Know your writing terms: Story and plot

My son is a writer, but his interest is movies and music. A recent conversation with him was sprinkled with writing and movie terms as well as clear explanations for scene structure, camera angles, and other components of movie making.

That got me thinking about my lack in the area of writing. There are literary terms that I know inherently but can’t actually describe or define easily. I want to know them until their definitions (which I’m finding to be quite wonderful) can flow from my mouth like movie-making terms do for my son.

Story and plot are first on my list.

I’m writing my first novel. As I thought about story and plot, the most basic of writing terms, I realized I couldn’t define them well or make a clear distinction between the two. If asked, my definition for story would have been something like “A story is what it’s all about. You know, the story.” Plot would have been “It’s that underlying-puzzle-kind-of-mysterious-plot thing.”

I laughed, too. Go ahead and try it yourself. Define story and plot. I’ll wait.

How did you do?

I hope you can see what I’m trying for here. I know what story and plot are, but my definitions wouldn’t help me become a better writer. So, I set out with the belief that a good study of these words can only improve my writing. Fortunately, there are experienced writers, past and present, who offer their knowledge to those of us who want to learn.

What is a story?

A story is composed of three basic elements: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The word is from the Greek histor, meaning “knowing” or “learned.” (Yes, etymology can be fun.) Most definitions include that a story amuses, informs, or interests its readers.

E.M. Forster (Howards End, A Passage to India) wrote a book in 1927 called Aspects of the Novel, described as “the timeless classic on novel writing.” I wasn’t aware of it until I started researching writing terms. The book is interesting to read as Forster weaves in other authors’ works to make his points.

“Yes–oh, dear, yes–a novel tells a story.” In his chapter about the story, Forster repeats this affirmation several times. He defines a story as a narrative of events arranged in time sequence. “[The story] is the lowest and simplest of literary organisms” and “… it is the highest factor common to all the very complicated organisms called novels.” Forster’s use of organism in this passage is clever. It confirms the way I feel while writing: my story is living, breathing, changing, moving.

Here is one of Forster’s observation that all writers should ponder: “[A story] can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely, it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.”

How does plot differ from story?

Forster supplies another solid definition: A plot is also a narrative of events, yet its focus is on causality (the relationship between cause and effect). He illustrates the difference between story and plot:

  • With a story we say, “And then what?” (That keeps the reader reading.)
  • With a plot we ask, “Why?” (That keeps the reader thinking.)

The term is from the French complot, meaning “conspiracy.” It’s no wonder, then, that an article at Writer’s describes plot as “your weapon of suspense.” WD breaks plot down to three elements:

1.  a causal sequence of events
2.  a procession through a series of reversals and recognitions

• reversal being a shift in a situation to its opposite
• recognition being a change from ignorance to awareness

3.  a central character who:

• wants something intensely
• goes after it despite opposition and,
• as a result of a struggle, comes to either win or lose

Then there are the layers of the plot: conflict, motivation, point of view, tension, climax, dénouement — more writing gems to uncover.

What you’ll gain

It’s true that you don’t need to know the definitions of writing terms to be a good writer or even an excellent writer. What you can gain from this study is a greater appreciation for and understanding of your craft. And that can only help you become a better writer.

Do you have a solid understanding of these terms? Do you know how to use them effectively in your writing? What about other writing terms — do you own their meanings and keep them in your writing toolbox, sharpened and ready to use?

I answered “No, but I’m working on it!” to each of those questions. The resources are plenty, both online and in print, and I’ll be sure to share what I learn here in upcoming “Writing Terms” posts.

Question: How has a good study of a particular writing term improved your writing?


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