Friday, 10 February 2012

The king dies...the queen dies...

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then queen died of grief is a plot –  E.M. Forster
Foster’s definition of plot and story is pretty tight; the only difference is the word grief. No wonder I’ve noticed my students getting a little confused at times between the two. 
Literary theorists like to differentiate between plot and story: plot is the way events are presented to the reader; story is the wider sequence, as we the reader (and author, of course) imagine them to be; their natural order and duration, which, from the perspective of the writing, is somewhat hypothetical. 
A good example of this would be the way a soap opera works inside the head of the viewer. They watch half an hour on screen; the plot they view includes; a couple having a row; a young girl being punched by an older male; a scene in the pub where two old codgers plan some shady business. When the programme is over, the viewer is still processing this; they might ask…what other young girls has this chap hit before…this one should do something about it…why did the couple not see this row coming, after all she’s been ignoring him for her job for months…does this mean divorce is in the offing…will the old codgers get away with this plan, as they did the last… Such meandering is the story behind the plot. We can utilize this in our writing.
Plot is the action that dramatizes the story, making characters come to life. This action consists of the patterns of events and situations that have been selected and arranged by the author to elicit a particular interest in a reader (or audience). Plot has been called the ‘narrative melody’ as it is the motivation around which the story is told, and that melody is entirely in the hands of the writer; they select the story they tell and create a plot to hold it together. 
Plot arises from the result of human activities and adventures, and can be summed up by the word conflict; the opposition of forces between focus characters and their surroundings. A plot should develop conflicts that are eventually resolved, and trace a process of change within the characters caught up in the events. 
An illustration would be the news you tell a friend on meeting them. ‘My dog died last week,’ you say. ‘I’m really sorry,’ the friend replies – they’re your friend and so they are interested – they probably knew the dog. But for this story to interest a reader, it must contain  a tightness that creates surprise and drama, and, most importantly, one that concludes with some satisfaction; whether that’s a happy or sorrowful ending: ‘My dog was run over last week. It was touch and go. I was there by his side all the way. They told me it was a one in a million chance he’d pull through. Then the vet called in a specialist from the city, some bigwig with a new technique. And here he is, by my side, aren’t you Fido?’ (Notice how I can't resist a happy ending!)
This brings us to Cause and Effect. P D James takes Forster’s quote even further. She says...To that I would add: the queen died and everyone thought it was of grief until they discovered the puncture wound in her throat. That is a murder mystery and, in my view, it too is capable of high development.
Causality is a massive part of the plotting mechanism which will have a riveting effect on the plotting of your stories. Readers love to see the ‘story build up’, as events, thoughts, behaviour etc., set up in the early moments of the story, connect, build and develop the story. 
Causality is linked closely to the motivation and personality traits of the characters. As the plot unfolds causality results in a process of significant change which gives the reader regular emotional hits, until the conclusion is revealed.

A plot builds up from incidents that impact on one another. These incidents should not be a series of unrelated events. Causality will help you get a patterned, driven, tight plot that takes the reader on a journey via the motivation of the characters. Causality also helps you guard against implausibility; if the character’s motivation and conflicts are always directed by cause and effect, the writing will be far more believable. 
It is by combining causality with conflict that the strongest plot affects are gained. Conflict allows the ‘screws’ of cause and effect to tighten towards the end of the story. The reader knows all the complexities will be sorted, but they can’t for the life of them see how. A good ending will generally spring that sort of surprise; the ‘how’ of making a satisfactory and (if the author wants) happy ending, where the character has survived his ordeals, and learns and grows as a person. Using a learning/growing outcome often helps the plausibility of the story, and leads to a satisfying end, because the main character will have mostly sorted things out for himself and be responsible for most of the good outcomes. 
So, looking at Forster’s quote above, it becomes clear that story, however interesting it might be to those caught up in it, does not have sufficient structure to hold an outside observer. Bear this in mind while you are plotting. The story that surrounds the plot, that led up to it, is also the story that  that could lead away from it in any direction...floating away from the nice construction of cause and effect. Be aware and beware of that and you will keep your structures and devices tight and focused.


  1. Slightly controversial response - at least shows I read it and am interested!

    You know, I've read this post twice and looked up a quite a few references and I still don't get it. I never have.

    Literary theorists might like the distinction but they are not linguistic philosophers. It seems to me that story and plot are essentially one and the same with differences only of emphasis - it reminds me of business people who try and insist there is some objective difference between a strategy and a plan, but then get all muddled if you really probe. Even if we take your quoted examples at face value plot is an intrinsic element of story; effectively sub set of it and can't exist without the other. Wittgenstein would have a field day with this.

    And as a little test try substituting story and plot in many of your sentences and see if it significantly changes the meaning.

    For example: A plot builds up from incidents that impact on one another. Isn't that what a story does too?

    My point is not be negative, but rather to point out that I think we sometimes worry too much about these putative distinctions - your point about causality, however is well made, and of course, it applies equally well to either story or plot.

  2. As always you explain things so well Nina, thank you.
    I too loved Jeanette Winterson - I heard her on the radio and agree she did include everything about the joy of reading.

  3. thanks Mark for you great response - you are perfectly right to make you point, and it's at least as valid. I like things to be a bit controversial!

  4. PS Just looked at your other blog, welcome to Wales!

  5. Who was it that said, "'The king died; the queen pulled the dagger out of his back, wiped the blade on her petticoat, then handed it to the Prime Minister.' That's a plot about a plot."?