Story and plot

What’s the difference between a story and a plot? Stephen King, in his excellent book On Writing, is famously dismissive of the very idea of “plot”: he starts with a situation — “what if a writer were imprisoned by his greatest fan?” — and improvises from there. But King’s books, at best, are very well plotted: he develops his situation with ruthless logic, often to a terrifying conclusion. E.M.Forster, on the other hand, was equally dismissive of the notion of “story”, which he called “the chopped-off length of the tapeworm of time” — which sounds like a Stephen King novel.

Everyone can tell a story, but an audience demands a plot. So here’s Forster’s definition of the difference, from his book Aspects of the Novel:

We have defined a story as 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 mystery in it … it suspends the time sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. If it is in a story we say: “And then?” If it is a plot we ask: “Why?”

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