Why a Story Is Not a Plot (and Why You Should Care)

A big deficiency that plagues too many otherwise promising manuscripts is short enough to fit on a tattoo:

Too much story, not enough plot.

The terms are often used interchangeably, but being able to distinguish between a story and a plot can make the difference between your book suffering an ignominious death on a publisher’s slush pile and getting picked up for publication.

In his classic book on the craft of writing, Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster offers an instructive differentiation:

  • "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. One thing happened and then another, a sequence of events that conveys information, and maybe even paints a picture.

  • "The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot, because it introduces the idea of causality. Things don’t just happen one after the other, they happen as a reaction to what came before and they shape what happens next.

That subtle distinction is everything. Stories are informative but not always satisfying, because they may not make connections between the events that reveal deeper meaning about the characters, the themes, and the world of the book. Plots make those connections and imbue the narrative with a sense of momentum and purpose. The emotion that comes from feeling that driving energy is one of the things that makes reading such a pleasure. Plot fulfills our basic human needs to seek purpose and understand the consequences of our actions. It’s the connective thread we spin to bring order to chaos. It answers the all-important question, Why?

Note that this principle applies to both fiction and nonfiction books. Whether you’re spinning a sci-fi yarn, writing a personal memoir, reporting historical fact, arguing a thesis based on evidence, or writing a satirical essay, your book can’t simply present one point and then another and then another, but rather should use one idea to introduce the next and build toward a conclusion.

What does this mean for your manuscript? Take a fresh look at it: Does each new plot point or piece of information raise the stakes and tension before driving to a conclusion, or is each one presented anew, with minimal connections to the information that came before? If you remove a plot point, does the rest of the narrative fail to make sense, or could those beats happen in any order because they’re more or less interchangeable? If your plot points seem unconnected or interchangeable, you may need to rethink your overarching plot structure.

Don’t send out a manuscript that mistakes story for plot. An expert ghostwriter helps you spot the weak points in your plotting and strengthen them to add focus and resonance, creating a book that readers won’t want to put down. For a free consultation to talk about these and other questions, call (800) 717-3314 or email pov@povghostwriting.com.

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