In the Heart of the Sea Cillian Murphy Chris Hemsworth Benjamin Walker

Plot Isn’t Story

Plot Isn't StoryWhat is story? Is it a beginning, middle, and end? Is it, by any chance, a plot?

Of course, it is. But only in the same sense that a cake is flour and eggs.

By Itself, Plot Isn’t Story

A plot, all by itself, does not a story make. You can stick characters onto your story’s stage and put them through the motion of doing things—even pretty interesting things—but it doesn’t mean you have a story yet. You can even give them strong story goals, such as, say, staying alive, and although these goals will certainly put fuel in your plot’s tank—they won’t create a story either.

GH Neale

Writers sometimes argue the comparative importance of plot vs. character because one without the other simply doesn’t work. That’s why a plot without strong character motivations and interactions just isn’t going to float.

Are Your Characters Driving Your Plot?

For example, consider director Ron Howard’s recent outing In the Heart of the Sea. It’s a story full of characters doing things—important things, like staying alive in the face of a murderous albino whale. But one of the reasons it flounders is because it offers almost nothing in the character-relationships department.

In the Heart of the Sea Whale

It had the potential to do so, thanks to a conflict-ridden, class-driven relationship between the entitled and wrongheaded captain and his savvy, blue-collar first mate. The evolution of these characters could have been dramatized effectively through the evolution of their relationship. But because the movie’s focus is entirely on its plot—what the characters are doing externally—it misses its opportunity to become a great story.

In the Heart of the Sea Cillian Murphy Chris Hemsworth Benjamin Walker

Consider your work-in-progress. Is it more than a plot on wheels? Are you using the story’s external events to power the characters’ internal dilemmas and the resultant relationships? If not, here’s your chance to bump your story up into a tale that people everywhere can relate to and cheer for.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Which comes easier for you–plot or character? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Aaron McCausland says

    What’s the difference between using external conflict to drive the story and having a story that is dominantly E in the MICE quotient?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All stories have external conflict–to varying degrees. So it’s not so much that there’s a *difference* between external conflict and Event stories–or, on the flipside, a similarity that would then differentiate Event stories from other types of stories. Event stories are definitely *more* driven by external conflict, but to be truly successful and rounded, they must be character-driven as well.

      I just watched London Has Fallen in the theater yesterday. Total Event story. Very simple plot. Action-driven from start to finish. But it works because it also draws in the characters and makes the Event *about* them and, then, by extension, about their decisions.

  2. So the external conflict must be in sync with the internal conflict? Does that make it more of a story than a plot? That’s what my current understanding is. Just want to be sure I understand it correctly. Sounds simple, yet profoundly challenging to pull of in our own writing. That’s why I’m so intrigues with all the facets of story as a whole. There seem to be so many working parts under the hood. Whether thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, historical, they’re all different animals. With different specs under the hood. Another aspect I’ve been pondering more about is narration and POV. The books I’m reading now suck you right into the POV character’s head. I feel like I know the characters in a much deeper way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, spot on. When the external and internal conflict work together–each fueling and influencing the other–the overall result is a cohesive story that perfectly balances its plot and its characters.

  3. Your posts are a lot like pringles. You can’t just have one. Gotta keep coming back for more. Yum. Pringle posts kinda has a nice ring to it.

    So excited I had to come back and say something. Jerry Jenkins encouraged writers on his blog, especially new writers, to first learn the craft. Take time to learn. That’s taken a burden off my shoulders and given me a chance to learn the craft. Obviously I have to continue to write, but without a proper foundation I wouldn’t know what to do. And I LOVE to learn things. Or better put, understand them in a proper sense. So learning about story, as a whole, has been a darling diamond thus far. There’s so many angles, facets, ways to look at it and it’s still beautiful. Stunning actually. I know that diamonds take a long time to process. But when it’s completed, the beauty is worth the wait. Writing is a process. And every writer’s process is different I’m sure. So we can finally produce that diamond.

    Recently I had the pleasure of riding in a Maserati. Pure luxury for 4 days straight. I was ruined. The book was called “The Rook, by Steven James, the Patrick Bowers series. A Maserati. Reading different authors with contrasting styles and genres is kind of like riding in different vehicles for some reason. The feel is different. Similarities, yes. But the overall experience is different. I know because I just had my first novel hangover. I actually missed the characters when I finished. While I definitely missed characters before with other novels, this time, I missed them so much I hesitated starting another book. And when I did, I almost stopped and went back to the next book in the “Maserati” series. I knew I was hooked at that point. When you ride in something like a Maserati, it’s hard to go back to “regular cars if you follow me. And funny thing is, when I did start a different book I knew the difference almost immediately. The book is not bad by any means. It’s even a bestselling one. But like I said the feel and experience is different. And when you get in you know the difference. Cool jelly beans!

    Sorry for rambling. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like the car analogy. And I totally agree: those are the types of stories that spoil you for anything else. But it’s worth being spoiled just to experience them.

  4. James Ridgway says

    It’s good to be reminded that character relationships are as important as the big-picture plot arc. I have turned what could have been a cold, dry plot into a personal story told through the emotions and internal conflicts of the first person viewpoint by having the young protagonist’s goal of taking over the reins hinge on her relationship with the old teacher who holds all the power.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice! That’s a great example of how to use plot to develop characters–and how character relationships can create plot.

  5. I am always thinking plots, and it is where I start. But I have such a hard time making characters! And I know they are way more important! My favoritestories have such great characters. Any advice on character development?

  6. My superhero stories are about StarGirl’s adventures but she also deals with internal conflict, which is learning to conquer her lack of self-confidence and start trusting her instincts.

  7. Isn’t the difference between plot and story that story is what happens and plot is how it happens?


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