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An answer worth the journey: plot and story

One of the perennial questions is "What's the difference between plot, and story?", and I've just come across the best definition I've ever heard. It's by Paul Ashton, who's the Development Producer at the BBC's Writers Room:

Plot is the route you take; story is the journey you make.

What that means to me is that if the reader starts the book asking, "What will this all be about?", then story is the reader's experience of reaching the real answer. And that's just as true when the story is about whether Private Ryan will be saved, as when the story is about whether a young man will change his manners and a young woman change her mind, as the introduction to my Penguin Pride and Prejudice puts it.

Plot, then, is the engineering that makes "What It's About" actually happen, stage by stage. "A causally related chain of events" is the dictionary definition of narrative, and plotting is the business of setting up those events and the causal relations that chain them together. Of course these events need to be plausible within the world and nature of these characters, or we won't believe that each causal event would lead to the effect that's narrated. And if you're any good at your job, then the events and what they cause will be really rooted in your characters and their situations.

But, on their own, character and situation are not enough. Aristotle said it first, of course:

For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse...if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents.

He's talking about theatre, and Tragedy (Comedy got lost, and lost again in The Name of the Rose), but what he's saying, it seems to me, is what ever publisher knows and every writer should know: story is king.

Character is not story because it's a static thing, though it may give rise to story. Nor is a situation a story, because that, too, is static: What things are like won't keep a reader reading, any more than Who he is will. Of course, a story must always start with a character in a situation, but it's the instability of that combination (as I was exploring in Wake Up and Rewrite), which instantly poses the question What "Will Happen Next?". And as that something happens, that character inevitably becomes character-in-action, and we'll read on to find out what that action leads to.

And then an Open University colleague put me on to a terrific TED talk, by Pixar's Andrew Stanton, who scripted Toy Story, WallE, Finding Nemo, and not a few others. The last couple of minutes are rather slushy, but the first nineteen are full of nuggets of pure gold. One is his discussion of how the beginning of a good story offers

The promise that this story will lead somewhere that's worth your time... A well-told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot, and propels you forward through the story to the end.

Even the title can offer that promise, he points out: here comes pride put up against prejudice (so much more friction than between sense and sensibility); this will be about finding Nemo. In other words, plot is the mechanics of leading the reader to the end, but the reader's desire to read at all comes from our trust in the promise that this story will be worth it.

But novels are long: if we're to keep reading, our desire will need refuelling. Not only must the storyteller's promise be reinforced, but our desire to be satisfied must be strengthened. That's partly about the action - plenty of "artistically constructed incidents" - but it's also about the characters: we need to go on feeling, and feeling ever more strongly, that how they end up really matters. In other words, the plot - the chain of cause-and-effect - needs to lead us on an ever more urgent and important story-journey, so that the ultimate answer to the question "What's this all about?" will be an answer worth the journey.

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