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!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Frank Booker says:

    It’s hard to separate the two. I am writing two novels, and one seems more plot driven than the other, but that’s only perceived in looking back at what I’ve written. It’s probably only a perception, too. At the end they will be interwoven. Tragedy and comedy are more character driven, I guess, while melodrama and farce are more character driven. As a trained playwright, I’ve read the masters such as Shakespeare and Eugene Oneill, and trying to name a line as one that advances plot or furthers character is almost impossible. Each line does both. It’s a great exercise for one who struggles with this concept, by the way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great observation about Shakespeare. Interesting point too about melodrama and farce being plot-driven. It comes down to the mechanics being affected from the outside-in, which always means: coincidences.

  2. Frank Booker says:

    I hate typos, or even brainos. Farce and Melodrama are plot driven, while comedy and tragedy are character driven. The thing posted itself while I was trying to proof it.

  3. Frank Booker says:

    I hate typos, or even brainos. Farce and Melodrama are plot driven, while comedy and tragedy are character driven. The thing posted itself while I was trying to proof it. Now the site won’t let me post this correction.

  4. I think the easiest way to make this distinction is through Wikipedia. There have been a number of times I’ve gone to Wikipedia to read a plot summary of a book I’ve started but have no intention of finishing because it was too painful to continue. It is full of plots. And none of them that I’ve read so far are stories. They don’t engage the reader or draw a person in. They are simply objective descriptions.

    Another excellent post that gets us thinking. Thank you.

  5. I agree with your analysis. That a good story needs both good plot and characterisation. I would add a third, and it’s hard to define, but I’m going to call it narration. Without it, the characters that a writer creates never get a chance to express themselves, despite their conflicts, flaws, strengths and originality. I find that a good writer (and Stephen King is a master at this) is able to draw you into a story, way before you’ve cottoned on to the plot, and even before you’ve really got to know their characters. It’s almost like you can hear them telling the story round a campfire, yet not letting their influence disrupt the voice of the characters. I can only hope to one day achieve a fraction of this skill. Another great post – I must get round to reading Moby Dick. I hear the book gets good ratings despite the film’s adaptations.

  6. Darkocean says:

    Last year Itvwas all about the plot, this year I’ve learned about deep pov, and the characters drive it now. It’s been a long road of revising and editing, but I know the wip id stronger for it. The only hiccup is trying to figure out how to get rid of the last filter “she looked.”

    If anyone has any advice on how to fix this; I’d be grateful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You won’t need to eliminate it in *every* instance. But the easiest way is simply to focus on what the character is seeing. Readers will understand, by implication, that she is “looking.

      For example, instead of: “She looked at the purple cow eating ice cream on the side of the road.”

      Write, simple: “A purple cow ate ice cream on the side of the road.”

      More in this post: Are Your Verbs Showing or Telling?

  7. I completely agree with your perspective, I fall-in-love with characters in books and their relationships with other characters– not so much the external events surrounding them. I’m new at writing but I find myself struggling more with plot than characterization, I can get lost writing my protagonist’s internal thought world and tend to forget about the external events that keep the story moving. This is a good reminder that both elements are important.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The more deeply I learn about story theory, the more I love it. It’s so richly complex–such a wonderful mix of logic and emotion, conscious and subconscious, rationale and creativity. Balancing it all is the glory and the struggle of all of writing.

  8. Characters, hands down… The characters make a story for me. I have a much harder time putting a plot together or being able to effectively showcase the characters I create. I love character driven books.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m a plot guru. You know that. But, as a reader, I would totally rather read great characters in a bad plot, rather than a great plot about bad characters.

  9. Great analysis. I can’t remember who said this, but my favorite distinction of plot vs. story was always this one: “the king died, then the queen died” is a plot. “The king died, then the queen died of grief” is a story.

    I will sometimes walk away from a story if I can’t convince a character to carry out the plot. If I don’t think a character would do something, I have to change the plot. If I need an event to occur, I have to think of why the characters would make that happen. Why would an acrophobic woman go up to a catwalk and run across it? Why would a painfully shy man volunteer to speak in front of millions of people? I call such situations an invitation to use my imagination.

    The worst stories elevate plot over character: the friends who split up when they know there’s an ax murderer on the loose, just because the writer wants them to be picked off one by one. Plot and character need to be partners if there’s to be a story, let alone a good story.

    • That’s interesting about not making your character do something they wouldn’t do.

      I’ve just rewritten a scene in the MS for my book that’s about to be published – following comments from a beta reader. (the MS was already with the publisher).

      The scene involves a Frenchwoman meeting up with a Cuban… in Spain.
      She speaks Spanish, so it would seem natural for them to discuss the business in that language, rather than in the English that my readers would understand.

      Having the meeting conducted in English would be something these characters wouldn’t do, so I had described what was going to be discussed rather than showing the meeting using dialogue.

      It didn’t really work (although I hadn’t realised it). It was too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’.

      To get around it, I had her take a call on her phone as she was arriving at the meeting.
      The call was from an Englishman who is part of the conspiracy. They discuss the meeting… and what she needs to go over, when talking to the Cuban… in English. (with suitable French words included on her side for effect).

      Covering it as dialogue did the trick. I deleted a load of dense prose and the scene came to life, ending as she went to see the Cuban, but with the reader knowing exactly what was going on.

      • Chris, in hy historical novels I have characters who speak in foreign languages all the time: I simply show it in the scene.
        Show it?
        “Yes,” he said in German, “I appreciate your help.”

      • Hi Chris,

        WRT to the language situation — in addition to what Lynn said, you could have the Cuban thinking or commenting that the Frenchwoman is using perfect Castilian Spanish, or has a Catalan accent indicating she learned Spanish in Barcelona or Andorra, etc. We’ll take his word for it 🙂

        There was an amusing scenario in my Spanish textbook where a woman from one Spanish-speaking country (I think Argentina) is in another Spanish-speaking country. She wants to buy a “pollera” but the clerk says they don’t sell polleras. The shopper points to the skirts and she’s informed that in that country, a skirt is called a “falda.”

        Little touches like that could increase the verisimilitude, with just a Spanish word or two salted through the conversation, like an American asking a British person if they mean a real torch or a flashlight. I hope this helps. Wishing you success with your book!

    • Josh Lewis says:

      I like this a lot, and this is exactly how I’m dealing with a story right now. The story started with an idea of something I wanted to happen to a particular character, and then a plot sort of grew from that. I know where I want the story to end up, and as a way to explore character, I’m asking what would convince this particular character to go in that direction. I feel like it is basic storytelling to create events for your character to react to that will direct the story to the thing you want to say.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “The king died, then the queen died of grief is a story.” That’d be E.M. Forster. Great quote!

  10. I’ve seen a lot of writers divide writing into story and something else. This is one of the better contrasts.

    It reminds me of Larry Brooks’ favorite distinction, between Concept and Premise: a concept is a story idea that you know would be interesting if it happened to anyone. A premise is making it interesting-squared because it happens to *these guys.*

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Story *should* be personal. If it’s not, what’s the point? None of us want to hear about other people unless a) we care about them or b) we care *because* we see ourselves in them.

  11. I was watching a movie on TV this morning, and halfway through just tuned out and went back to work.
    Why?
    It was about a woman who had been taken into the witness protection program to save her from a vicious, abusive husband. A few years had passed – (I missed part and came back in time to find that) and the husband tracked her down. The implication was that she was in danger. The now ex-husband took up with the woman’s best girlfriend and drew ever closer to his objective – though we are never sure of his objective.
    During the movie we saw flashbacks to the horrifying abuse the ex-husband had forced upon the wife and a teen-aged daughter. Extraordinary abuse that justified the witness-protection plan.
    The problem was – for me – the the husband was so fundamentally evil, the whole thing was almost cartoonish. We are never shown his motivation, never shown why he was so vicious. Or why he was so deeply troubled. Just that the woman was in deep trouble because he’d found her… and we were supposed to care.
    It was all plot, and totally unbelievable.

    • So it’s sounds like the trouble with this is a lack of character depth? Not knowing why they do things or their motivations, goals?

      The last book I read, the Pawn by Steven James did an excellent job of this. He deepened first our realization of two serial killers as kids briefly in one scene. Before they even made an appearance in the story. It was great foreshadowing that resonated later on in the book.

    • Sometimes TV edits of films lose to many important scenes (especially American TV edits).
      A friend told me how he’d watched the movie ‘Deliverance’ on TV in the States and it had the key scene (the male rape, and the killing of the rapist by the victim’s friends) cut completely (including any references to it) so there was no ‘reason’ for the fear and sense of jeopardy in the rest of the plot.
      It became just a trip down a wild river. No one would know why they were running, or why they were being chased.

      • But Chris, is this not exactly the point? That character must be clothed in motivation and reaction; and that emotions must have a basis which is made evident in the story, and not merely added to serve the plot?

        • I hit the button too soon.
          Just adding to my comment… That the basis for emotion and motivation cannot be cut? Or we are left with raw plot, lacking story arc.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            I agree. Though, in speaking to Chris’s point, it’s a good reminder of how the addition or removal of even small contextual scenes can completely change the reader’s experience.

  12. Top of the mornin’ to ya

    I love your opening question.

    “What is a 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.”

    And a quote I enjoyed this morning.

    “Your early settings are still crucial, both for establishing character and stakes ( see how everything is intertwined?)”
    -Structuring Your Novel p.67

    The reference to baking, and the “intertwining”, speak of the true nature of story. It’s not just about flat characters with bad luck. Ramping up the conflict without a deeper knowledge, or reason for their actions. This is a great point. It helps me to understand the more critical essence of story.

    A cake isn’t a cake until you combine all of the necessary elements together first. According to we’ll balanced measurements. Then….you stick ‘er in the oven and turn up the heat. Measurable conflict with high stakes. Then voila! A delicious blockbuster carrot cake. That’s why I love your words. “You see how everything is interwined?”
    Yes. I’m beginning to see more and more.

    I read a story to my son yesterday entitled, Charlie needs a Cloak. Well, good ol’ Charlie was a shepherd and was in need of a new cloak. He sheared his sheep and proceeded to process the material into yarn. He spun it and so forth, saturating it with red poke weed berries until it was cloth. Bam. A brand new cloak. But you don’t see all the individual strands. You just see the finished product. A brand new cloak. It’s all intertwined. Now that’s a story! We need to learn how to stitch. And with excellent fabric. Then we have to be chefs learning how to bake! Just thought of that dude from the muppets. Borty, Bork bork.
    This story stuff is pretty cool.

    Over and out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “It’s not just about flat characters with bad luck.” This made me laugh–because it’s about as spot-on as it gets.

  13. Ingrid B. says:

    Once again, another great post that makes my rusty cogs and wheels turn in spite of the cobwebs! Thank you for the insight and inspiration!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Well, we don’t want those cobwebs getting in the way. 😉 *hands over the feather duster*

  14. I read a lot of scripts for a couple of screenwriting contests and I often see plot-driven stories. The characters are basically swept along from one event to another with little introspection, thought, or inner conflict. Basically, the plot dictates what happens to them. I’ve found that the more effective scripts, and I know this relates to books as well, are those in which the character dictates what happens by way of the choices he or she makes based on their own internal wants/needs/desires/morals.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great way to put it! I know exactly the kind of scripts you’re talking about. Especially when they’re high concept, they’re incredibly disappointing. They could have been *so* good, if only the characters had been allowed to be more than just the pawns of the plot.

  15. You can put all the ingredients to a cake in a bowl and mix it up, but it’s still not a cake until you bake it. Lovely post! I really enjoyed this one, thank you. 🙂

    Characters always come before plot. And doesn’t it get hard when you have a character you want to write but no story for them whatsoever?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m totally in that predicament with a character right now. She’s awesome, but she has nothing to do. So she must wait on the shelf for the time being.

  16. Ginny Quaney says:

    With my WIP I’m having the opposite problem. The outline and most of the major plot points are character interactions, and I know the protagonist and her (initially) reluctant partner will come to an understanding based on mutual respect and budding friendship, and I know how that entire arc will play out. But that’s all I’ve got right now. I’m intending it to be a noir-type mystery, and I have the very basic outline: client comes to protagonist, asks for help, protag teams up with partner, etc. But I’m drawing a blank (and have been for a while) on the whole “plot” part (the mystery). There are even parts of my outline that go “blah blah plot stuff” and then go into how some as yet unknown snag in the plot will further the “story” of the characters and their relationship.

    I know in my head that I shouldn’t separate them like that. I know that if/when I finally do come up with a mystery, it will seem cobbled together. But I can’t figure out a way to intertwine them. So it’s been sitting there, untouched, while I work on other stuff (fanfics) that are keeping me in writing shape but not getting me anywhere in terms of original work.

    Do you have any examples of the opposite of this article (Story isn’t Plot), and some advice on how to address that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Downton Abby comes to mind (and gives me a chance to vent about it :p ). That show had absolutely no plot to speak of after the first couple seasons. Stuff *happened* to the characters, but none of the events had consequences that rolled, domino-like, into other events to have more consequences, which would cause the characters to react, make decisions, deal with their own bad decisions, etc. Remember: plot is born of character decisions.

      One other thing I would mention is that if you’re bored by the plot in your story, then don’t force it. If you’re bored by it, there’s no reason readers shouldn’t be either. Keep looking until you find plot events you’re fascinated to write about.

  17. Thanks for another great post that hits right where I need it to! When I first started this novel (my first) it was all plot. Over the last year I’ve pushed to find and develop the characters and their story, and now I feel like I’m going too far in the other direction, and need to re-calibrate to find the right balance.

    Case in point: the plot is about what my MC does when she inherits a haunted house and has to somehow fix it before anyone else dies. But the story is all about her feelings of guilt over perceived past failings, her determination to redeem herself and to protect those few loved ones still loyal to her, and in the process, her realization that she has to let other people help her. But… I may be a bit out of balance now. During a recent chapter read, which delved into yet more of this character stuff, one of my critique partners asked, “So, um, is the house still haunted?” Oops. 😉

  18. As being one of the contributors to this page, I would wish to append here, that it has always been my intention with my writings to say a ‘something.’ For I subscribe to the idea that Art has purpose. Within this, whether the intention comes from the character of whether from the plot: where we cathartically witness the footfalls of the characters, is in not really the contention. What is needed in either aspect is the expression of the didactic idea. The hubris of the assembled myths of literatures and the ultimate non-existence of characters is secondary.

    I do, however, concede that there needs to be an element of realism or engagement to functions magnetically – to keep the reader travelling, journeying having his conscious captured. Ultimately great literature needs both.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, plot and character are just the foundation for the “soul” of the story that–hopefully–arises.

  19. Redd Becker says:

    Yes. You nail it again. My critique group has been talking plot a great deal, but what is plot without the growth of characters, usually prompted by other characters interacting with them. Thanks for putting it into words. I did a major revision on my book a couple months ago in order to build up a couple relationships. It makes for a more compelling read.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I usually find those scenes the most engaging to write–which, to me, is always a sign that they probably *are* the most engaging. :p

  20. I loved this post. It’s so true that a fascinating situation won’t fascinate your readers unless they see how it affects the characters- and it affects them in a realistic way.

    In my WIP, the story is completely built around relationships. They drive the plot, because my MC’s lie is that the issues in her family members’ relationships are her fault, and it is up to her to fix them.

    I’m also in the planning phase for two other stories. One of them, so far, is just three characters in very complex relationships with each other. I don’t have a plot yet. As for the other one, the MC is the only character I have nailed down. The rest are very fluid, so I do not have a plot or a story- just the basic concepts I want to use.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Characters create plot, so if you can turn them loose on the page and make them face the consequences of their choices, your plot will usually start to emerge organically.

  21. Sara Baptista says:

    Oops ! Good reminder . I was going to say: “the same for stories that are too much character-driven” But that isn’t so bad , is it ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Subjectively, I’d have to say, no, I definitely don’t think it’s so bad. But, at the end of the day, the best stories will always be those that properly balance the two.

  22. Plot is a house, but story is a home. I like to think plot is a paradigm and story is something a bit more abstruse. It’s much easier for me to make a list of elements that build a plot, but I only identify factors that make a story when they don’t exist. I could show you a picture of the house I grew up in, but nothing in it would capture the things that make it my childhood home. I can also point to the major plot points in my favorite book, but they wouldn’t reveal what made the story resonate with me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like that a lot. Basically, a plot is a situation. Story is something that requires a situation, but also, in a sense, a soul.

  23. I think characters come easier for me. I can usually begin a story, but get stuck in the middle!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s where structure comes in handy. There’s so much going on in the middle, structurally speaking: reaction to the First Plot Point, First Pinch Point, Midpoint, reaction to the Midpoint, Second Plot Point, false victory. If you watch your structural landmarks, you’ll get lots of ideas for how to perk up that saggy middle.

  24. This is literally why so many books and movies do not work :p Thanks for the great post!

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. Adriana says:

    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?

  30. 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.

Trackbacks

  1. […] may be a necessary element in fiction, but K. M. Weiland asserts that plot isn’t story, while Robert Gregory Browne reveals the wonderful world of subplots and Martina Boone stresses […]

  2. […] the plot, just the story. (If you don’t have any idea what I mean, read this explanation.) I put away the draft for as long as I could bear, which for me usually means two weeks, and […]

Speak Your Mind

*