Unit 5: Story and Plot

“The writer… must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” — Annie Dillard

Imagine you have a story to write. You have a character in mind. They have a desire. A situation presents itself which may or may not fulfil that desire. How do you proceed? Aristotle famously said that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is less obvious than it sounds. As the author, you must ask:

  • Where shall I begin?
  • Where will I end?
  • What is in between?

When you have made these decisions, you have made a choice between story and plot. Click below to hear more about this from Érin.

Unit 5 Introduction — video transcript

The critic, Humphry House, in his commentaries on Aristotle, defines story as everything the reader must know to make sense of the plot, and plot as the portion of the story the author chooses to present — the “present tense” of the narrative.

The story of Oedipus Rex, for example, begins before Oedipus's birth, with the oracle predicting he will murder his father and marry his mother. But when Sophocles plotted a play on this story, he began the action at dawn on the very last day. Oedipus's life story is necessary to understand the plot, but the plot begins with the conflict: How can Oedipus get rid of a plague? Because the plot is so arranged, it is the revelation of the past that makes up the action of the play, a process of discovery that gives rise to the significant theme: Who am I? Had Sophocles begun with the oracle before Oedipus's birth, no such theme and significance could have been explored.

The desire to know why is as powerful as knowing what happened next. Once we have the facts, we inevitably look for links between them, and only when we find such links are we satisfied that we “understand.” Think of science teachers: the best explain how we know something is true, how it connects to other scientific truths, and how they all impact on daily life — rather than expecting students to memorise isolated facts. The same is true of the events in a story. Random incidents neither move nor illuminate; we want to know why one thing leads to another and to feel the inevitability of cause and effect.

E.M. Forster on story and plot

For another distinction between plot and story, read this extract from E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel:

[A story is]…the chopped off length of the tape worm of time… a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time sequence; it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say, “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask, “why?”

Opening lines

Where to begin a story is one of the hardest decisions to make and the first sentence can be a struggle. So why not take some inspiration from this quick quiz? Read the opening lines below and then click to guess who wrote them. You'll receive immediate feedback and the correct answers will appear in your journal.

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
George Orwell
"The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new."
Samuel Beckett
"All this happened, more or less."
Kurt Vonnegut

Let's start by playing with the idea of