I often find the terms Narrative, Story, Plot, and Structure to be used interchangeably (on blogs, in articles, tweeted, and talked about), and personally, much confusion has ensued as a result. The following is an adaption of a critical essay I wrote during my past term at the Vermont College of Fine Art. My goal was to clarify each of these terms in order to feel empowered by the vocabulary and the craft concepts rather than confused. Hopefully this series will help others who find the concepts confusing as well. The series is a little long and best read in-sequence. Enjoy!
To Plot or Not to Plot: Plodding Our Way Through the Terminology (Defining the difference between Narrative, Story, Plot, and Structure).
At some point every writer is going to have to wade his or her way through plot and structure. Not to worry, information on these not-so-tiny topics is plentiful. It’s so abundant, in fact, as to be absolutely mind-numbing; particularly so when it come to the plethora of terminology. Is narrative structure and plot structure the same thing? The terms seem to be used interchangeably, but are they really? What if a writing teacher says “there’s no story”? Do they really mean there’s no plot, or is the structure the problem? The goal of this essay is to investigate the fundamental differences between the terms of narrative, story, plot, and structure, to help the writer obtain the proper vocabulary in discussing his or her craft, and to realize the options available. As Mark Twain so famously advised with writing: “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter, it’s the difference between the lightening bug and the lightning,” so too should we writers and educators discuss terminology with care. For the difference between narrative, story, plot and structure can be just as vast.
What the *bleep* is Narrative? Defining the difference between Narrative and Story:
When we talk about any form of storytelling, be it the written word, fine art, film or interpretive dance, the term narrative always shows up. Unfortunately this may be the hardest of all the terms to define because it’s the most elusive. The Random House Dictionary defines a narrative as “a story or account of events, experiences, or the like (true or fictitious).” This definition of a narrative is slightly misleading, as it directly states that narrative is a story, implying the words are interchangeable. But are they really? “E.M. Forester defines story as the chronological sequence of events” (Basics of English Studies), and with this definition gives the following example of a story: “The King died and then the Queen died.” If we look at the statement “The King died” alone we have a single event, an incident. There is no story until a second event is introduced: “the Queen died.” Therefore, at its base, a story is a sequence of at least two events. Is this also a narrative? Absolutely, everyone would agree that this is an example of a narrative story. The questions start to arise when we look at narratives that are not stories, which is where the elusive quality of the word hides.
Taking a look at fine art one encounters the term narrative art. A good example of narrative art would be Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper. In the painting one sees an image of a single event (see figure 1). The event itself is not a story. It’s a moment trapped in time. The word narrative is associated with this type of painting because it depicts a moment within a larger story, and the viewer is able to draw upon the story he or she already knows when viewing the work. These artworks are considered narrative because they recall a story through association. Herein lies the truth of narrative, it can be a story but it does not have to be. A narrative is about story, and creates connections to story and storytelling but does not in and of itself have to be a story.
Another example of a narrative without a story would be a photo collage. Each photograph in a collage is of a separate event, moment, or object (which is not an event at all). However, the juxtaposition of images can spark a narrative relationship in the viewer’s mind. In figure 2, I’ve arranged a series of four random photos which have no initial connection with one another. However, a viewer may make connections between these images. For example one might begin to piece together a story about a girl who lives with her father in Florida and plays the piano. There is no sequence of events, thus no story. However the viewer begins to create a story by connecting these images in his or her mind, and that story (if one sees a story at all) will be different for each viewer. Hence the word narrative is applied to show that there is a tendency toward story, an implication, but no story is actually present. In the realm of literature it’s also possible to have a narrative without a story. Scenes or vignettes that create a collage of emotions would be a narrative, but not necessarily a story. Many poems, for example, would fall under this category. Therefore a story requires a sequence of events, but a narrative simply requires an implication or reference to story events without those events actually happening.
So now we know what Narrative is! But what exactly is story?
Up Next: Part 2 -Taking a Closer Look at Story
** Full Bibliography will be provided at end of blog-post series.