Plot versus Story Line – The Subtle But Big Difference

The most difficult writing challenge for me is and has always been plot.  You’d think plot would be easy considering it’s what happens in a book.  Ah, but I write character driven stories.  For me the most important thing, the bread and butter of my writing, is building characters.  Nothing makes me fall in love with my writing faster than creating an absorbing and complex character, throwing them in with other characters, and seeing how they interact with their world.  But that doesn’t necessarily make for a story.

Unfortunately, I’m not the only one with this problem.  I’ve read far too many books lately where something was lacking.  Maybe the novels had compelling characters or a really interesting setting.  Maybe the premise was good.  But nope, it just didn’t hold my interest.

And then I read a short essay called “The Philosophy of Plot” by James N. Frey that set the proverbial light bulb off over my head.  This essay talked about the difference between Plot and Story Line.

Guess what?  They aren’t the same thing!  Furthermore, you can have a story line without having a plot.  In fact, some of the great works of literature are carried along on a story line rather than a plot.  Ooooooo!

But what’s the difference?

Plot is like stairs, one after the other
© Freds | Dreamstime.com

Plot is a chain of events.  It carries the characters in your story through a series of actions, a series of cause and effect.  Event A happens and your characters have Reaction A, which leads to Event B.  Event B provokes Action B which leads to Event C.  One thing follows another in a logical progression.  Complication ensues, stakes are raised, and the characters strive onward through the Rising Action through Acts One and Two and into Act Three of your story.  There they meet the ultimate Event/Reaction combination in the Climax, which resolves in one way or another into a Denouement … or not.  Voila!  Plot.Story line is something else entirely.  Story lines take place across a much longer period of time.  They are the journey that your character is on.  Story line is like a road that winds on through a series of events as the characters grow and develop.  Some actions within the story might have a cause and effect relationship, but others might not.  But still the story progresses and the characters have gone through changes by the time they reach the end.

To use the examples of some books I’ve liked, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has a plot.  The Hunger Games has a plot.  Gone with the Wind has a storyline.  I would argue that The Help has a storyline as well.  But all of these books are very well done.

My problem is that I tend to think from character as I write.  I’ve always tended to be a pantser.  I’m very good at coming up with characters and putting them in situations.  When it comes to setting the scene I’m awesome.  But when the time comes to set things in motion and move them forward … Ah, that’s when things get rough in my worlds.  I have lovely characters doing things that ultimately aren’t very important and lead nowhere.

This is a big and all too common problem that I’ve seen in a lot of writing.  The writer starts off with the best of intentions, but they don’t quite commit to a story line while at the same time including too many irrelevant scenes from the life of the characters to count as plot.  The end result is a muddy mess in which the characters do a lot of literary nose-picking while the reader gets bored and wanders off to grab a cup of coffee.

It might be hard to hear for a reformed pantser like me, but if you’re going to commit to a story with a plot, and I highly recommend it, then you have to put effort into making sure that your plot has teeth.  It’s a lot harder to keep your characters focused on their story goal than you might think.  A strong character will try to distract the writer’s attention with a thousand delicious details about their life that seem like they need to be explored.  But if it’s plot you’re after you need to focus on what those characters are doing, what their goals are, and keep them moving forward.

Story Line is like a long and winding road
© Sajedts | Dreamstime.com

However, if your characters are so dimensional and complex that their minor journeys are the plot, then you might have a story line situation on your hands.  Or maybe a series.  I’ve never tried to write literary fiction, which I think of as closer to story line-driven writing than plot-driven writing, but I have written a series or two.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows might have a plot, but the Harry Potter series as a whole has a storyline.  If you plan on carrying your characters through a long period of time and an epic life journey, then you need to pay attention to the storyline.Either way, whether you’re focused on creating a plot or whether you’re out for something closer to an epic storyline, it’s essential that you keep it clear and crisp.  Sometimes that means cutting out giant chunks that you originally thought were going to win you the Booker Prize.  I just did that with a huge swath of my forthcoming novel The Courageous Heart.  It’s not always easy to see what the meat of your plot or your storyline is on the first pass.  And that’s why greatness as an author comes not through writing but through revising.

But that’s a blog post for another day.

So what are some good examples of strongly plot-based stories or strongly storyline based stories that you’ve run across?  What do you enjoy reading or writing more?

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8 thoughts on “Plot versus Story Line – The Subtle But Big Difference

  1. I really liked this post. Very enlightening and definitely will give me something to think about it my writing. It is amazing how such little things have such an impact and if you get it only slightly wrong it can be the difference between published and slushed.
    Ill be following your blog for more helpful tips. If you want to read my blog that would be great too.

    http://julierkendrick.wordpress.com/

    Have a great day

    Julie :)

    • Thanks Julie! Yep, it’s a fine line we writers walk when it comes to the craft. But for me it’s the challenge of a lifetime and I love it! I also love my editor who keeps me on the straight and narrow. ;)

  2. One of my favorite examples is the Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. The premis is brilliant; You wake up, you have no idea who you are, but holy crap can you do things! And why are those guys trying to kill you?
    You can make a case for this being character driven, since it is all about him, but since we never know who he is it isn’t really about him as a character. There is nobody there.
    You can make a case for storyline, but except for the epilog where all the loose ends are tied up, there is no long arch of this guy’s life.
    The story is about plot because the whole book is about the three questions “Who am I?”, “Who are they?” and “Why do they want to kill me?” Every event in the book serves that simple but powerful plot device.
    He has some relationships with other people, but most of these are just vehicles for expostion, somebody to talk to to explain what is going on. It is the plot that drive all of it.

    Nice post, I love this kind of hair-splitting analysis. I am one who thinks these kind of things are important.

  3. Have you ever read the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan? That’s an example of a series that started off plot based, then became story line based. The first few books have defined plots, but then events start to stretch out, and by the time you’re at book nine or so, you’re like, “What exactly happened in the last five books?”. I think story line is great, but plot is also really important. If you’re trying to remember which book a major event happened in, and you can’t because all the books blend together, I think that’s a problem. Books should be self-contained, while at the same time working toward the over-arching story line.

  4. I’m with Julie on this one, as the subtle differences seem to be what makes the difference between a work and a work of art. (I agree about the revision part, too, big time.) Great post, Merry, and one I need to look at more closely, as some of your challenges with getting those scenes together into a plot/storyline seems to be a struggle for me as well. Thanks!

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