“Once a novel gets going and I know it is viable, I don’t then worry about plot or themes. These things will come in almost automatically because the characters are now pulling the story.”
“Tell me a story” is one of the most powerful phrases you can utter to another human being. We relate to each other through stories. Stories connect us, unite us, and make meaning for us.
When we can’t take the rest of the world with us on our travels, we tell the story of our adventures through photos.
When a child trips and falls, we ask, “what happened?” so they can tell the story of their pain.
Stories allow us to understand each other in all our complexities and peculiarities and share our experiences.
Brands built on a compelling story tend to thrive, while a low-budget movie with a powerful story can make millions, and a friend willing to relate to you through stories becomes your family.
We are created to relate to one another, and stories are how we connect.
I want you to understand how literature makes meaning by fusing narrative, story, and plot so you can appreciate the power of story in your everyday life.
Literary magic has everything to do with how narrative, story, and plot work together.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou
Narrative, Story, and Plot
We use the terms narrative, story, and plot interchangeably, meaning all three every time we use the word “story.” This is problematic if you want to understand how a story works to make meaning.
The differences between these three terms are subtle at first glance. Still, if you are willing to think deeply about the last story you read or watched, I promise you will walk away with a firmer grasp on how to articulate your literary experience.
If this feels like something you forgot to pay attention to in class once, let me refresh your memory. Of course, most college students learn this in an introduction to literature course or when they learn about literary analysis for the first time. But you might need a refresher, so let’s begin.
Remember that writing is a craft. When you write, you practice creation, much like building a house. Likewise, reading is also a craft. When we read, we make meaning. Our ability to do this is a gift to ourselves and others.
What is a Narrative?
The narrative is how the story is told or demonstrated. This is the overarching idea of the story – the narrative is the interpretation of the events within the story. When the narrator (or the one interpreting the story for the reader) is unreliable, the reader questions their interpretation and the events. When you consider the story’s point of view, you examine the narrator’s perspective because this leads to different understandings of the narrative (the interpretation communicated from the narrator to the reader).
The narrative is the architect’s design or how he intends others to interpret the building.
Hint: the narrative tells why
What is the Story?
The story includes all of the events described that make up a narrative. For example, the scenes in a movie or events in a book are the story. You can ask two simple questions of most stories to find out what makes up the story: who are these people, and what happened to them? Walter Benjamin teaches us to tell a story to create a picture in the mind that is so vivid the reader can touch it.
The story is the material that the builders will use to erect the structure of a house.
Hint: the story tells who and what
What is the Plot?
The plot suggests the events are somehow related by cause and effect. When considering the plot, think about the relationship between scenes or events. Are events presented linearly? Are there flashbacks or flashforwards? How much time passes between scenes? How are characters different from one scene to the next?
The plot is how the material is pieced together when building a house.
Hint: the plot tells how
Once again, the word story usually envelops all three of these concepts, but narrative, story, and plot work together to create a compelling story.
The story itself is an illusion. Without a narrative, an overarching idea of how you interpret the related events introduced by the plot, you have no story.
Changing a diaper, taking a vacation, sitting in class, watching baseball– we would never call these everyday experiences a story unless we decided to impose a narrative form on them. Something has to happen. Someone needs to change.
Answering these questions will help you understand the specifics of breaking down the differences between story, narrative, and plot.
The narrative is the architect’s design.
The story is the material that the builders use.
The plot is how the material is pieced together.
The reader dwells in the house constructed by the author.
NARRATIVE, STORY, AND PLOT IN FIGHT CLUB
“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” Chuck Palahniuk
The following breakdown shows how these three elements work together to make and play with meaning. The synopsis contains no spoilers, but that choice means certain descriptions will remain fairly vague. Please fill in the gaps after watching the movie or reading the novel for yourself.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk is about an insecure guy who hates his job, attends support groups for illnesses he doesn’t have, and becomes friends with Tyler Durden, a guy who is everything the main character is not, or so it seems. Together they start a different kind of support group for men called Fight Club.
This is a loose skeleton that you can call the story.
The plot of Fight Club places certain scenes next to each other, which includes various unexplained gaps. The director removes camera angles from certain scenes on the first viewing to show the reader mistakenly imposes the logic of cause and effect on the wrong circumstances.
At the end of the story, this logic crumbles, and the narrative reveals its full meaning. In the movie, camera angles help advance this revelation for the viewer.
This revelation is how powerful the narrative is. It forces the reader to suspend their original interpretations as she begins to understand the story’s events completely differently. If you have seen the movie, it takes a complete rewatching to reinterpret every moment leading up to the revelation. It is here that the reader also learns how unreliable the narrator is, despite telling a fairly coherent story.
Once you understand the differences in these literary terms, it is much easier to see how narrative, story, and plot each create what we typically think of as a story. We start questioning how the storytelling takes place because the narrator is less reliable. The multiple support group attendances should have tipped us off, but this was one of my favorite things about him, and I didn’t want to question it too deeply.
The narrative tells us how to interpret each moment and is the meaning we walk away with. According to Walter Benjamin, the storyteller has the gift of artistic observation. When a reader reads, this gift is transferred to the reader with more and more clarity. The reader then gives this gift of interpretation to the story.
9 thoughts on “The Difference Between Narrative, Story, & Plot”
I love your example of the Bible as the grandest story ever. I just finished reading “Everlasting Man” by G.K. Chesterton and he calls Christianity the philosophy of stories. He argues that it is man’s instinct to create narratives and that no other philosophy fulfills that instinct in the way that Christianity does. Man’s life is an adventure story and so is the true story of God.
Wow. That book is one I have wanted to read for quite some time, and this gives me even more reason to. That is incredible. Thank you for reading this post and sharing what you gleaned from Chesterton. I’ll be sure to let you know when I finally read it.
Interesting topic. I never took note of the differences prior to reading your post. Thanks for sharing.
Nicely put, Jessica. I have read a lot on the distinction between narrative, story, and plot over the years and this definitely does one of the better jobs at distinguishing the different roles of each and their impact on storytelling.
Thank you, Helena! Even though the terms can be used somewhat interchangeably without losing the intent of the message, I find it helpful to tease out the nuance between them. I also love thinking about the role of the reader as dwelling in the house constructed by the author.
This makes me really want to read Fight Club. Thank you for writing this. Those three words can get in the way of each other, you’ve given me some clarity in this wonderful blog post. 🙂
I like books which paint pictures for me. When I read “The Reader DWELLS in the house constructed by the author”, my responsibility became clear to me. As I present my story, I will work to provide a structure which is designed to invite the reader into a place they cannot leave until they reach the back door and are better off from spending time in that place. Kerry Arnoldi
Hello, great article, but I still can’t imagine the difference between the 3 above. Can you make a distinguishing diagram? Thanks for the article.
Good morning Jessica,
I love your post and thanks for sharing it with us. Can I ask you a big favor? Can I use your firts picture- the book-? It is for academic purposes for my clases.
Have a great day
Olga From Colombia