Cconfusion about the difference between plot and story is an issue I see quite often as a book coach.

“Wait, they’re not the same thing?” cry my beloved writers, and then come the sniffles…followed by the tears…and then the torches and the pitchforks.

Torches and Pitchforks

Easy there, folks! I just put in the begonias!

Indeed, plot and story are not the same. Understanding the difference, and how one element (Story) drives the other (Plot) will enrich your writing and save you hours of angst and despair. Because what writer hasn’t sat up into the wee hours of the morning agonizing over the elusive answer to the question: What happens next?

I spent a lot of time – mostly in the basement with an ink pen jammed against my forehead and a packet of razor blades on the table (ok, I’m embellishing a little…maybe) – wondering after each and every scene as I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Gospel of Isabelle Dequenne, “What happens next?” I knew that something had to happen next, but I had no idea what that something should be. This happened over and over and over. I wanted to stab myself with a chainsaw.

Maybe this is where the tank rumbles up the lane and bursts into Pont-Bocage! (My story is set in Normandy during World War II, so there be tanks.)

Tiger Tank

Imagine this rolling up your street. It’s ok if you want to cry. No shame crying in front of German armor. Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Maybe Isabelle almost gets blown up by an artillery shell! (There are artillery shells, too. Loads of ’em!)

German FLAK 88 artillery guns

German WWII-era fireworks launchers!
Credit: Photo via

Wait, I know! What if Isabelle meets a G.I. who speaks French and they fall in love?

Do you see how all three examples I just listed are sooo dramatic? That’s a super-common mistake: thinking the “What happens next” needs to be something over-the-top dramatic. And maybe it is, but it doesn’t have to be. The thing is, it’s not for you, Author-Person, to decide in a vacuum, it’s for the story rippling underneath the plot to determine. And all that plotting was exhausting. Sheer torture of the First World type. My results were a disjointed, incomplete, lackluster first draft.

With hindsight, I know things could have been so much easier.

And what would have made things easier? I’ll tell you what would have made things easier, my fellow babies. Understanding the difference and the relationship between Story and Plot, that would have made things easier.

So first, what’s the difference between Story and Plot? In the simplest terms, plot is what happens, story is why it happens. And which of this chicken-and-egg combo comes first? Story does. Think about it: actions and events occur because something motivated them into being. I walk to the grocery store because I want a gallon milk. I jump off a perfectly good bridge with a bit of stretchy rope attached to my ankles because I want a thrill.

Long Haired Guy about to Bungee Jump off a Bridge

Yes, this man jumped off a perfectly good bridge with naught connecting him to life but a stretchy bit of cord.
© Michael Raymond

The plot event (going to the store, bungee jumping off a bridge) in each of those examples was driven by an underlying reason, a why. That why is driven by my individual perception of how the world works and how I want to take action in it.

Think of it this way: for every event in your novel (plot things), there is a cause (a story thing). Cause and effect. We all get how that works. The best stories, the ones that engage our hearts and brains (and other bits if you write romance or erotica) and keep us turning pages start with a cause, follow through with its subsequent effect, and then repeat (cause > effect, cause > effect, cause > effect) in an unbroken chain until someone – hopefully you – types THE END.

The key to making this work – and I make it a writing mantra – is to (quietly…very quietly) chant “Because that happened, this happens. And because that new thing happened, this new thing happens. And because that new thing happened, this happens.” See how that works? I can’t claim to have come up with that mantra. I have to give credit to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. (You can watch a fantastic clip of them explaining this here.) Point being, if you create a chain of causes and effects, and extend that chain all the way through your novel, with each plot event having a cause, then you’ll likely find yourself with a coherent story draft that hangs together start to finish – maybe even on the first try. And that sure beats wondering if this is the scene where the tank runs over Isabelle’s toes while she’s being kissed by a soldier during an artillery barrage.

The easy way to remember the difference between Story (why) and Plot (what) is that if your novel were a ship, the Story would be below the waterline and the Plot would be above the waterline. The stuff below the surface is what the character has to work through, agonize over, think about, decide about, and ultimately change their minds about. That is the real story. All the other stuff, the bombs and explosions and laser beams and monsters and soft-focus smooches by the fireplace on the bearskin rug with the bottle of wine…those are all plot events. Those events happen because of what’s going on below the waterline. Those plot events grow organically out of decisions your characters make based on how they see the world.

Here’s a simple example of cause and effect: “Isabelle felt bad” as a result of Vincent throwing out her Jane Austen novels is not a good cause & effect. “Because Vincent threw out her Jane Austen novels, Isabelle felt like Vincent wasn’t taking her education seriously and so she threw a frying pan at Vincent’s head” is a good cause & effect.

Notice how specific the actions are in that example? In nearly all cases, it’s best to be as specific as you can.

I understand this may sound a bit alien at first, but keep at it. Work your stories from the bottom up – meaning the story beneath the waterline creates and drives the plot that is visible to the reader above the waterline. It’ll be worth it. The most wonderful thing I experienced when I figured this out was that I would never, ever again have to sit in my basement with a spiral notebook and that packet of razor blades making up things that were going to happen in the story. The realization that those events will occur organically when I ask “What would Isabelle do in this situation? What would she say to herself here?” was life changing in terms of storytelling and writing. I hope it’s the same for you!

Have any questions or comments about all of this? Leave ’em in the comments section below!