Story vs. plot—is there a true distinction, and is it material? And if so, who cares? I see a distinction, and I think it is material, but this is territory over which you can have some real arguments.
To me, a narrative’s story is the universal psychological and emotional human unfolding that the characters are living between the novel’s covers. It is generally not specifics-dependent, while the plot brings it to life, turning a story into that story through details of setting, time, place, even cause-and-effect, and so on. A plot can be re-shaped via its details, while the human story underlying it remains the same. Common analogies: The plot is the flesh set on the bones of the story. The story is the characters’ journey, and the plot is their vehicle.
We can see a close parallel to this in the difference between plot-driven and character-driven fiction. In the former, the hero/protagonist doesn’t usually change in the course of the narrative. “Bond, James Bond” is still Bond at the end of Dr. No. Huck Finn, though, and Leopold Bloom are changed by the crises of Huckleberry Finn and Ulysses respectively. While unsophisticated, this analysis is reflected in enormous bodies of successful fiction on both sides of the PD/CD divide.
And where is the parallel with plot vs. story? Fleming’s plot-driven fiction gives you a rousing plot, colorful action, but little that makes James Bond into a different person, while Joyce and Twain give you many-leaved, enthralling (character-driven) stories of human joy, pathos, irony, humor, and passion for their actors to live out. On the other hand, the plots for Huckleberry Finn and Ulysses are a series of events that allow those stories to unfold and be revealed.
Elaborating on the distinction: The story of Huckleberry Finn (as with many great novels) can be seen many ways. Is it a near-biblical or Homeric saga of two characters, heterogeneous in age, race, status, and freedom, who are escaping the bonds of society for an unknown world of danger and adventure? Is it a coming-of-age, first-person narrative by an ingenuous if clever boy accompanied by a devoted, protective, but endangered older companion? What are their quests? What are their challenges?
The mini-plots, if you will, are a collection of shore- and water-borne adventures that the boy and the man run up against from Hannibal, Missouri to Arkansas and beyond. While Huck and Jim don’t change much from these small plot encounters, they change markedly from the totality of those episodes and in the outcome of their human story. In further examples: There is a large and material story to The Grapes of Wrath that far overshadows the plot. Elmore Leonard’s plots outweigh his stories, as do John Grisham’s. John Irving, in A Son of the Circus, gives us both Daruwalla’s complex story as well as a rich plot in the Ganesh-cult murders.
Story is important to me, but the plot has to feel right, too. I try not to steer either of them too hard, or make one dominant, but let them become functions of the characters’ choices and actions. My next blogpost will look at this discussion re: my own work.