“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.
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 (http://www2.anglistik.uni-freiburg.de/intranet/englishbasics/Plot01.htm, 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 (https://www.udemy.com/blog/tips-for-writing-your-novel-difference-between-plot-and-story/). 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.” (http://ladylovelace.hubpages.com/hub/The-Difference-Between-Story-and-Plot). 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.