Plot is one thing. And Story is another.
According to E.M. Forster (the talented and very British author of A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and other novels), in spouting his opinions about the importance of plot in fiction in his 1927 book, Aspects of the Novel, pointed out that a simple and uninteresting type of “story” is:
The king died and then the queen died.
(Personally, I’d say that’s not a plot, but neither is it a story. It’s just a series of events.)
A plot, in contrast, is (according to Forster):
The king died and then the queen died of grief.
Sure, the second version is more nuanced. There is a causality to the sequence; one thing spawns another thing.
A story though is something different. And it’s far more complex, effective, and artistic than the somewhat priggish British novelist Forster would admit. (Forster called a story a very low form of art, saying it was “the chopped-off length of the tapeworm of time.” Although he had to admit in that same work, “yes – oh, dear yes – the novel tells a story.” As if he were slightly embarrassed to have to concede that point.)
A story, in my view, is:
The king died and then the queen died . . . and there was something interesting about that. Would you like to hear the story?
This is the compelling aspect of a story. The storyteller suggests there’s something really interesting you’d probably like to hear more about. For instance, perhaps . . .
The odd thing, you see, is that the king, you see, really liked chicken soup. He would positively swoon at the wafting smells of a pot on the stove, simmering with all the fragrant herbs and bubbling sounds and the promise of tender morsels of chicken swimming in vegetables.
But this particular day, the regular cook was sick. And the queen, despite a lack of any cooking ability, decided to make the king’s soup herself.
After all, she said to herself, how hard could it be to make something as simple as chicken soup?
A story promises some sort of linkage to the sequence of events, some version of a plot, but most of all, it delivers:
- something intriguing to catch our fancy initially,
- some selective and purposeful details to draw out the tale into an appealing journey, and
- some conclusion that makes it clear why this story has been deemed “Worth Telling.”
Those three things form the short outline of my book, How To Write Your Best Story. That book of advice for writers looks at effective storytelling techniques used by great literary storytellers, from Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain to Willa Cather, E.B. White, and James Thurber to today’s literary luminaries, including Neil Gaiman, Ivan Doig, Patrick Rothfuss, and others.
If you understand the real value of good storytelling in literature, beyond the plots of kings and queens dying of grief or a bad batch of chicken soup, you’ll write better.