The Many Definitions of Plot

PlottingAwhile ago I did an 8-part series on Plot to help me understand the differences between the terms: plot, story, and structure. (I’ve since revised some of my thoughts from that series when I did my grad lecture on story structure. More on that coming soon). But what I seem to find interesting is that no one seems to be able to agree on what plot is.

Sure, everyone sort of knows what plot is on a gut level, (and there’s plenty of overlap when writers discuss it), but there isn’t a concrete single definition. I think this is fascinating (and confusing), and oddly empowering. It means each of us gets to create our own personal definition of plot. We get to pick a definition that works for us!

I’ve begun to collect definitions of plot and I’ve shared my list below. Take a look through them and see if any resonate with you. Or maybe you’ll find you disagree with some (I sure do!). Perhaps some will confuse you, while others might help you consider plot in a whole new way! I’d love to know what you think.

As writers, we create our own philosophies about how we each define good writing and how the craft should be approached.  Coming up with our own personal definition of plot is an interesting part of that journey. I’ve never found two writers who articulate it exactly the same way.

Here’s what some of my craft books, friends, and teachers have to say about plot:

“Plot is how the events in a story directly impact the main character.”  – Martha Alderson 

Story is: “The king died and then the queen died.” Plot is: “The king died and then the queen died of grief.” – E.M. Forster

“Story is what happens; plot is the structure of what happens.”  – Cheryl Klein

“Plot is merely the mechanism by which your character is forced up against her deepest fears and desires.”  – Margaret Bechard 

“Plot is nothing more than the way you organize your story.”  – Nancy Lamb

Plot is “merely one way of telling a story, by connecting the happenings tightly, usually through causal chains.”  – Ursula Le Guin

“Story [is] what your novel is about. Plot [is] what happens within your story … Structure [is] how it’s organized.”  – Sheryl Scarborough

“Plot is the arrangement of events that make up a story…  Plot is the sequence of unfolding action. In examining plot we are concerned with causality, with how one action leads into or ties in with another.” – Chea Stephenson

“Plot is a system of actions.” – Susan Fletcher

Plot is “the under-the-surface weaving of various lines of action or sets of events so that the story builds steadily … It is a combination of what happens and how those events are revealed to the audience.” – John Truby

“Plot is not just what happens in a story. Rather, plot is a pattern of cause and effect or conflicts upsetting the equilibrium of a situation.” – Ron Layne and Rick Lewis

“Plots engage our capacity to understand motives and thus the logic of action.” – Roger Seamon

How do you define plot? I’d love to hear your personal definitions, thoughts, and ideas!

writing

The above quotes come from the following sources:

Alderson, Martha. The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2011. Print.
Bechard, Margaret. Small Workshop Plot Handout. Vermont College of Fine Arts. 2012.
Chea, Stephenson. “What’s the Difference Between Plot and Structure.” Associated Content. 16 Feb. 2010. Web. 7 May 2010. 
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. 1927. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. Print.
Klein, Cheryl. “The Essentials of Plot.” CherylKlein.com. Web. Nov. 2012.
Fletcher, Susan. Structure as Genesis. Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts. 2012.
Lamb, Nancy. The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print. 
Layne, Ron and Rick Lewis. “Plot, Theme, the Narrative Arc, and Narrative Patterns.” English and Humanities Department. Sandhill Community College. 11 Sept, 2009. Web.  7 May 2010. 
Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. Print.
Scarborough, Sheryl. “Re: Laura’s (Way Late) Lecture Thread.” MFA Student Forum. Vermont College of Fine Arts. Web. Nov. 2012.
Seamon, Roger. “The Price of Plot in Aristotle’s Poetics.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 64:2, Spring 2006. Ebsco Host. Web. 10 May 2011.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. 2007. New York: Faber and Faber, 2008. Print.

3 thoughts on “The Many Definitions of Plot

  1. I’m trying to be all about these: “Plot is how the events in a story directly impact the main character.” – Martha Alderson
    “Plot is merely the mechanism by which your character is forced up against her deepest fears and desires.” – Margaret Bechard
    But I started off with this definition of plot: “Something extraordinary happens to A, which then sets off a chain of events leading to some kind of conclusion.” Yes, my definition was just that vague. And note the use of the letter A. When i first started writing, A was just a chess piece to move on the board. Plot was king. Now I want my main character, no longer a nameless chess piece, to drive the plot.

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