Be sure to read the first two parts of this essay:
- Part 1: Terminology and the Difference Between Narrative and Story
- Part 2: Taking a Closer Look at Story
Okay, so I’ve got a story, but do I have a plot? Let’s take a look at how plot is different. Once a writer has established his or her story (what happens) one will need to decide which events to present to the reader. This is the construction of a plot. A plot is “someone’s telling of the story” (Liz), “how the story is presented” (English Basics), or “the arrangement of what happens” (Chea). The author isn’t going to share every event of the story, (well you could, but that would probably be a lot like reading a boring history book), instead an author will select specific events that best engage the reader in the story (see figure 3).
To create a plot, however, one won’t select events at random. There’s another important ingredient.
In Forester’s original example of story he said: “The King died and then the Queen died.” Here we have two events which create a story but it does not have a plot. In order for this to become a plot there must be a connection of causality. Forester thus offers: “The King died and then the Queen died of grief” (Cowgill). Stephenson Chea says that “in examining plot, we are concerned with causality, with how one action leads into or ties in with another” (2). Forester’s addition of the words “died of grief” shows the action of the Queen’s death is a result of the previous event. Plotting means selecting events with an internal logic, events “that lead the characters from their situations and attitudes at the beginning of the problem to their situations and attitudes when the effort to solve the problem is finally over” (Dramatica). In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner describes this logic as profluence. He says “a story contains profluence, and the conventional kind of profluence – though other kinds are possible – is a causally related sequence of events. This is the root interest of all conventional narrative”(55). He goes on to state that the reason profluence is necessary is because “we cannot read a whole novel in an instant, so to be coherent, to work as a unified experience…narrative must show some profluence of development” (55).
If a story is what happens, and plot is the selection of events with a cause and effect relationship, one can begin to see how the two overlap. Ultimately an author in early stages of novel development may be simultaneously figuring out the story (what happens) as well as plotting it (how and why it happens). Humanities Professor Ron Layne states that “the plot is a series of conflicts or obstacles that the author and director introduce into the life of the characters,” the act of plotting therefore can affect and change the story while the writer is in process. In her evaluation of narrative, essayist Maurie-Laure Ryan adds that “plot exists on two levels: the plotting of the author, who creates the storyline; and the plotting of the characters, who set goals, devise plans, schemes, and conspiracies, and try to arrange events to their advantage” (56). An author must then balance the actions of character and the actions of their own choices of plotting. Story and plot thus flip-flop back and forth as they are created, revised, and crafted. This flip-flop explains the inherent contradiction found in Gardner statement that “the writer has no story until he has figured out a plot that will efficiently and elegantly express it” (56). No wonder story and plot are often confused, particularly when a writer is in the act of creation.
So you may have a story, and you may have a plot, but did you know there are different types of plot?
Up Next: Part 4 – Types of Plot
** Full Bibliography will be provided at end of blog-post series.