THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN STORY AND PLOT
Some writers refer to story and plot as if they’re the same. They are not.
A story is an account of a character or characters (we usually think of people, but these days it could easily be a dog) in a series of events with a beginning, middle and end. Plot is the interrelated sequence of events the writer chooses to illustrate the story and give it meaning. You and I may have inadvertently come across the same story, perhaps based on actual happenings, but the chance that we’ll select precisely the same incidents or plot points to tell that story is infinitesimal. Choosing a plot that will give the story meaning and value should be every writer’s goal. Throughout history, a novel that lasts is one that teaches us a universal and powerful truth.
Although I used the phrase, “to tell that story,” I don’t mean it literally. A good fiction writer chooses events that will show the story. As a seasoned writer, you’ll have heard the dictum: “show, don’t tell.” I must be a slow learner because it took me years to figure out the difference, and then I realized you can’t show every minute of a story or your novel will be a gazillion pages long. It’s important to know when to show and when to tell. (I’ll go more into that concept later.)
The following elements are essential to turn a story into a successful novel.
1. Inciting incident: This is the event that launches the plot. It's the day that upsets the protagonist's life and leaves her no choice but to attempt to return to stability.
2. Central dramatic question: The question that is posed early in the novel and keeps the reader turning the page until he learns the answer. For example, in The Starlite Drive-in, the CDQ is "Whose bones are in the grave on the grounds of the drive-in theater?"
3. Theme: The subject of your novel. For example, love, bigotry, guilt, justice, entrapment.
4. Premise: The author's position on the theme. "Love is more important than a career." "An attorney in a small southern town filled with bigots takes on a murder case against an innocent black man, not because he believes he can save his life but because it's the right thing to do." "The only way a person can expunge his guilt is to right the wrong." "Love can free the human spirit from entrapment."
5. Want, need or goal: The protagonist must want or need something so much she will not give up.
6. Conflict: Opposition of wills, the result of two or more people wanting the same goal.
7. Emotion: It's important to create emotion both in the characters and in the reader.
8. Climax: The height of conflict when the protagonist either achieves his goal or doesn't.
9. Resolution: That point in the plot when the conflict is resolved, the story questions are answered and the protagonist's life is stabilized. Also called the reveal, ending or denouement.
Use these nine elements as a guide for plotting your novel.