Plot vs. Story
Updated: Mar 10, 2020
I’d never been on a road this bumpy. Or as my husband Michael would say, “gnarly.” He couldn’t keep the grin off his face as we four-wheeled over rocks far too big to be considered a “road.” I held onto the door arm of the truck for dear life. We were halfway into a six-mile trek with some friends to a remote mountain lake.
The plot of this story? Characters drive truck down long, bumpy road to lake. Plot is simply the sequence of events that moves the story forward. The story, the real story, is so much more than that. Story is the experience, the emotion, and the effect of those events.
Experience The characters’ experience often incorporates the sensory details of the environments the plot puts them in. The seatbelt pulled against my shoulder with every jolt of the truck. The car in front of us kicked up a cloud of dust so thick that at times, Michael could barely see the road ahead. We couldn’t roll down the windows because of the dust, and with only the fan blowing, the cab became uncomfortably warm.
Emotion To feel emotions is to be human, and no story is complete without them. Michael is adventurous. For him, navigating the rocks, controlling the wheel, and exploring the unknown was exhilarating, exciting, and fun. Me? I tried to control my anxiety about our canoe being jarred loose. My muscles tensed not only from hanging on, but from worry that we might pop a tire or damage the truck or get lost after a dozen unmarked turns or . . . you get the idea. Characters’ emotional responses will differ.
Effect The plot events also have an effect on the characters. For me, that effect was a stomach that felt like a bowl of tossed salad. But it was also an appreciation for Michael’s sense of adventure and driving skills. I enjoyed seeing him in his element. Michael, realizing that my emotions were a bit different than his, showed increased consideration and empathy for my experience.
Maybe you’ve never owned a truck. Perhaps you’ve never gone off-roading. You might prefer sanitized, chlorine pools over frog-filled lakes. That’s beside the point. You’ve probably experienced something that made you uncomfortable or sick to your stomach. You can likely think of a time when you felt anxiety and fear, or when you felt lost. And almost certainly you’ve felt the excitement and joy of doing something fun.
That’s the story that makes your plot come alive. That’s the experience that draws the reader in and makes them say, “I can relate to that.” Is your plot serving your story? Does your story draw the reader in with engaging experiences, universal emotions, and meaningful, realistic effects?
Michael and I (and the truck) did survive our adventure. And when we got to the lake, pristine and uncrowded, it was worth all the bumps along the way. And now we’ve got a story to tell!