My old Webster’s Ninth uses each term in defining the other. Those who say there’s a difference agree that plot is a series of events linked by cause and effect, but their notions of story range all over the place. To novelist E. M. Forster, story meant the events without the links, meaningless until given a plot.* To director Martin Scorsese, mere plot fades by comparison to the character and camerawork of story.
At the University of Wisconsin’s Write-by-the-Lake week in June, I heard story described as what the work is about, a character responding to an event or choice or challenge. The plot of my life resembles a resume with causal links: After high school in West Virginia, impatience to leave home took me to a liberal arts college in Ohio . . . The story? Here’s one version: None of my major life decisions turned out as intended, and I don’t regret a single one. Writing and exploring have been part of every turn, enriched by the unexpected that happened along the way.
What’s the short form of your life story?
*Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel that “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.