“Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity…”
In my last post, I mentioned how literary fiction focuses on the Story but doesn’t have to worry much about plot. Since I was asked what I meant, and since story and plot are often used interchangeably, I thought I’d address the question in long form instead of in a comment. I know, real surprise that I’d write something in long form. ;-)
Plot is an outline. Whether an author uses an actual outline while writing a novel, the outline is inferred. It’s what happens and in what order it happens. It’s the bones of the book, the base characters start with and the bends and curves they use to develop. If someone asks you what a book you just read is about, you’re likely to give them the plot (hopefully you won’t reveal the ending).
Commercial fiction, or genre fiction, is plot insistent. Readers used to a certain genre expect each book in that genre to do certain things. For instance, in romance, readers expect two characters to meet and see an attraction, to get together, to have an obstacle that tears them apart or threatens to tear them apart, and then to get back together for the happily ever after. That is the base plot of the romance genre. Stretch it too far with too many other aspects, and readers will say the plot was slow or not tight enough. The plot must follow the genre demands. Writers have to know what those demands are and not following them precisely enough can lead to unhappy reviews.
Story, on the other hand, is a far larger concept.
“In striving to make sense of life, persons face the task of arranging their experiences of events in sequences across time in such a way as to arrive at a coherent account of themselves and the world around them.”
Michael White and David Epstein
Story is not only what happens but the ‘why’ it happens and the ‘what’ that happens because it happened. Story has depth. It has feeling. It has history. (In fact, “story” comes from the Latin “historia” meaning an event that has happened.)
Stories tell us who we are and why we react as we do.
”Our identity is constituted by what we ‘know’ about ourselves, how we describe ourselves and how others describe us through story.
“We are implicitly grounded in and guided by stories.
“Power and knowledge is inextricably interrelated in story.”
”Self is a Story, a collection of stories.”
Dee Preston Dillon, PhD
Story is far more powerful and encompassing than plot because it has depth of emotion, it has feeling and understanding and questioning. In the same way that when we give someone our biography, we give them where we were born and how many siblings we had and where we went to school and what we studied and when we married, had children, etc., we are giving them the plot of our lives, when we tell them of our dreams and plans and thoughts and wishes and regrets and fears, we give them our Story.
All fiction has Story. Some of it is broad, some narrow, some of it focuses on a couple of main factors of life and ignores the rest, some of it is long and winding and brings in family backgrounds and social issues. It all has story of some extent. The more Story that’s involved, the more understanding and empathy and reach a novel has.
All fiction has plot of some kind, as well. Some of it is tight and fast, some of it is meandering and picks up streams and ponds at every opportunity, some is a mix of mostly tight but with some meanders. Every kind has its loyal readers.
Just as no one hero would be right for every heroine, no one kind of novel is right for every reader. Some of us like to test all kinds of waters before we settle on one kind. Some find the one they like and stay right there. Others never settle on one. To each his own. ;-)
“The evolution of lives is akin to the process of reauthoring, the process of persons’ entering into stories, taking them over and making them their own.”
Michael White and David Epstein
[quotes taken from a presentation by Dr. Preston-Dillon: Grounding Sandplay Therapy- Narrative and Active Imagination, Sep 2009]