle class family in Toledo in the spring of 1954.
- By the time she is ten, she’s the oldest of seven kids. Her mother depends on her help.
- She doesn’t do well in school but she’s highly praised by the parish priest and all the other mothers in the neighborhood for her dedication to her family, her housekeeping and childrearing skills.
- She lives at home taking care of the family after graduation, and is still there when all the other kids are in homes of their own, many in the neighborhood. Her mother dies and she takes care of her invalid father until she’s thirty-five, when he dies.
- Her priest introduces her to the new principal of the high school, and after a courtship Gordon Johnson proposes. Marge accepts because it seems like the thing to do.
- For the next twenty five years she raises two kids and takes care of the house. She is widely admired for her housekeeping skills and the care she gives her husband, kids and garden. She cooks every meal from scratch, launders and irons every piece of clothing. She has little time for activities outside the house, and doesn’t mind. Her family is everything.
- Her kids grow up more than a little spoiled, and once they go off to college they are gone for good. She doesn’t hear from them very often.
- One day she goes shopping and learns that the brand of spray starch she has always used to iron her husband’s shirts is no longer being produced. She spends the next week trying out every other brand she can find, and settles finally but unhappily on an alternative.
- Her husband, in a bad mood because his beloved baseball team has lost two games in a row, snaps at her when she bemoans the state of the shirts she’s just ironed. He tells her he doesn’t give a damn about the shirts, and would she just shut up finally about spray starch? Get a life, he tells her.
- Late that night, Marge gets up because she can’t sleep. She gets the iron, plugs it in, turns it on the highest setting, and then buries it under the blankets at the foot of the bed. Then she goes downstairs and makes coffee while she waits.
- When she is taken in to be questioned in the matter of her husband’s suspcious death, all she can talk about is spray starch, and how things will never be the same since they took away the only kind she could depend on.So this is a chronological accounting of Marge’s life. It could go on, of course. How she adjusts to prison or a facility for the criminally insane, for example. The letters she writes to her kids would be pretty interesting, I think. But to tell this story in order like this would be a mistake. Moving back and forth in time, across perspectives and points of view lends a certain kind of dramatic tension that keeps the reader engaged and turning the page. The reader is looking for a reason to keep reading, you know. The reader wants to be swept away, enchanted, engrossed, absolutely mezmerized, but most readers don’t have the patience for long build ups. They want some hint, pretty darn quick, about what kind of story this is, what kind of conflicts are going to be moving things along, and what the payoff will be.
Maybe I’d start when Marge’s story when she is twelve and angry that she can’t go out with her friends, so she’s careless and burns herself with the iron as her mother is praising her for her dedication. Maybe I would start on the day her father dies, the conversation she has with him. I imagine he tells her some truths she doesn’t want to hear. She would spend the first years of her marriage convincing herself that he was wrong, that she was happy taking care of her family. Then I might jump forward to her in prison, age seventy, writing a letter to her granddaughter. She could tell stories about her life, either in complete denial (in which case you’ve got an unreliable narrator to work with, where you tell two stories at once) or with some insight that comes with distance. Maybe she’s perfectly happy, working in the prison laundry, and she needs to explain why that’s reasonable. The scene where she gets up and gets the iron to put it in the bed — you could start with that, but then you’ve got to handle the pacing very carefully.
Plotting is the arrangement of elements of a story into a dramatically effective whole. This is not the only definition of plot, of course, but it’s most generally what people mean when they are talking about the writing process.