Story and Plot

As with the study of narrative texts, one can distinguish between story and plot in drama. Story addresses an assumed chronological sequence of events, while plot refers to the way events are causally and logically connected (see also plot in prose narrative). Furthermore, plots can have various plot-lines, i.e., different elaborations of parts of the story which are combined to form the entire plot.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, is about the feud between two families, the love between the two families’ children and their tragic death. This is roughly the story of the play, which is related in the prologue. The plot, by contrast, encompasses the causally linked sequence of scenes presented on stage to tell the story: Thus we are presented with a fighting scene between members of the two families whereby the underlying conflict is shown. This is followed by Romeo’s expression of his love-sickness and Benvolio’s idea to distract his friend by taking him to a party in the house of the Capulets. Subsequently, the audience is introduced to the Capulets, more specifically to Juliet and her mother, who wants to marry her daughter off to some nobleman, etc. All these scenes, although they seem to be unrelated at first glance, can be identified in retrospect as the foundation for the emerging conflict. The story is developed in a minutely choreographed plot, where the individual scenes combine and are logically built up towards the crisis. Thus ‘plot’ refers to the actual logical arrangement of events and actions used to explain ‘why’ something happened, while ‘story’ simply designates the gist of ‘what’ happened in a chronological order.

One might consider the distinction between story and plot futile at times because for most people’s intuition a chronologically ordered presentation of events also implies a causal link among the presented events (see also prose). Chronology would thus coincide with (logical) linearity. Whichever way one wants to look at it, plots can always be either linear or non-linear. Non-linear plots are more likely to confuse the audience and they appear more frequently in modern and contemporary drama, which often question ideas of logic and causality. Peter Shaffer's play Equus, for example, tells the story of Alan's psychiatric therapy. It starts at the end of the story and then presents events in reverse order (analytic form). Although the audience is in a way invited to draw connections among events in order to explain Alan’s behaviour, the very process of establishing causality is questioned by the rather loosely plotted structure of scenes.

Three Unities

Older plays traditionally aimed at conveying a sense of cohesiveness and unity, and one of the classical poetic ‘laws’ to achieve this goal was the idea of the three unities: unity of plot, unity of place, and unity of time. Although only the unity of plot is explicitly addressed in Aristotle’s Poetics (1449b and 1451a), the other two unities are also often attributed to him while, in reality, these concepts were postulated a lot later by the Italian scholar Castelvetro in his commentary on Aristotle (1576). The unities mean that a play should have only one single plot line, which ought to take place in a single locale and within one day (one revolution of the sun). The idea behind this is to make a plot more plausible, more true-to-life, and thus to follow Aristotle’s concept of mimesis, i.e., the attempt to imitate or reflect life as authentically as possible. If the audience watches a play whose plot hardly has a longer time span than the actual viewing of the play, and if the focus is on one problem only that is presented within one place, then it is presumably easier for the viewers to succumb to the illusion of the play as ‘reality’ or at least something that could occur ‘like this’ in real life.

Many authors, however, disrespected the unities or adhered to only some of them. Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for example, ostensibly follows the rule of the unity of time (although it is entirely incredible that all the actions presented there could possibly take place within three hours as is stated in the text), and it adheres to some extent to the unity of place since everything takes place on Prospero’s island (yet even there the characters are dispersed all over the island to different places so that no real unity is achieved). As far as the unity of plot is concerned, however, it becomes clear that there are a number of minor plot lines which combine to form the story of what happened to the King of Naples and his men after they were ship-wrecked on the island. While the overarching plot that holds everything together is Prospero’s ‘revenge’ on his brother, undertaken with the help of the spirit, Ariel, other subplots emerge. Thus, there is the love story between Ferdinand and Miranda, Antonio’s and Sebastian’s plan to kill the king, and Caliban’s plan to become master of the island. The alternation of scenes among the various subplots and places on the island contribute to a sense of fast movement and speedy action which, in turn, makes the play more interesting to watch.


analytical form
linear / non-linear plots
unity of
plot /  place / time