Story and Plot

Apart from the distinction between the two levels story and discourse, which is part of structuralist terminology, there is an older tradition which differentiates between story and plot. These two terms overlap only partly with the terms story and discourse. Since the terms story and plot are still used frequently in English Studies, one needs to be aware of their meaning. The basic difference between story and plot was pointed out by Aristotle, who distinguishes between actions in the real world and units that are selected from these and arranged in what he calls mythos (Aristotle 1953). The terms story and plot as used in English Studies were introduced and defined by the novelist and critic E.M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel (1927).

Forster defines story as the chronological sequence of events and plot as the causal and logical structure which connects events (see Forster, 1927: 93f). These definitions need some further clarification:

A story is only a story if at least one event takes place, that is something changes from state A to state B. Consider the following minimal stories:

The crocodile eats breakfast.
Fred jumped out of bed.
The king died.

Compare to this:

The house has blue shutters.

This last example is a description rather than a story precisely because no event takes place.

Notice also that events in a story involve an animate creature of some sort, i.e. characters (the crocodile, Fred, the king). Most stories involve a sequence of events rather than just one event. Manfred Jahn thus gives the following definition of story:

A sequence of events and actions involving characters. 'Events’ generally include natural and nonnatural happenings like floods or car accidents; 'action' more specifically refers to willful acts by characters (Jahn 2002: N1, for further references see Pfister 1988).

Forster's examples to illustrate the difference between story and plot are:

The king died and then the queen died (story).
The king died and then the queen died of grief (plot).

Plot can be considered as part of discourse, since it is part of HOW the story is presented Consider the following basic sequence of events (i.e. the story):

girl marries young – husband treats her badly – husband dies –
girl marries man who has loved her for a long time

There are no doubt countless novels, plays and romances which develop this basic story. Just two examples would be George Eliot's Middlemarch and Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Despite the similarities of the basic story, the causal and logical connections between events, i.e. the plots of those two novels, are quite different. In Middlemarch Dorothea Brooke marries the ugly, elderly and dry scholar Casaubon because she hopes to share in his intellectual pursuits. Dorothea is unhappy because Casaubon neither shares his scholarly interests with her nor does he treat her with any affection. Casaubon dies of a weak heart and out of a sense of intellectual failure. Dorothea, despite protests from her friends, marries the pennyless Will Ladislaw because he responds to her emotional and intellectual needs. In contrast, Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, marries Arthur Huntingdon because she is attracted by his charm and good looks. Helen is unhappy because her husband turns out to be a vulgar drunkard who ill-treats her. She leaves him in order to protect their son from his influence and only returns to him in his final illness. Huntingdon dies of his excesses. Helen marries the farmer Markham, with the approval of her friends, because she feels she can rely on his virtue and good sense.

Forster's terms have often been criticised. It has been argued that in a story like 'the king died and then the queen died' we automatically assume that the two events are connected simply because they are told one after the other (see Chatman 1978: 45f). Some critics even claim that the distinction between plot and story is artificial and of no practical use in the analysis of literature (Wenzel 1998: 175).

There is no question that the distinction is artificial. In fact, the story itself, the mere sequence of events, is an abstract entity, a construct that exists only in our heads after we have read the narrative as presented in the text (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 6).

Nonetheless, the distinction between story and plot is still widely (though not always consistently) used to differentiate degrees of connectivity between events in a narrative. And indeed, the story 'the king died and then the queen died' allows for a number of plots apart from 'the king died and then the queen died of grief'. It could also be: 'The king died and then the queen died because she ate of the same poisoned cake' or 'the king died and then the queen died of sheer irritation because he hadn't left her any money in his will'.

A narrative can have one or more plot-lines, that is, events can centre around one or more groups of characters. In Dickens’ Bleak House for instance, there is the plot line which centers around Lady Dedlock and the discovery of her guilty past and there is the plot line which centres around Esther Summerson and her growth to maturity. At certain points these two plot lines merge, as it is discovered that Esther is Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate daughter (see also plot-lines in drama). Single plot novels are comparatively rare, most novels develop multiple plots. These multiple plot lines are not necessarily all of the same importance, there can be a main plot-line and one or more subplot lines. Such subplots can serve as a contrast to the main plot when, for instance, there is the same constellation of events in a higher and a lower social sphere (see also Contrasts and Correspondences in Characterisation; for a detailed discussion of single and multiple plot-lines see Nischik 1981).

Some narratives are very tightly plotted , everything happens for a reason or a purpose and one event is the consequence of another. Quest-stories or fairy tales are usually tightly plotted (see the example in Jahn 2002: D7.2). When each plot-line is brought to a satisfactory ending one also talks of a closed structure (for example the death or marriage of the protagonist or the final defeat of an evil force). This is often the case in Victorian novels where there is frequently an entire chapter at the end, tying up all the loose ends of the plot and giving a short glimpse of the characters' future (see for example George Eliot, Middlemarch or Charles Dickens, Hard Times).

A tight plot also contributes to increased suspense. Conversely, lack of suspense or tension in a narrative can in part be explained by the absence of a tight plot. There is very little tension, for instance, in Virginia Woolf’s short-story Kew Gardens, mostly because practically nothing happens: A person sits down on a park bench, watches people go by, gets up again. There is a similar lack of events in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (see the discussion in drama). Many modern and postmodern writers deliberately try to eschew event-dominated stories and tight plots because they feel it is not an accurate rendering of reality and they claim to be more interested in character than in plot. Plot and character depend on each other of course. No plot or story can develop without characters and characters are frequently, though not always, developed through plots. As the novelist Henry James remarked in a much quoted phrase: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” (James 1948: 13).

Some narratives place less emphasis on the causal connection between events, though there are still plenty of events and actions. Instead, episodes might be linked by a common character, such as Moll Flanders in Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders or Sam Pickwick in Charles DickensPickwick Papers, or a common theme. Such narratives are described as loosely plotted or episodic. Plots that are not brought to a final or preliminary conclusion are called open-ended plots or just open plots (see also plot in drama). J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for instance is much more open-ended than the previous Harry Potter volumes. While volumes one to three end with a fairly definite preliminary defeat of the evil force, in The Goblet of Fire Voldemort has clearly returned to power and a massive attack on the good powers is imminent at the end of the volume.


plot / story
single plot
multiple plots

tight plot
closed structure
loose plot
episodic plot
open-end plot