The Vital Difference Between Plot and Story—and Why You Need Both

Image: outdoor sculpture of two figures, one showing a smooth exterior and the other showing internal structures.

Today’s post is by book coach, editor and platform expert Heather Davis (@HLeeDavisWriter).

Writers buy plotting books by the dozen and do their best to create the plottiest plot that the world has ever seen. They stuff their novels with action-packed sword fights, explosions, fist fights, and screaming matches. Plot points, pinch points, and grandiose climaxes abound.

But the problem is this: in the world of great novels, Plot and Story are very different entities, and every great novel needs both.

Plot refers to all the external events that happen in a novel. The plot encompasses things like sword fights and explosions. It also encompasses the logical flow of the narrative as a series of cause-and-effect events. (Plot even encompasses your Inciting Incident—you know, that oh-so-important event that catapults your reluctant protagonist into the action in the first place!) Think of Plot as the external and highly visual part of your novel.

Story, on the other hand, refers to the internal transformation that your protagonist must make throughout the course of the novel in order (usually) to become a less flawed version of themselves by the end. Story tracks the character arc of the protagonist, showing us exactly how they get from point A (maybe selfish or cowardly) to point Z (maybe unselfish or brave). Story is largely internal, and it follows the emotions and thoughts of the protagonist as they try to make sense of (and adjust to) their ever-changing world. It is here in the Story where we see the protagonist slowly transformed by the events of the Plot.

Think of Plot as what’s happening to your protagonist and Story as what’s happening within your protagonist. And certain events force them to wrestle with their internal demons, fears, misconceptions, and prejudices until (finally) they come out the other side of your Plot as a changed person. (Or, possibly in a tragedy, not changed.) When that happens, the Story is done!

Novels that have an interesting Plot but not a deep Story are dramatic sequences of somewhat related external events that would rival any Hollywood action flick. But…those action-packed events don’t seem to have a throughline, and there is no emotional continuity for the reader to grasp hold of. Plot without Story is unrewarding for readers. In fact, neurologist Paul Zak found that both plot and story must be present for test subjects to pay attention to a narrative and feel empathy for the characters involved.

Here are seven ways to infuse your Plot with Story.

1. Design a clear character arc for your protagonist. Your protagonist is an imperfect person, because they would be totally boring if they already had everything figured out from the beginning. Decide which aspect of their imperfection your story will focus on. This will be their basic character arc. Here are some common (simple) arcs, but there are many more that vary in complexity.

  • Selfish to selfless
  • Cowardly to brave
  • Mistrusting to trusting
  • Deceitful to truthful
  • Lacking self-confidence to having self-confidence
  • Afraid to unafraid

2. Create a compelling backstory that makes your protagonist’s character arc make sense. If your protagonist is selfish, have a specific and concrete backstory that supports this flaw. The backstory you create will be sprinkled throughout the narrative like seasoning, helping the reader understand your protagonist and begin to empathize with them.

3. Make that character arc clear from the beginning of the novel. The opening scenes and chapters are the perfect place for your protagonist to show off their imperfection. If their character arc is cowardly to brave, the reader should see them acting cowardly (and what effect that has on their life and happiness) early in the novel.

4. Test each plot point (narrative event) to see if it relates back to the Story. The events in your novel aren’t just there to be flashy and dramatic. They should pressure your protagonist to change in a very specific way. In essence, plot points exist to make your protagonist walk the trajectory of the character arc you have designed. So, if your protagonist’s character arc is cowardly to brave, then each plot point should relate back to that idea.

Sometimes these events will cause them to be less cowardly and sometimes more cowardly. Their character arc is a two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back sort of thing. But, overall, there should be forward momentum and the reader should feel it.

5. Prune away plot points that don’t relate back to the Story. Once you start connecting plot points to your protagonist’s character arc, you might notice that some of the events in your novel don’t fit anymore. That means they aren’t actually a part of the Story you are trying to tell. This is where that advice to kill your darlings comes in extremely handy. If plot points don’t serve the Story, they must go.

6. Check that internal change is slow and subtle. Readers love Story, but they don’t want to be beat over the head with it. They don’t want to feel like you’re trying to teach them a lesson. Instead, the magic you’re working should be nearly invisible. The internal change your protagonist undergoes is subtle and slow enough to make sense in the context of the Plot. Meaning, the protagonist shouldn’t just wake up one day as a changed person. The external events of the Plot must really leave them no choice but to change.

7. Show that your protagonist is changed by the end of the story. The beginning and ending of your story should be like night and day. If the opening scenes and chapters show that the protagonist has a flaw, then the ending should show that the flaw has been fixed (or at least greatly improved).

Plot and Story are two halves of a great narrative. By spending as much (or more) time weaving a dynamic Story as you do creating a flashy Plot, readers will walk away feeling like your novel was worth their time and energy. They will have gleaned a nugget of universal truth about the human experience from the pages of your work. (And isn’t that why we come to novels in the first place?)

Now I’d love to hear your thoughts! What is the Story at the heart of your Plot? How did you decide on it?

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