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Story vs. Plot - Lesson 1

Okay, so what is the difference between story and plot? And is it really an important distinction? And most important, how does the distinction help tell a story?

Let’s try a metaphor:

Story is like the ingredients to a recipe, while plot is how you use those ingredients to create the meal. Got to have good ingredients, but if you don’t cook it right, your audience isn’t going to think it tastes very good. And sometimes, really good cooks can make even the blandest ingredients taste awesome!

Story should be thought of in the broadest sense as everything in the “story” or life story of your characters. We might then want to narrow that “story” down to a specific sequence of events or slice-of-life in a character’s story and call that “story,” but we’re not a plot just yet. We need to go further and narrow the “story” to a specific problem (conflict) in a character’s life. Still not to a plot though. Plot is part of the art and science of how we tell the “story.” In order to grasp plot, we have to understand storytelling.

Storytelling is composed of three main elements:

1) A story

2) A storyteller

3) An audience

Without these three elements, storytelling can not take place. They are all equally important, but to design compelling storytelling (which is why we’re having this conversation to begin with) we need to start with the audience. What is their role in the storytelling process and how does that affect plot?

Well, the audience is the consumer and we as storytellers want to affect them in some. That affect may very from entertain to terrify, but it’s all with an eye toward intent. How do we want our audience to respond? How do we get them to respond? Where do we start? First, they have to want to consume.

“What’s going to happen next?” We humans are driven by curiosity and if we could boil that down to some fundamental ingredient, that would be: questions. Questions drive our interest toward answers. The easiest way to captivate an audience is to engage them with a question to which they want an answer. The simplest question being, “What’s going to happen next?” Taking it one important step further, we need them engaged an a more specific question generated by the plot. For example:

Will he find his car keys?

How is she going to make it on time?

Who are those dark figures and why did they kill that poor old man?

What is she going to do with that gun?

The audience listens to the storyteller because they want and expect answers. So, we need to figure out how to get the audience to ask a question. Plot is simply the design behind how a storyteller reveals the story to an audience so that they are always engaged in the promise of answers. From moment to moment, scene to scene, questions drive the audience’s interest deeper and deeper into the plot.

Storytellers must know (and design) what their audiences are thinking and feeling. We can’t read minds, but we can plant specific questions in the audience’s mind and then take command of their desire to know the answer.

So, how do we get the audience to ask a question?

[to be continued…]

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