When discussing fiction, sometimes the terms “story” and “structure” are used interchangeably with “plot.” But a story is not a plot or the story’ structure. While this misuse of terminology may seem trifling, it unfortunately mangles many beginning writers’ conception of what plot is, ultimately harming their manuscripts.
A story is an account of how characters react to events. This means not just their physical but their intellectual and emotional responses. As such, a story is more than plot – it is about characters. These events take place someplace and sometime, so setting also is an aspect of story. The events are told from a particular perspective, so point of view is an element of a story as well. There may be a message when telling this account, so theme can be part of a story. Craftsmanship matters, such as the writer’s style, and also can be considered an element of story.
Children, when asked to recount a story, often merely tell about the events that involved conflicts – that is, they only tell or write about the plot. Though they will mention a character’s name for convenience’s sake, they don’t tell how the character grew. The setting often is skipped, and point of view and theme is entirely ignored.
Likewise, if a writer thinks of a story and plot as being synonymous, then short shrift is given to the characters, setting, point of view and theme. The result will be flat protagonists, locations that don’t really enhance the story, selection of a point of view that isn’t the best for the tale (or even a mixing of multiple points of view), and a hazy, poorly developed theme. Instead, plot needs to be thought of as one of several complex components of a story.
Likewise, structure is not story. Neither is it plot exactly. Instead, structure is the way the plot is organized or arranged. For example, a plot might be structured via an inciting incident-rising action-climax-falling action-denouement. Or it might be the hero journey/quest story. Or it may follow a format as television shows uses with a teaser, parts whose lengths are determined by commercial breaks, and a closing. Each of these pieces are elements in the way a plot is structured.
Often beginning writers don’t think much about which structure they will use. Instead they simply begin writing a series of events that involve conflict between characters. This can result in an uneven account of those events, perhaps with too many pages spent on the opening. Or possibly the events don’t build enough tension to merit the climax that is written. Or maybe loose ends aren’t tied up in the end.
Thus, understanding the difference between story, plot and structure isn’t just an academic exercise. It really can help you fully plan out exactly how to best tell about the events you’re recounting.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.