Plot vs Story: Discover the Key Difference

Questions that bug newbie writers may seem so trivial, but the truth is that we’ve all asked ourselves or others these same questions.

For example, we’ve all—at an early point in our writing career or school days—had questions like, what is a story? What is a plot? Are they the same things?

Although a lot of fledgling writers might confuse the two, story and plot should not be synonymous.

Not at all.  

But story and plot are not antithetical terms. In fact, they are connected, and there can’t be a plot without a story.  A plot supports a story in a way that sparks it to life.

Still, I hear people confuse story and plot in a lot of conversations, and I decided to take it upon myself to clear the confusion and the question, “what’s the difference between plot and story?” 

plot vs story discover the key difference

What Is a Story?

The story is the arrangement of events in your narrative—the timeline.   Your story is what happens within your short story, screenplay, or novel. Like, “David picks some stones and uses his sling to kill Goliath, the Philistines flee the battlefield.”

Just a plain sequence of events. No motives, no rationale behind the actions.

A story stitches the narrative together, gives the sequence of scenes in a movie and events in a book.

But you can see that there are no motives or intentions—just plain events.

What Is a Plot?

The plot is a literary device that is used to bring your story to life. When someone tells a story, they always have to answer the question, “what happens next?”

That’s the plot.

You build your story with a plot. Stories—the fundamental structures of your novels, screenplays, et cetera—are similar and usually regurgitated by many writers, but the plot is what brings originality to the telling of the story.

story vs plot
Story and Plot are related, but they are not the same.

What Are the Elements of a Story?

To craft a good story, a writer needs to know and master the elements that make a story. An architect who knows nothing about the materials used to build his designs will always come up with impractical models. The case is the same with writers. If they know the elements that make up their stories, they can’t create appealing stories.

They have to know and master these seven elements of fiction:

1. Character

Imaginary people or beings who are used and live in the stories. Characters can be people, hobbits, animals, fairies, cars, etc.

Characters bring the connection between the reader and the story. Without them, a story is exanimate.

2. Setting

The setting is the environment in which your story takes place. It could be a hospital in Cuba, a forest in Africa, or Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

The size of the environment doesn’t really matter, if you can plot your story in a barn, then the barn it is.

Seasons, climate, era, and time are also part of settings. For example, if you read a lot of World War II stories, then the setting is World War II.

Likewise, a writer may choose to tell a tale about a poor farmer’s near-death experience in one harsh winter in 1970. That story is set in the 70s, in winter. In movies, such settings can be shown graphically, but writers have to be creative with their devices to show these settings using the characters’ feelings and actions.

3. Plot

When this happens, what happens next in the story? The order of events in the story.

4. Theme

Themes represent the unifying idea in the story. It represents what the story is all about—is it about love? Betrayal? Honor? Or friendship?

5. Point-of-view

POV is the angle from which the story is being told. It could be first person (uses pronouns, “I” and “me”), second person (uses the pronoun, “you”), or third person (uses pronouns “He” and “she,” and nouns, e.g., “John” and “Esther”).

6. Style

Style is a unique element for every writer. It’s like a signature element of your writing and it’s likely going to be the one thing that sets you apart from the rest. Style grows naturally as you write more and more and is made of syntax, diction, and voice.

7. Literary Devices

These are tools that a writer needs to make their stories lively and exciting. Literary devices include metaphors, similes, humor, irony, personification, symbolism, alliterations, figurative language, and onomatopoeia.

elements of a story
To create a story, these are the main elements that you need to think about.

What Are the Essential Elements of a Plot?

1. Exposition

This is the introductory part of the story that sets the stage for the events that’ll follow. The exposition is used to reveal settings, introduce major characters, and set up the main conflicts of the story.

The exposition also gives the MC’s backstory so that the audience understands their persona.

2. Rising Action

The rising action is the part of the plot that sets forth the climax. In this stage, plot developments build tension that irrupts into the story’s climax.

This element of plotting gives the writer endless possibilities of scenarios leading to the climax.

During rising action, the story usually rivets on the protagonist’s struggles with internal or external conflicts and how they deal with them.

3. Climax

When we say that a story has reached the climax, we mean that it’s reached the peak of the action.

This part represents a turning point in the story, where the protagonist has to confront the action or conflict.

The tension that was created in the rising action matures into the most exciting part of the story, a part that invokes the reader’s emotions.

4. Falling Action

This is where the action starts to simmer down. Now, the story adopts a steady rhythm.

This is the aftermath of the climax, during which we discover the outcomes of the peak stage and how the characters handle those outcomes.

5. Resolution

Also called the denouement, the resolution is the part that brings the story to a close.

The end can either be tragic or a happy ending; nonetheless, the conflicts are resolved and all rough patches tidied.

You can leave the story open-ended so that there’s good ground for a sequel.

elements of a plot
Like a roller coaster ride, a plot has ups and downs.

Why Is a Plot Important to A Story?

A plot gives order to the story. A story without a plot leaves the readers with a lot of questions—like, why did this happen? What happens after that?

A plot supports the story by giving it the fabric that readers can relate to and follow the story from early development to the conclusion.

What Makes a Good Story?

To begin with, a good story is well-written. That’s a no-brainer.

Second, a good story is based on a distinct concept or theme. If the story is sort of a familiar tale, it’s the ingenuity of the writer in creating a unique plot that can make the story a good one.

To stitch a perfect fictional piece, the writer has to understand how to effectively use the elements of fiction.

And, the most important ingredient of a great story is the writer’s knack for telling a good story. This is a natural trait and gets embedded in the writer’s style.

What Is a Good Plot for A Story?

A plot has to appeal to the reader. A plot has to be exciting and incite curiosity from the reader—keep them reading the story. And a plot needs to challenge the character(s) in the story.

A good plot has to fulfill all these requirements.

A good story is, to some extent, a product of a good plot structure. A good plot structure guides the writer on the story writing process and prevents them from being taken away by detours.

The writer has to ensure that he follows a proper plot structure—whether it’s a five-element plot structure that I described in this article or a three-act plot structure.

Plot or Story: Which Comes First?

Where you start from depends on your preference or how the story reveals itself to you.

You could start your piece from a story. Starting with a story leaves you with a complete sequence of events but little or no explanations for characters’ actions and how they resolve certain conflicts.  

which comes first
As a writer, you have limited time to grab the reader’s attention.

The thing about starting with the story is that there’s no pressure on you to give rationale for the events in the story. You can patch the story when you start plotting.

However, if you fail to create a good plot afterward, you only end up with a cock-and-bull story.

You could also start with the plot. When you start this way, you’re aware of the characters’ backstories, feelings, and volitions. You know the rationale behind some actions, but there’s a catch:

You might be clueless as to where and how the story is going to end. You wander around for a couple of chapters and end up somewhere good (that is, if you can keep it together and keep going long enough).

Just remember, there’s no wrong way to start your story. It is your story after all.

What Makes a Story Boring?

Afraid of inking a story that’ll drag your readers to slumber?

Well… there are reasons why stories turn out to be boring.

One reason why a story can be boring is if you tell instead of showing. “Show, don’t tell” is the most sacred rule of fiction writing—showing brings the reader into the story and engages their senses.

Lack of conflict is also a good ingredient for a boring story. Nobody likes reading a flat story.

And then there’s dialogue. It’s annoying when dialogue that doesn’t match the character’s description. A young man from the Bronx on the streets of New York shouldn’t speak like a Londoner in an Irish bar.

Finally, a disorderly story will bore ANY reader. A story without a perceivable sequence is confusing and draggy.

What Is a Narrative?

The narrative is how the story is told, or the way events within that story are interpreted. It represents the story’s architectural design.

With the narrative, the writer can choose the order of events and how to relate them. This way, the narrative gives a fixed angle of the story but not necessarily the story itself.

So, the story is a frame and the narrative can make that frame take the shape that the author wants it to.

An author or a movie director can reshuffle items and rearrange the order of events to change the narrative without changing the story itself.

So, you can now see that apart from having a good plot, a story needs to have an excellent narrative.

A detailed explanation about the narrative.

Can I Write Books Without a Plot?

Yes. That “yes” is for nonfiction books, though.

You can write books without plots and insert graphics and photos to help you explain the content.

But if you want to write fiction, you’ll need a plot. Otherwise, you’ll end up telling a weightless fairy tale destined for dusty bookshelves and the one billionth google search page.

Start Writing That Story, NOW.

Writing the story is the easy part. The hard part’s cooking the story using a good plot and spicing it up with an ingenious narrative.

Writing a story is easy once you have everything in order.

Now that you know the difference between plot and story, what can you do to craft both excellently? What’s stopping you from writing a bestseller?

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.