Story Vs. Plot, Ghost Vs. Bones: Discuss

I am ever on a quest to understand the dichotomy of plot versus story. Which is which? Which serves what purpose? Who stole my Girl Scout cookies? Was it you? Did you take my fucking cookies? I’ll stab you in the gills, Aquaman!

*shakes it off*

At present, this is the definition to which I’m cleaving:

Your manuscript is a corpse.

It may seem dead, but the reality is, it’s a crazy ecology for all kinds of things going on. Bacteria breaking down the flesh, a rise and fall of gases, the inevitable conclusion of it all falling apart. (Frankly, though, that part of the metaphor isn’t important; it’s just the anchor that ties my piss-poor vision together.)

Two things are left behind when you let time and space work on that corpse.

The first: the bones, which are analogous to the plot. The bones are the bones. The skeleton is the skeleton. They are hard, firm, tangible. They connect together in a specific way when all is said and done. The hand bone connected to the wrist bone, the wrist bone connected to the arm bone, the arm bone connected to the toaster bone OH MY GOD WHY IS THERE A TOASTER INSIDE MY BODY — ahem, yeah. You get the point.

The second: the ghost, that lingering and uncertain spirit which serves as an analog to the story. The ghost is intangible. It’s hard to define. It has unclear margins and shape, but even still, it encapsulates all that the body and soul once were (and, to a degree, still are).

(See? It’s a skeletal ghost! The perfect specimen.)

The plot is defined, like the bones of a skeleton. Yes, as creator, you have the chance to fit this bone there, and that bone here — maybe this creature walks on its hands, or has two heads, or has removed one of its ribs so it can put its mouth upon its own genitals without discomfort. But really, the skeleton is what it is. And so’s the plot. Once the plot’s locked, that’s it. Things happen in a certain order. Codpiece Johnson executes the Pelican Pope. Codpiece Johnson must escape the Crucifixers, the Pelican Pope’s shock army. Codpiece Johnson befriends a young girl named Betty Yellowtail. He is captured by the Crucifixers and is slowly lowered toward the Vatican Vat, where the bubbling God-froth will turn him into a papal slurry. And so on, and so forth. The pieces fit because they fit. The skeleton is the frame on which everything else rests.

I’ve heard people say that the plot doesn’t matter, but that’s both wrong, and the wrong way to put it. The plot matters if only because without it, the work is no longer has a narrative throughline; it becomes a jumble of non-narrative “stuff.” What doesn’t matter as much is the time you spend on the plot. The plot, I think, can work itself out — the bones will fall in place and you’ll eventually pack the meat around them. (Though in some genres, plot is more significant. A mystery only works with consideration to the plot, otherwise… it ain’t much of a mystery, is it?)

The tricky part is the ghost. The story is the rub.

When someone says, “Tell me a story,” they don’t mean, “Describe to me a sequence of events.”

They want to know about the ghost, not the bones.

Just as you could say the “ghost” is what that person was about, the “story” has that same fundamental quality. When someone says, “Yes, but what’s the story?” they’re asking for you to unearth a deeper layer, a truer examination. They’re asking you to free the ghost.

Instead of saying, “Codpiece Johnson blah blah Point A, Point B, Point Z,” it’s more a case of, “See, Codpiece Johnson’s this beleathered dude, and he fancies himself a hero. He sees a world oppressed by the mad religion of the Pelican Pope, and so he starts on this journey to kill that dude — I should add here that the Pelican Pope is very much like Codpiece’s own father, who used to beat Young Codpiece about the head and neck with an illuminated Mockingbird Bible. So, at the beginning of the story, Codpiece finds the Pelican Pope and uses his mighty Murderhammer to…”

See, story is this heady broth of plot and character and history and motivation and so on and so forth. Again, like the ghost, it has uncertain margins. We don’t really know what a ghost is, and so we don’t really know what a story is, either, or what it does, or what it incorporates.

In an effort to water down my original metaphor and clumsily harness a food analogy, the plot is the recipe, but the story is the meal. A recipe doesn’t tell you anything about the food beyond its constituent parts and how those parts come together. But the meal itself is an almost undefinable thing. It’s taste and heat and smell. It has context, too, context of your surroundings, of the people you’re with, of the time in your life.

Of course, after all’s said and done, how much does it matter if you know the difference between plot and story? Is it a purely theoretical difference? Does it have meaning? I’d argue that it does. I’d suggest that it’s important to ask yourself the two separate questions of, “What is the plot?” and “What is the story?” If only to get a greater handle on those two throughlines braided ineluctably together.

Then again, maybe those questions answer themselves. Maybe your understanding of those ideas is best left to a “gut check.”

Hell, maybe my definition (ghost versus bones, recipe versus meal) sucks eggs. Rotten eggs. Rotten frog eggs, already mucusy, rolling around in your mouth like a fetid ball of pig’s feet jelly. Mmm. So good. Scrumdiddlyicious. With emphasis on “scrum.”

So, I’m looking for a discussion. Hop into the comments. Pontificate, my pensive pupils. Pontificate loudly, so that others may gaze upon thine ancient wisdom (or, alternately, mock you and throw cabbage and other unpleasant vegetables at your face). What is the difference? How does that difference matter in terms of writing and rewriting?