“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. Stories allow us to relate to each other. They 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 one of our children 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 with one another. Brands that are built on a compelling story tend to thrive, 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 were created to relate to one another and stories are how we connect.
I want you to understand how literature makes meaning by fusing together narrative, story, and plot so you can appreciate the power of story in your everyday life.
The terms narrative, story, and plot are often used interchangeably and all three are implied when we use the word “story.” This is problematic if you want to understand how story works to make meaning. The differences between these three terms are subtle at first glance, but 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.
In case this feels like something you forgot to pay attention to in class once, let me refresh your memory. 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.
We must first define our terms.
NARRATIVE, STORY, AND PLOT DEFINED
Narrative: this is how the story is told or demonstrated.
Story: this includes all the events that are described.
Plot: this suggests the events are somehow related by cause and effect.
Once again, the word story usually envelops all three of these concepts, but all three of these elements must work together to create a compelling story.
Story itself is an illusion.
Without a narrative, an overarching idea of how you are to interpret the related events, 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.
Susan Wise Bauer teaches in The Well Educated Mind that we should approach each story with three very simple questions:
1. Who are these people?
2. What happens to them?
3. How are they different afterward?
Answering these questions will help you understand the specifics involved in breaking down the differences between story, narrative, and plot.
BUILD A HOUSE
Remember that writing is a craft. When you write, you are practicing creation, much like building a house.
The narrative is the architect’s design or how he intends others to interpret the building.
The story is the material that the builders will use to erect the structure.
The plot is how the material is pieced together.
Some of the most interesting stories play with the normal conventions of how the elements of story work together.
The following break down 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 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.
It’s only at the end of the story that this logic crumbles and the narrative reveals the full meaning. In the movie, camera angles help advance this revelation for the viewer.
This revelation is how powerful narrative is. It forces the reader to suspend their original interpretations as she begins to understand the events of the story in a completely different way. 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 story. We start to question how the storytelling takes place because the narrator is less than reliable. The multiple support group attendances should have tipped us off, but this was actually one of my favorite things about him and didn’t want to question it too deeply. The narrative tells us how to interpret each moment and ultimately makes meaning for us.