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Plot vs. Story: What’s the Difference?

By February 19, 2021 No Comments

What’s the difference between Plot and Story?

This is one of the most common questions in screenwriting and literature. Some believe that the terms are interchangeable while others can’t grasp the difference.

With that in mind, here we present a simple breakdown of the differences and nuances between plot versus story, and how you can use them to create engaging and compelling screenplays and literary stories.

Story Covers the Who, What, and Where

It’s as simple as that.

The story encompasses who the characters are, what conflicts they are facing, and where this is all taking place. You can usually find the basic story of a movie or book within the general logline.

When a killer shark unleashes chaos on a beach community, a local sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old seafarer must hunt the beast down before it kills again.

That’s the story of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. It’s basic. It covers:

  • Who — a local sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old seafarer
  • What — killer shark unleashing chaos that needs to be hunted down before it kills again
  • Where — a beach community

So if anyone asks you want your story is about, the logline is a great place to start. It covers the basic elements of your story. It doesn’t go into detail about how, when, and why everything happens. That’s saved for the plot.

'Jaws'

‘Jaws’ (Universal Pictures)

Plot Covers the How, When, and Why

Once again, it’s very simple, right?

The plot is how the story is delivered within a screenplay or book. It covers:

  • How the characters are confronted with the conflicts that are thrown at them.
  • When the story takes places within the lives of the characters
  • Why the characters are confronted with the conflict and why they react the way they do.

In the case of Jaws, we know the general story:

When a killer shark unleashes chaos on a beach community, a local sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old seafarer must hunt the beast down before it kills again. 

But the plot gives us more details.

During a beach party at dusk on Amity Island, a young woman, Chrissie Watkins, goes skinny dipping in the ocean. While treading water, she is violently pulled under. The next day, her partial remains are found on shore. The medical examiner’s conclusion that the death was due to a shark attack leads police chief Martin Brody to close the beaches. Mayor Larry Vaughn persuades him to reverse his decision, fearing that the town’s summer economy will be ruined and points out that the town has never had trouble with sharks. The coroner tentatively concurs with the mayor’s theory that Chrissie was killed in a boating accident. Brody reluctantly accepts their conclusion until the shark kills a young boy, Alex Kintner, in full view of a crowded beach. A bounty is placed on the shark, prompting an amateur shark-hunting frenzy. Local professional shark fisherman Quint offers to catch and kill it for $10,000. Meanwhile, consulting oceanographer Matt Hooper examines Chrissie’s remains, and confirms her death was caused by a shark—an unusually large one.

When local fishermen catch a tiger shark, the mayor proclaims that the beach is safe. Mrs. Kintner, Alex’s mother, publicly blames Brody for her son’s death. Hooper expresses doubts that the tiger shark is responsible for the attacks, and his suspicions are confirmed when no human remains are found inside it. Hooper and Brody find a half-sunken vessel while searching the night waters in Hooper’s boat. Underwater, Hooper removes a sizable great white shark’s tooth from the boat’s hull, but drops it in fright after encountering the partial corpse of local fisherman Ben Gardner. Vaughn dismisses Brody and Hooper’s assertions that a huge great white shark is responsible for the deaths, and refuses to close the beaches, allowing only increased safety precautions. On the Fourth of July weekend, tourists pack the beaches. Following a juvenile prank with a fake shark, the real shark enters a nearby lagoon, killing a boater and causing Brody’s oldest son, Michael, to go into shock. Brody then convinces a guilt-ridden Vaughn to hire Quint.

Quint, Brody, and Hooper set out on Quint’s boat, the Orca, to hunt the shark. While Brody lays down a chum line, Quint waits for an opportunity to hook the shark. Without warning, it appears behind the boat. Quint, estimating its length at 25 feet (7.6 m) and weight at 3 tonnes (3.0 long tons; 3.3 short tons), harpoons it with a line attached to a flotation barrel, but the shark pulls the barrel underwater and disappears.

At nightfall, Quint and Hooper drunkenly exchange stories about their assorted scars, and Quint reveals that he survived the USS Indianapolis. The shark returns unexpectedly, ramming the boat’s hull, and disabling the power. The men work through the night, repairing the engine. In the morning, Brody attempts to call the Coast Guard, but Quint, who has become obsessed with killing the shark without outside assistance, smashes the radio. After a long chase, Quint harpoons the shark with another barrel. The line is tied to the stern cleats, but the shark drags the boat backward, swamping the deck and flooding the engine compartment. Quint prepares to sever the line to prevent the transom from being pulled out but the cleats break off, keeping the barrels attached to the shark. Quint heads toward shore to draw the shark into shallower waters, but he overtaxes the damaged engine and it fails.

With the Orca slowly sinking, the trio attempt a riskier approach. Hooper puts on scuba gear and enters the water in a shark-proof cage, intending to lethally inject the shark with strychnine, using a hypodermic spear. The shark attacks the cage, causing Hooper to drop the spear, which sinks and is lost. While the shark thrashes in the tangled remains of the cage, Hooper manages to escape to the seabed. The shark escapes and leaps onto the deck of the sinking boat. Quint then slips down the deck and is devoured by the shark. Trapped on the sinking vessel, Brody jams a pressurized scuba tank into the shark’s mouth, and, climbing the crow’s nest, shoots the tank with Quint’s rifle. The resulting explosion obliterates the shark. Hooper surfaces, and he and Brody paddle back to Amity Island clinging to the remaining barrels.

All of the questions of who, when, and why in Jaws are answered within that plot breakdown. Stories can be told in many different ways. And it is the plot that works as a structural tool to be able to do that.

Another possible (and unique) plot within the basic story of Jaws could showcase the perspective of the shark as we see it working its way across the ocean, attacking various ocean beach communities.

'Jaws'

‘Jaws’ (Universal Pictures)

Or we could switch the characters around and make the supporting characters the main protagonist instead of Brody.

The story of Jaws would be much different if Hooper was the protagonist.

And it would be even more different with Quint as the lead character.

We could make it a story of survival, revenge, love, or rescue. And it’s the plot that dictates that. That’s where plot frames come into effect.

12 Plot Frames You Can Use for Your Story

What’s a plot frame? According to Dan Hoffman (former development executive and script analyst for major Hollywood studios and production companies), plot frames are a tool that can help you identify and focus your story.

Framing your story with a certain plot frame helps you to:

  • Define the story’s main conflicts
  • Identify what the protagonist’s goal or objective is

There are generally twelve plot frames that most stories fall under:

  1. Quest — The protagonist seeks out a treasure or goal and deals with conflicts along the way.
  2. Riddle — The protagonist faces a riddle or mystery that they must solve.
  3. Threat — The protagonist is threatened by something or someone and must defeat the threat.
  4. Trap — The protagonist finds themselves trapped somewhere or somehow (physically or mentally) and must find a way out.
  5. Revenge/Justice — The protagonist seeks justice or revenge for wrongdoing or injustice and must face conflicts to attain that.
  6. Rivalry — The protagonist faces a rival person or entity that rocks their world and must be dealt with.
  7. Temptation — The protagonist is tempted by something or someone and must suffer the consequences of that temptation.
  8. Discovery — The protagonist discovers something that is intriguing and must deal with any ramifications of that discovery — good or bad.
  9. Underdog — The protagonist is an underdog in a situation and must overcome all of the odds to survive or win.
  10. Love — The protagonist falls in love and must overcome inner and outer conflict to attain or retain that love.
  11. Pursuit — The protagonist is pursuing someone or something and must deal with the conflicts that they face amidst that pursuit.
  12. Rescue — The protagonist is either tasked to rescue someone or something or they are the ones that need to be rescued.

Each plot frame creates its own conflicts within the story. And each will also define what the protagonist’s goal or objective is within the story as well.

So, to sum it all up:

The story is about the who, what, and where within your concept.

The plot is about the how, when, and why everything within that story happens.

Plot frames can be used to help you figure all of that out.


Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies


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