EM Forster’s classic distinction between story and plot, and why truth really is stranger than fiction:
The words ‘Story’ and ‘Plot’ are often used synonymously, but some critics and writers insist on a technical difference: In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway makes the following distinction between story and plot: ‘A story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order. A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic and emotional significance.’
The great English novelist E.M. Forster made a similar distinction:
“The king died, and then the queen died,” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief,” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development.
So here’s an example of a story: After we were at the club we went back to Jim’s and Jim fell out of the window
And here’s that story turned into a plot: I wanted to leave the club and Jim didn’t, and that was how the argument started. We were still arguing when we got back to Jim’s. The argument became physical and I pushed Jim. He stumbled and fell out of the window.
The key to a plot, then, is that the incidents are causatively connected – one thing leads to another.
Life doesn’t always work like this. A common debate that occurs in writing workshops involves a writer being told an incident in her story isn’t believable. ‘Ah,’ she says. ‘But that really happened! My second cousin Bernard was searching for his long lost brother and they really did happen to sit next to each other on the train to Wolverhampton!’
This is no defence, for in this regard life really is stranger than fiction. Life is, in Albert Camus’ terms, absurd. Things happen for no particular reason. We try to impose some sense on the world – if we are struck by lightning then we wonder if maybe it happened as punishment because we had an affair a year ago. But it didn’t. It was just a random event into which no meaning can be read.
But there’s little place for the random or for coincidence in fiction – it won’t satisfy your readers. Think how you would feel if in a detective novel, the detective makes inquiries into a murder, quizzes witnesses, follows clues, but ultimately draws a blank. After the case is dropped she takes her husband for dinner at their local restaurant. By coincidence it happens that the guys as the adjacent table are discussing how they got away with murdering the victim. Could it happen in real life? I guess so. Would it satisfy us as the conclusion of a crime thriller? Definitely not.
In plots, unlike in real life, things have to happen for a reason.
Below you’ll find a link to some examples of stories; if you feel like it, have a go rewriting them as plots.