Plot vs. Structure

TerminologyI want to step back for a second and clarify my own personal definitions of plot versus structure. As mentioned in my previous post on plot definitions there are many views of what plot it! Additionally, I fear that as I walked us through arch plot and classic design last week, I may have reinforced the misconceptions that plot and structure are same thing.

Plot and structure are not the same thing!

I did a previous series on plot (To Plot or Not to Plot) where I explored the differences between narrative, story, plot, and structure. I’ve since re-evaluated some of the things I said in those posts and the following are my current definitions:

PLOT: Plot is often defined as a “sequence of actions” (Fletcher) or “the actions of the characters” (Bechard). However, plot is also the connective tissue that links events or actions with meaning. It’s not just what happens, but the causal connections of why it happens. Janet Burroway defines plot as a “series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance … Plot’s concern is ‘what, how, and why,’ with scenes ordered to highlight cause-and-effect.”

In simple terms, plot is a series of actions with a cause and effect relationship. In my explanation of arch plot, the hero’s journey is the plot.


STRUCTURE: Structure is the triangle or mountain shape in the diagram I used. Structure has two parts. The first is arrangement. For example, you tell scene one, then scene two, then scene three. Or you tell scene 3, then scene 1, then scene 27, etc. This is about order and organization. The second part is about patterns, rhythm, and energy. It’s about the movement and feeling your particular arrangement creates. The triangle (often called the Aristotelian story shape) is a visual metaphor for the escalating energy that is meant to come as a result of a classic design arrangement.

With structure we are looking at the arrangement and rhythm of the whole. Author, Susan Fletcher defines structure as “the organization, or overall design, or form of a particular literary work … [It is the] larger rhythm of the story.” Additionally, Chea says that “in examining story structure, we look for patterns, for the shape that the story as a whole possesses. Plot directs us to the story in motion, structure to the story at rest.”

In the coming posts, I’m going to list alternative plots and alternative structures. I wanted to clarify the difference between these terms so you would better understand how I’ve organized these lists. One is by the nature of the action (plot) while the other is about the organization and rhythm of the action (structure).

Works Cited:
Bechard, Margaret. “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Plot.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. Jan 2008.
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narative Craft. 8th Edition. New York: Longman, 2011.
Chea, Stephenson. “What’s the Difference Between Plot and Structure.” Associated Content.  16 Feb. 2010. Web. 7 May 2011.
Fletcher, Susan. “Structure as Genesis.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. July 2012.

4 thoughts on “Plot vs. Structure

  1. I am so happy to have stumbled across your blog – this has become my go-to place when I am stuck and need to refresh and refocus my ideas, plot points, structure, etc. Your blog has saved me the time of re-reading and searching through my normal reference books (Anatomy of Story, Story, Hero’s Journey, etc.) thanks to your ability to summarize and explain concepts in a clear and beautiful way. You remind me very much of my favorite screenwriting professor from college. I suspect you will be hearing from me in the future for your critique services. Just wanted to say thanks for being here =)

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