Plot vs. narrative

You’ve probably heard the saying that there are only seven basic plots in all storytelling. That’s not meant to dismiss your work, but rather to free you from the pressure to create a “unique” plot.

I find it useful to untangle the terms “plot” and “narrative” to provide clarity during the story planning process. Before you commit words to paper, you should at least have some idea of what plot you’d like to use and/or narrative you’d like to tell.

Plot

The concrete, literal manifestation of a story, consisting of a sequence of events, is its plot. Regardless of who tells the story and what spin they put on it, The Wizard of Oz is a portal fantasy about a young girl and her dog who are whisked away by tornado to a fantasy world, and who must then join fellow travelers to find a way back home. The individual touchstones may change—a tsunami instead of a tornado; a cat instead of a dog—but the overall thread of the story remains recognizable.

Narrative

What the story is about, however, is its narrative. Narrative is the design behind the story, revealing the author’s perspectives, stances, and philosophies.

The plot can vary wildly even as the narrative remains the same. For example, the sequence of events in the movie Arrival (2016) is fairly linear, but the short fiction piece “Story of Your Life” (1998) by Ted Chiang, which is the foundation of the movie adaptation, jumps around in time and space to great effect. Despite the fact that the movie’s story beats and sequence of events is slightly different, both versions tell the same narrative: one in which language is not a tool of assimilation, but rather something that helps us make connections through time and space with other sentient beings.

While the reader usually has no influence over how the plot plays out, they do important work in completing a narrative. A story has accomplished its purpose if it conveys the author’s intended emotional effect to the reader, despite the author not being present to guide the reader through that conclusion. If a story fails, it is evidence only that the author hasn’t considered enough perspectives to create a resonant narrative, or that the reader either has to educate themself or expound on how they’d tell the story differently. In short, whether a story fails or not isn’t indicative of the worth of the author or reader, but the strength of the narrative alone.

Reading comprehension exercises

  1. Define the difference between “plot” and “narrative.”
  2. Compare and contrast two stories that have the same narrative and different plots.
  3. Compare and contrast two stories that have different narratives and the same plot.
  4. Find two stories that have the same narrative and plot. Explain what makes the stories distinct from one another.