Not plot? What rot! Or not?

“You way wonder where plot is in all this. The answer – my answer anyway – is nowhere… I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless…; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I’ve been puzzling over this passage from my Christmas reading for a few weeks now.  The Master clearly considers plotting a waste of time, veritably inartistic in fact.  As someone who spent months faffing about with storylines, character summaries and even a spreadsheet of scenes before attempting to make a start on the actual business of writing my novel, this is somewhat disconcerting.

Most definitely a plot.

This one’s most definitely a plot.

King is very clear that he sees “story” as paramount and plot as something altogether different, which – slap me around the face with a wet kipper for never having done a creative writing course – is something I’d never thought about before.  And annoyingly, he doesn’t explain what he sees as the difference between the two – presumably because he believes it’s so basic he doesn’t need to.

In the hope that I’m not the only one sitting at the back looking shifty and avoiding eye contact at this point, I thought I’d do a bit more digging into this question of plot versus story.  In other words, I googled.  Here’s a summary of the explanations I found:

A story is a chronological sequence of events; a plot is the causal and logical structure that connects them (, drawing on EM Forster’s Aspects of a Novel). Example of a story: “The king died and then the queen died.” Example of a plot: “The king died and then the queen died of grief.” Hmm – not sure this makes the story very exciting.  Surely that can’t be what King – the one who’s alive – meant?

Plot is your protagonist’s physical journey; story is your protagonist’s emotional journey ( This is quite neat, isn’t it? But then, a story that’s only about emotional change doesn’t seem quite right either. Surely you have to know what’s actually happening to elicit those changes for a story to make sense?

Turning now to Yahoo Answers, the “best answer”, we are told, is that “You can think of the Plot as the map that the story follows, or as the skeleton of the story… The STORY is the…details of things that happen along the way. All that stuff…the details that make quests stories different from each other. The “skin” on the skeleton (plot).” Notwithstanding the erratic use of upper case, this feels right to me – but isn’t it sort of the opposite of the king/queen Forster definition?

Oh, and that thing about there being only 7 or 12 or 15 or 39 stories, or whatever it is?  I’ve found some people saying this refers to plots, not stories at all. And let’s not even get started on narrative.

Confused? Join the club.

Apparently, “you have to know when you’re telling a story or elaborating on a plot. A work of fiction … that only has a story will be flat and boring.” ( Disaster! I’ve written 100,000 words without knowing any such thing! (Though Lady Lovelace? Really??)

Never fear, however.  Just as I was beginning to despair, I found this nugget of hope: “Some critics even claim that the distinction between plot and story is artificial and of no practical use in the analysis of literature (Wenzel 1998: 175).” Sadly, there was no biog at the end of this piece (University of Freiburg again), but whoever this Wenzel person is, I could kiss him/her.  So it turns out we needn’t worry about this anyway.  Sorry for wasting your time.

Even so, I can’t help feeling rather uneasy at the continuation of my imperfect understanding.  If you’ve got a view on this whole story vs plot business, I’d be very pleased to hear it.





20 thoughts on “Not plot? What rot! Or not?

  1. colemining

    My head hurts. Yours is not the only understanding remaining imperfect. I think I’ll subscribe to Wenzel’s point of view- having never taken a creative writing course, either.

  2. sueslaght

    I’m with colemining. That made my brain hurt. I’m definitely not an expert …just keep writing and entertaining and ‘slap my face with a wet kipper’ that’s all I know. You are hilarious!

    1. yakinamac Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it! D’you reckon they make it up, all this plot/story/discourse/narrative mumbo jumbo? Maybe we should come up with our own alternatives and go around pretending to be enormously erudite.

      1. sueslaght

        I’m definitely in the mumbojumbo group! If I followed all of the ‘rules’ I’d never get a blog post up 🙂 Of course I will add I am not writing a book so easier for me to be all free form.

  3. navigator1965

    Afraid I don’t really have a frame of reference to offer any knowledgable insight, being a non-fiction writer. Although my test reader feedback suggests that I am a bit of a story teller; there is an art to writing.

    Had I to guess, I would use the analogy that plot is the dehydrated meal, reduced to its minimum weight and volume. Writing the story is like adding the water to the dehydrated power. Without plot, the story is flavourless. Without story, the plot is useless.

    Plot is what permits story writing to result in something nourishing and enjoyable.

    100,000 words? I had to break mine in two at 94,000. Not certain if that puts you in the lead or me. };-)>

    1. yakinamac Post author

      I like the analogy! And agree, a story isn’t something that’s confined to fiction – I think the best, most readable non-fiction has a strong storytelling thread (“Don’t Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic’s Guide to Life” by Richard Wilson is an excellent example).

      As for word count: first draft was about the 113k mark, reduced to 100k almost on the nose for the second draft. Then with lots of feedback from editors of the “I’d like to hear more about…” variety, it’s grown back to the original length (though not the original content). It’s about to go out for resubmission – this week, I’m hoping – but if no luck this time, I feel Amazon and self-publishing may be on the horizon!

      1. navigator1965

        Just got my galley proofs today, so I rather understand these feelings. With self-publishing, I counted on my friends/test readers for those sorts of feedback comments.

        With self-publishing, the big challenge is to be social media savvy enough to get the book off the ground in terms of marketing.

        Best of luck with it!

      2. yakinamac Post author

        Congratulations! Are you pleased with them?

        The social media stuff really seems like an uphill struggle. I feel like a fellow traveller, and even I occasionally find myself wearied by yet another tweet encouraging me to go and read someone’s 5-star reviewed book. How to get people interested enough to actually go ahead and read something by someone they’ve not heard of has to be the $64,000 question.

      3. navigator1965

        They seem nice at first glance.

        I’ve just been building fun relationships through blogging. The book is controversial enough that it may well sell itself. Don’t do Twitter. At least not yet.

      4. yakinamac Post author

        You should definitely tweet – I bet there are some choice quotes from your book to intrigue and enflame lots of potential readers!

  4. Miranda Stone

    This is quite befuddling! I feel that trying to determine the difference between the two is like splitting hairs. I know plenty of writers who meticulously work out the plot of their novels in the way you describe. If that’s what works best for you, then I say you should keep at it.

    1. yakinamac Post author

      I’m not sure I could do it another way to be perfectly honest. I’d thought I’d loosened up a bit with book 2, but then discovered that my “plotting” document (probably misnamed, as it turns out) is running to over 30 pages…


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