Plot vs Story
Plot and story/storytelling are two separate things. This is a concept that I don’t see many people think about, and even making the distinction between the two isn’t something that many take the time to do.
Yet, I feel it’s important, when analyzing your feelings toward a work to not conflate the two things. With that in mind, how exactly are they different, and how exactly do they relate?
It’s my theory that the difference between plot and story lies largely in character writing. As an example, let’s look at Exhibit A: ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’
‘The Last Airbender’, depending on the medium, is considered either one of the greatest things ever, or one of the WORST things ever.
As an adaptation, the film by M. Night naturally shares the same basic plot as the animated series. Yet in my view, it’s through a series of changes in character writing and context that the STORY of the two works are very different.
Think of it this way: the plot of ‘The Last Airbender’ (both the film and the series) is that the Avatar has to stop the fire lord by learning the four bendings with the help of his companions.
Meanwhile, the story of the TV series is about a group of young people going on a journey both literal and spiritual, exploring their relationship with each other, and bettering themselves as people while on a grand quest. The story of the film is a bunch of nudniks going from point A to Point B and going through no change or development.
The plot is a series of events, while the story is the meaning of those events. The story telling is the method used to convey said meaning. The movie’s story is worse because there is no meaning to anything. There are no character arcs or worthwhile messages being expressed as the plot unfolds, so we’re literally just left watching events happen.
Plot is of course necessary to facilitate story beats, but I find it wrong to assume that the events that took place in a work are what makes it a fulfilling story. Instead, what makes a story what it is is what exactly these events mean to the characters involved. If a detail occurs within a series of events that doesn’t inform the themes or character arcs, then all it is a plot point; something to provide set up and/or context.
For another example of what I’m talking about, let’s bring up Exhibit B; the much loved Nightmare Before Christmas.
I’m something of an odd duck regarding this movie, in that I find the story to be incredibly weak. The plot has quite a lot happening on the outset, and is unique on a number of levels. But the reactions to this plot by the characters are either so glanced over, so inconsistent, or so nonexistent that the goings-on carry little impact.
Both of these films suffer from incredibly shallow character writing, something that I think is enough to kill a story.
Likewise, a plot hole shouldn’t be considered something that lessens the quality of the story. Unless it happens to be something massive, a hiccup in the events of the work should only be considered a negative if has negative impact on the consistency of the themes or characters.
A convenience taken for the sake of a story’s meaning is entirely forgivable. This is of course more or less true depending on how much merit you find in the “point” of the story being reached. The reason that a plot hole can seriously bother me in something like ‘The End Of Time’, is because I find it to be a means to an end that wasn’t at all worth it.
‘The End Of Time’ makes several sacrifices in logic for the sake of its end result, all of which I would be able to forgive had I not found the end result so incongruous with the larger meaning of the series. It’s a story who’s meaning I don’t find much merit in, and thus I have less tolerance for the decisions made to get to that meaning.
That other aspect of storytelling that helps separate from a plot is one I mentioned earlier, and that is context.
Context is often, but not always, tied to character writing. The fact is that many stories aren’t character driven, and it’s in these cases that context ‘creates’ the story.
You see, the thing about storytelling is that at a base level, it’s all up to audience interpretation. The storyteller provides setting, plot, characters, and imagery, but in the end it’s the audience who takes these elements and uses them as factors to interpret the meaning of the story through.
For those of you who aren’t following, let’s look at another example;
This is ‘Bronte’. Originally, songwriter Gotye wrote this song with the meaning being the loss of a beloved dog. When the song is listened to on its own, this intended meaning is most likely the one we, as an audience, are going to extrapolate. This is because the song’s lyrics and tone are the only things providing us with any context to interpret it through.
But, with the music video providing not only imagery, but characters and a linear sequence of events that make up a plot. With these elements added the meaning is re-contextualized.
As a result, the story changes.
My ultimate point here is that I find plot to be just one of the many tools used to convey a story. Depending on the intent of a creator, the impact the plot had on a story can be minimal or integral.
For the sake of interest, allow me to close off with some questions.
How much impact does the sequence of events have on a story for you? Is it more or less important than other storytelling elements? What are some stories that you think are strong, despite having weak plots? Or vice versa?