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?

27 comments

  • Y’know, I’ll add something real quick here, too –

    Normally, the plot is the easy thing to describe, and the story is the trickier one.

    And then you have LOST.

    LOST, to me, has a plot I can describe. This happens, then this happens, then this happens.

    The story though, is… well. It’s a very complicated ghost, let’s just say. I think describing the story of LOST is something that could take days. Maybe even decades of study.

    – c.

  • February 3, 2010 at 8:09 AM // Reply

    I hate LOST. And I hate you for bringing it up and relating it not only to a “spirit”, but it’s a “lingering spirit”. Fuck, I’d more relate it to a poltergeist; one that’s really annoying. It’ll be haunting us for years to come, rattling it’s chains and stacking chairs on the kitchen table. Thankfully it’s bones will have been laid to rest and will, for the most part, become irrelevent.

    What I’m really trying to say in all of this rambling is that a lot of time the plot becomes secondary to a great story. In fact, I find that if I’m more interested in the plot than the story then I really don’t like what I’m reading/watching/playing.

    • (To be clear, Paul, you’re probably in a nest of vipers, here. I, and many others, are pretty much Lost-a-holics. I adore the show, and am very excited to have its final season upon us. The fact that its story is so robust is for me a feature, not a bug. I do agree that story is king in terms of comparing it to plot.)

      Julie: when you form your band, I will buy all your albums and t-shirts.

      PAPAL SLURRY RULEZ!

      *rock scream*

      *throws fiery tampons onto the stage*

      – c.

  • I am SO forming an all chick punk band and naming it “Papal Slurry.”

    Our backdrop on stage will feature items of the Inquisition that caused the most damage.

    I’ve noticed with this attempt to start writing fiction I’m concentrating first on basic this-that-dialogue with an idea of fleshing it out later. Why I’m doing this, I don’t know. But the analogy of it being the bones and not the ghost appeals to me.

  • Can we stone Paul now? Huh? Huh? Can we boss? Can we?

    To best of my monkey-brain understanding, plot is what makes a story interesting. Let’s take one episode of Lost, just to piss Paul off, as an example – hell, let’s take last season’s cliffhanger. The story of the episode was about the timelines coming back together and the confrontation between Jacob and… the Set dude.

    The plot through the episode on one side was the bomb (like my wife said upon viewing, probably the only time an Iraqi was trasporting a WMD), twisted by the interaction between Eleanor and Daniel, and then it not going off at the Swan (of course – if it was that easy, who’d care?). The other plotline was Locke leading Ben to the statue, the other-Others racing there with Captain Chest Hair, and Sun and Richard looking confused.

    Those plot lines are what drove the story, and it all came together in one big white bang… and I actually didn’t mean that sexually for once.

    • (er, SPOILER WARNING.)

      I think the plot there is still somewhat secondary.

      See, what interests me is the *story* of these people and the island. The duality between these two weird cosmic dudes, the relationships of these characters, the long arc of Ben Linus. The bomb is just a silly device that, taken out of context, is meaningless. The plot serves the story — if we didn’t have such a fascinating story building up to this, the plot would be dull (and dumb). Without our interest in the ghost, we’d never want to dig up the bones.

      So, I’d argue the reverse: the story drives that plot in the way it doesn’t in other shows (procedurals, for instance, where the plot is more important than the story nine times out of ten). The story drives the plot. Thankfully.

      – c.

  • February 3, 2010 at 9:06 AM // Reply

    Well that brings up the topic of “plot twists”. Would these still be akin to the spirit? Or is this another manifestation aside from the two elements you’ve listed? Or is this simply where the spirit jumps out of the closet and screams “BOO!”?

    • Paul:

      I’d say a plot twist is part of the plot.

      But a plot twists is only meaningful in relation to the story.

      If I describe for you a quick sequence of events that culminates in a plot twist:

      “Codpiece Johnson kills the Pelican Pope. He’s sentenced to death by the Pelican Pope. The Pelican Pope tears off his robes and reveals that he is really John Q. Stinkfeather, the Papal Janitor.”

      … we gain no measure of satisfaction. It’s data. It’s information.

      A good story makes a plot twist meaningful.

      The Sixth Sense plot twist works because we like the story surrounding our two primary protagonists. The plot twists in some of Shyamalan’s other works are less effective (IMHO) because they aren’t based in story, they’re based more in plot. Thus we have no emotional investment.

      – c.

  • But… but… but…

    (Sorry about not tossing up SPOILER ALERT)

    I think it is the wierdness of each episodes plot lines in conjunction with continually involving story that really makes me want to see more. Take Season 3 – the stories of the character were really strong, but the plotlines from episode to episode just weren’t on par with what Season 1 and Season 2 had until the last part of the season. In my opinion, Season 3 was the weakest by far – and I really lost interest midway through. I still wanted to know more about the story, but the episodes were dull.

    It’s all a matter of taste and opinion, of course… I don’t expect anyone to agree with my view on Season 3. That is just how I felt as a viewer. I think with visual media, that super interesting plot is far more important than it is in the written word. I’m willing to give a book a little more time to develop the plot as long as the overall story is good; if I am sitting to watch something, it had better hook me and keep hooking me. Battlestar Galactica was masterful at this: even when it was bad, interesting shit was happening left and right.

    • Well, that was awesome. I wrote this big comment and BLINK! It disappeared.

      Anyway. Lost.

      Season 3 for me was weaker because the stories weren’t robust. The plot still happened. Things still occurred in sequence. But we weren’t learning much more about the characters, the island. The ideas were not advancing. In short, the story was treading water.

      You look at the season opener and — SPOILER ALERT — you see these characters on alternate timelines, you get glimpses of their old lives stalling, you see old patterns emerging. We receive these really intense ideas about good versus evil, fate versus free will, choice versus acquiescence. Those are not things compelled by plot. They are not born out of a “sequence of events.” Those things live in the fuzzy margins. They live outside the scope of Point A to Point Z, and that’s what makes stuff like that classic.

      Genre too often cleaves to genre, and genre is a thing that exists mostly in the plot. (I think. I’m undecided on that.) One of our advisors (Richard Lagravenese) said a really great thing, though: in genre, you still need to go to the human. You need to find the human element. You need to find the human story. Only then do you transcend the genre and become something more, and genre becomes more a contributor to a greater story rather than all else being subservient to genre.

      – c.

  • I hate LOST too.

    The analogy that I draw between skeletal plot and phantasmal story is something like this: a ghost is more interesting than a skeleton. A skeleton has structure, form and definition, but unless you’re a necromancer or a macabre puppeteer, it’s just going to lay there. A ghost, on the other hand, has a life, will and purpose all its own, but can very easily lack definition. Each requires the other. A plot with no story is dry and boring, while a story with no plot is empty and formless. Even if you dress the story up with colorful characters and cutting-edge CGI, the whole thing’s going to have the solidity of a bowl of pudding, and not a tasty kind of pudding either, but a pudding made of nothingness.

    I’m looking at you, Lucas.

    Anyway, the skeleton from which the ghost rises should have a form and function based upon that skeleton. The body that releases the spirit, the memories that cause it to haunt and the emotions that drive it to terrorize until laid to rest are all rooted in the tangible remains that otherwise lay lifeless in the earth. It’s a necrotic symbiosis.

    • Josh:

      I like your framing of that. Well done.

      On LOST, though –

      “Hate?” Really?

      Is that the word you want to use?

      Why do we geeks so easily give in to polarizing discussion around other geek-loved properties? Are we like chimps in a tree, ready to go to war with the chimps in the other tree, even though we’re all chimps, and we all love motherfucking trees? Stop flinging poo. I like Lost. You don’t like it. But hate? Really? It’s something actually worth your outright hatred?

      – c.

  • No.

    I don’t hate is as much as I hate some of the other things I deal with in my everyday life.

    But I do think it’s highly overrated.

    Besides, I didn’t want Paul to feel he was in that snake pit all by himself. I mean even the Nazis wouldn’t leave him in an awful place like that all alone.

    If you’re picturing me in Marian Ravenwood’s white dress, stop it. I don’t look good in white formal wear.

    • I bet you can drink them Nazis under the table. So hot.

      Wait, what?

      I don’t know that it’s worth reserving much negative energy for pop-culture properties, really. Overrated, that’s reasonable. I mean, I don’t agree — I’m a fan of Lost, I think while it wobbled in the middle it regained its footing and has become a very complex, very interesting story. And smart, to boot. Further, it remains a good exercise in basing your genre in character above gimmick or trope.

      But I don’t think it’s for everybody, so I dig that.

      This is, of course, pretty tangential at this point. :)

      – c.

  • I think you’re right in that the show works in focusing on characters rather than gimmicks. But, to be honest, I think that Fringe is a more focused and better written show.

    And yes, I’m paying Bob Orci another compliment.

  • I’m not a fan of Lost, but I fully admit it’s my own disconnect. I just get bored a few episodes in and end up not wanting to continue, even after a few tries and the cries of my friends telling me that it’s totally worth it.

    • Generally, that’s why I’d go with the “I prefer X property to Y property.”

      As in, I prefer Lost to Fringe.

      I prefer baseball to football.

      I prefer beef to lamb.

      Etc.

      – c.

  • February 3, 2010 at 4:50 PM // Reply

    I prefer slapping myself across the face with a frozen salmon to watching an episode of LOST.

    I do like Fringe, but more because I adore the characters more than the story or premise. That’s a weird situation where I feel connected to the characters and would probably watch them if they were hosting Bass Masters and not appearing in Fringe.

    We’ve really driven this go-kart off-topic. I guess the story didn’t follow the plot…

    • This has all gone quite off the rails.

      Anywho. Point I was making is that the story is an untethered thing. Plot is straightforward. It’s merely the sequence. It’s the straight line that cuts through the circle.

      Ooh! New metaphor!

      The plot is the ladder the audience climbs, but the story is all the things the audience sees as they climb the ladder!

      *bangs head on metaphor until head asplodes*

      – c.

  • I like LOST quite a bit. I’m not sure that plot is something Lucas’s STAR WARS pictures were lacking, though that seems to be the insinuation there.

    What irks me is when people say a movie had a great plot, when what they mean is they liked the story. But as for the notion of plot versus story? Um, what? Who’s saying it’s once against the other?

    Your ghosts-and-bones metaphor is a good one, on a subject that seems to require metaphors to make sense of it. It’s not like putting a hammer to a nail — you can’t see it happen and immediately understand what’s happening. Just the way that goes, I guess.

  • February 3, 2010 at 6:44 PM // Reply

    Metaphors are like pizza. Some are good, some are bad, and almost all of them are delivered by people that have no clue what was in the box they just delivered…but still expect to get a tip for delivering it.

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