Story versus Plot: Is There a Difference?

Nisha Tuli
March 20, 2023
April 20, 2023

While the terms "story" and "plot" are often used interchangeably, they are actually two distinct elements of narrative, and understanding the difference can be a useful tool in your storytelling arsenal. You’re going to need some of both to create a compelling book that’ll have your readers coming back for more. 

So what’s the difference between plot and story? 

At its simplest level, a plot is the sequence of events that make up a story. It’s the structure that holds the narrative together and guides the audience through the journey of the characters. In contrast, a story is the overarching narrative that encompasses the plot, characters, themes, and emotions of the book.

To put it another way, the plot is the “what” of the story, while the story is the “why.” The plot tells us what happens, while the story tells us why it matters. Make sense? Don’t worry, we’ll try to make it clearer. 

Imagine a story about a group of friends who set out on a road trip across the country. The plot is the series of events that occur on their journey—the sights they see, the people they meet, and the challenges they face. 

The story, on the other hand, is the emotional journey of the characters— their relationships with one another, their hopes and dreams, and the personal growth they experience along the way.

In this example, the plot is the sequence of events that make up the road trip, while the story is the emotional journey of the characters.

But you can’t ignore one in favor of the other. While the plot and story are distinct elements of narrative, they are also intimately connected. A well-crafted plot should be designed to support and enhance the story, drawing your audience into the emotional journey of your characters. Conversely, a powerful story can help elevate an otherwise straightforward plot, giving it deeper meaning and resonance.

Another way to think about the difference between story and plot is to consider the role of theme. The theme of your book is the underlying message or idea you’re trying to convey. While the plot is the sequence of events that make up the story, the theme is the deeper meaning that ties those events together. In this way, the story is the vehicle for the theme, while the plot is the engine that drives it forward.

More About Plot

As we said, a plot is the series of events that make up the story. It encompasses everything from the initial conflict or problem that sets the story in motion, to the various twists and turns that drive the narrative towards the eventual resolution or conclusion.

However, a good plot is much more than just a collection of events. It’s a carefully crafted sequence designed to create a specific emotional experience. A well-executed plot should take your reader on a journey, immersing them in the story and keeping them riveted from beginning to end.

There are several key elements that go into creating a successful plot. These include:

Conflict: Every good plot starts with some kind of conflict or problem that needs to be resolved. This can take many forms, from an external threat or antagonist to an internal struggle within the protagonist themselves.

Rising action: Once the conflict has been established, the plot should begin to build momentum as your protagonist takes steps to try to resolve it—or just stay above water. This is known as the rising action, and typically involves a series of increasingly difficult challenges and obstacles.

Climax: The climax is the scene in the plot where the conflict reaches its highest point of tension. It’s the moment when your protagonist faces their greatest challenge, and the outcome of the story hangs in the balance.

Falling action: After the climax, the plot should begin to wind down as your protagonist works to resolve the conflict once and for all. This is known as the falling action, and involves a series of smaller challenges and setbacks as the story begins to reach its conclusion.

Resolution: The resolution is the final outcome of the story. It is the moment when the conflict is finally resolved and the protagonist is able to achieve their goal or overcome their obstacle.

Let’s look at this through an example. One of my recent five-star reads was Seven Days in June by Tia Williams, a contemporary romance novel. 

Conflict: The novel begins with the main characters, Eva Mercy and Shane Hall, coming face-to-face at a literary event after 15 years of estrangement. The conflict of the story centers around the unresolved issues from their past and their attempts to reconcile their relationship while dealing with their individual personal struggles.

Rising action: The rising action of the story follows Eva and Shane as they spend seven intense and emotional days together, exploring their shared past and present challenges. Eva is struggling with writer's block and the aftermath of a traumatic event, while Shane is dealing with addiction and family issues.

Climax: The climax of the story occurs when Eva and Shane finally confront the root of their estrangement and their unresolved feelings for each other. They must face their fears and the consequences of their actions from the past and present.

Falling action: The falling action of the story follows Eva and Shane as they deal with the aftermath of their emotional reunion and attempt to move forward in their individual lives. They must confront the consequences of their actions and the possibility of a future together.

Resolution: The resolution of the story comes when Eva and Shane are able to find a way to move forward together, despite the challenges they face. They both come to terms with their past and are able to move on from it, finding healing and hope in their shared future.

More About Story

Let’s take a deeper dive into the story aspect of your novel. A reminder that story is the narrative that follows a character or characters as they encounter a series of events and challenges. It’s a journey that takes your reader on an emotional rollercoaster, allowing them to experience everything from joy and excitement to sadness and despair.

There are several key elements that go into creating a successful story. These include:

Characters: Every good story starts with compelling characters that your audience can relate to and care about or love to hate. These characters should be well-developed, with their own unique personalities, goals, and motivations

Setting: The setting of the story is the world in which the characters live and the events of the story take place. A well-crafted setting should be detailed and immersive, drawing your audience into the world and making them feel like they are a part of it.

Conflict: Conflict is the driving force of any good story. It’s the problem your characters must overcome to achieve their goals, creating the tension and drama that keeps your readers flipping those pages.

Plot: The plot is the sequence of events that make up the story. Refer to the section above… see how these work together? You can’t have one without the other. 

Theme: The theme of the story is the underlying message or idea that you’re trying to convey. It gives your story depth and meaning, and it is what makes it resonate with your audience long after the story has ended.

Let’s return to Seven Days in June to outline these points more clearly. 

Characters: Eva Mercy and Shane Hall are both complex and well-developed characters, with their own distinct personalities, motivations, and goals. Eva is a successful author struggling with writer's block and chronic illness, while Shane is a former drug addict and celebrated writer grappling with family issues.

Setting: The novel is primarily set in Brooklyn, New York, and Williams uses the city as a backdrop to add depth and richness to the story. She also incorporates elements of the publishing industry and the world of literature into the setting, creating a layered and immersive setting.

Conflict: The main conflict of the story is the unresolved issues between Eva and Shane, and their attempt to reconcile after 15 years of estrangement. The story also includes sub-conflicts, such as Eva's struggle with her daughter and Shane's self doubt.

Plot: The story takes the audience on an emotional journey as Eva and Shane relive the seven days they once spent together, exploring their shared past, present challenges, and ultimately confronting the root of their estrangement.

Theme: The theme of the story is the power of forgiveness and the possibility of healing. Williams explores the idea that even the most broken relationships can be repaired with honesty, vulnerability, and forgiveness. The novel also touches on themes of trauma, chronic pain, addiction, and the challenges of creative expression.

As you can see, story and plot are similar but different and are closely interconnected. All stories need elements of both to create a compelling narrative. 

If you’re writing a novel, keep track of both your story and your plot with Dabble. Using the Notes and Story Grid, you can note any details about the story and map out the points of your plot to ensure everything comes together. 

Try it free for 14 days and see it work for you. 

Nisha Tuli

Nisha J Tuli is a YA and adult fantasy and romance author who specializes in glitter-strewn settings and angst-filled kissing scenes. Give her a feisty heroine, a windswept castle, and a dash of true love and she’ll be lost in the pages forever. When Nisha isn’t writing, it’s probably because one of her two kids needs something (but she loves them anyway). After they’re finally asleep, she can be found curled up with her Kobo or knitting sweaters and scarves, perfect for surviving a Canadian winter.