Is it the Plot or the Story?

My wife said something to me this past weekend which gave me pause. She said I became too interested in moving the PLOT forward and forgot about the STORY.

I’m not sure I know the difference.

For context, we were discussing my first paranormal piece, still titled Ghost Hunters for the moment. As some of you may recall, last year I went on an editing spree, determined to have the story ready for Halloween so I could think about putting it up on Kindle (since I’m almost ready to give up on traditional publishers in favor of self-publishing eBooks a la Joe Konrath). Well, as I dove into the edits for the first time since 2008, I realized I’d grown a lot since I did them the first time through, and I cut a lot deeper than before. To the bone.

What I ended up with was one half of a book, tight and needing some joining scenes. The rest of it was a loose collection of usable scenes, but as they are now, they’re disembodied from the story. I need more than joining scenes to rescue them. I need entire sections of the book re-done. I therefore have two halves of a book. The back half, which it became clear was written strictly in the device of an online serial, didn’t survive the editing process at all.

My wife mentioned the book to me on Sunday. We were discussing whether I’d recovered them from my failed hard drive a few months ago. I told her I had both the final edits – or the bits and parts left over – and the edits which came just prior (much more like copy edits, to be honest, and not very good ones at that).

She told me she felt I went too far. One of the more popular characters (not the apparently unlikable protagonist though) didn’t seem to survive the edits with his vitality and humor intact. I cleaned up his dialog, removed some of his stupidity and thought I made him a less ridiculous character. It appears, however, my loving spouse disagrees. She feels I killed the character and the humor and charm that endeared him to the few readers who followed along.

I argued I’d improved the story. She argued I’d moved the plot forward, but at the expense of the story. Because I cut all the needless scenes, which didn’t contribute to the story, and because I’d cut down the banter and witty repartee they shared with each other, the character toned down so far I could probably do away with him entirely.

Is there a difference between story and plot? What is the difference? Where’s the line?

I never intended to cut the life out of the story, but as a writer, I have to be sure every word, every paragraph, contributes to the story and the progression. If there’s a part which doesn’t seem to do that, no matter how fond we are of it, it  has to be cut out. That’s the saying, right? “Cut your darlings.” Well, I did. I cut the living dog crap out of it. And guess what? It died.

How can  you know when too much is too much? How does a writer know when leaving something apparently useless in will forward the story in the long run? How do you clean up a character’s part in a storyline without removing the things which make the character who it is, the very things which brought it to life?

I thought I was good at this, but apparently, I still have a long, long way to go before I can say I’m good at fiction. (I think non-fiction’s a lot easier at this point. Hm. Maybe I should give up and just stick to that?)

What do you writers think? How can you tell? How can you know when it should stay, when it should go, and when spurious is really spurious?

Sound off and let me know. I’m listenin’.


Copyright 2011 DarcKnyt, All rights reserved


9 thoughts on “Is it the Plot or the Story?

  1. I think you took the kill-your-darlings thing way too far. Not every part of your story needs to advance the plot. Some are about catching breath, some reveal greater character depth, some just show a different angle.

    See, my wife says that too CV, but I’m not sure I agree. How far IS “too far” with this? The front half of the book is really tight, if less humorous… which was kind of it’s appeal. 😦 Okay, I concede I MAY have gone too far. Oy.

    Think of the female homicide detective chasing a serial killer and also raising her daughter on her own. Catching the serial killer is the point of the plot, but scenes with her daughter would show her in a different light and reveal different worries and struggles.

    I know, but some of the things I cut really were just trite and useless. I tried not to gut the things of import to either the characters OR the story.

    I did the same thing and made my book too sparse in intensive edits, and now, since I’m not shopping to big houses and don’t have to worry about word count, I’m putting more narrative back in.

    Good for you! Go Kindle and you’ll never go back. 😉

    Just think about the entire scope of your story and all you want to reveal, then take it scene by scene and you’ll get it.

    Well, that’s what I did when I did the gutting. I’ll have to revisit it someday… whenever THAT is. 😉

  2. Courtney said it well, and Fal had a great point about story vs. plot. I think that “kill your darlings” thing has more to do with those precious details that you know instinctively don’t move the story forward, and sometimes it’s easy to apply it to anything you find interesting or fun. GH started with fun, interesting characters. I don’t think the lightheartedness needs to be sacrificed for the sake of the plot.

    You’re right, CV did say it well, and my only real objection to Fal’s awesome point was its timing. She didn’t say that to me when I was slashing and burning and when she read what I did, she told me it was better. I cry “Bullsh!t” if she’s gonna say she didn’t. I tried to keep the characters fun (which is interesting coming from you because you didn’t like them) and real-to-life, but I think they definitely lost something. Now the issue will be how to add it back IN without going back to idiocy and mundanity. 🙂

  3. If it is all plot then there is very little story. Don’t over edit it to death.

    Thanks, Delaney, but I think it’s too late! O_o

    • I thought about it more and I came up with this: I can tell you the basic plot of a book or movie but that isn’t telling you the whole story. The story moves the plot along.

      Another interesting description. Thanks, Delaney — it’s good to have several viewpoints.

  4. Here’s my take on “Story vs Plot” I consider “Story” to be the whole enchilada. Plot is the sequence of events that happens in the story. Pacing is how fast you move from event to event. Other stuff you write that isn’t necessarily plot: characterization (dialog and description), setting, foreshadowing, exposition…

    Hm. Interesting. I have to think on that; I imagine you didn’t pull that out of your Rectum Spiders, though, so it’s probably a good description. First time someone’s laid it out that way for me. Thanks.

    In other news, most of the time I think my work jumps from plot event to plot event way too quickly.

  5. Every reader has their own capacity for tolerating lulls in the plot. I’m one who enjoys well-crafted descriptive passages that add a rich, sensory atmosphere. I recently read a book that had lots of that type of text. I checked out other peoples’ feedback on that same book on, and found a lot of people complaining that the book dragged on and the plot moved at a snail’s pace. That wasn’t a problem for me – I loved it! Other people, I guess they want all their books to be written like Dan Brown writes. You can’t please’em all!

    Hahahahaha! Dan Brown — AWESOME! You’re right, can’t please ’em all. 🙂 I just want to find that happy medium for myself, I guess.

  6. Others have touched upon my viewpoint. Something I read somewhere explained plot and story like this (and I’m pulling this from memory so I’m sure it isn’t quite right). Plot–The King died. The Queen died.
    Story–The King died. The Queen died of grief.

    I know this one. But it really didn’t help; the rest of the explanation felt somewhat light-and-trite. 🙂

    Anyway, lots of movies really have the same plot (retired cop gets asked to come back and solve one final mystery!), but they aren’t the same stories.

    In all honesty, there are only about 13 different kind of stories in all storytelling. Everything we do is based on those 13. I think that’s what I read. Somewhere. And let’s face it, there’s only ONE romance/rom-com.

    Yeah, kill your darlings isn’t kill what you like. I take it more like don’t play favorites. Just like you can’t love one child more than the other, you can’t love one part more than the other when it comes to editing. And darlings deserves love too sometimes!

    Meh, they were kill-able. I say if you can kill ’em and they aren’t missed too much, they ought to go. But now I have only a stumpy skeleton to work from, so it’s harder than I’d like. 😉

    • People don’t want to read a skeleton. They want a warm bloody heart.

      I can carve out THEIRS and give it to them. HA! 😉 Just kiddin’.

      I don’t know if you like the movie The Wizard of Oz, but the makers of that film decided to cut out the song “Over the Rainbow.” They thought it slowed down the movie. Now, maybe you don’t like that song, but really, where would that movie and Judy Garland have been without that song?

      I’d love to see one without all the songs and dances, just to see how it looks. I’ve heard some respectable remakes have been done, but have never taken the time to watch any.

      Or think of it like this. Sometimes I go through my closets and throw away things I think I don’t need. And you know what happens, the thing I threw away I end up needing. Of course, you can’t live in a house filled with junk out of fear you might need something later–hoarder alert!–but sometimes you fail to realize what you need until it is gone.

      That’s a good analogy for this situation, I think. I threw out some stuff I could’ve used later. I can put new stuff in or I can go get the old stuff back, but I need to make sure what I put in is important. Or useful. Or whatever.

      Or don’t get so filled with bloodlust that you leave no blood for the reader.

      Pff. Readers. They’re too fickle as it is. I write to please me now. MEEEE!

  7. Plot vs. Story to me was always explained as the plot, essentially, having five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The story was everything that happened around those key scenarios to bring it all together and make it brilliant. Kind of like “life is what happens when you’re making plans.”

    I like that. There are milestones in my story structure method too, and this helps me envision how the story weaves the structure together, and the plot is the … wait, what?

    I think books translated into movies are a good example of pushing plot, and skipping story, because you can see/hear it. I remember reading Memoirs of a Geisha quite some time ago, and then when they announced the movie, I figured it may be, if anything, beautiful to see. It was, but they cut the story. They kept the plot going along for the sake of the movie, but neglected to point out certain aspects that, I, at least, felt were relevant to the story.

    I don’t know, some movies have a great story. Doubt is based on a play, but BOY is that a good one. There HAS to be others, right?

    And this happens often in books-to-movies, and it’s not the same as what you’re talking about, I know, but to me, that’s how it makes sense, because I agree with Fal on the subject.

    Ah, I see. 🙂

Hey, what's up? Tell me whatcha think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s