What is a story?
Let me start with a famous distinction made by the writer E. M. Forster in his classic work, Aspects of the Novel. Story is like this: “The King died, and then the Queen died.” Plot is more like this: “The King died, and then the Queen died of grief.”
What’s the difference? Story, in Forster’s definition, is a series of events; plot is a series of events that indicate causation. When we hear story, Forster, observes, we think “and then what next?” but when we experience plot, we ask, “and why?”
This is what I call operational definition: a definition to suit a particular situation, need, or argument. “Plot” and “story” can mean more or less the same thing, but even if you don’t like Forster’s distinction, consider the problem of causation: how, in a story, can you get at meaning; at the possibilities of “why”?
Here is another point about how “story” and “plot” differ – and this, really, was more what Forster was concerned with: “story” is the basic chronology of events: how things unfold in time. “Plot” is any meaningful (or, I suppose, meaningless) arrangement of those events. So, when you tell a story, you can go forward in time, first to second to third to last; or, you can choose another arrangement – one that suits some thematic purpose, or any purpose at all. Stories (as in the movie “Memento”) can be told backwards; or (like the movie “Pulp Fiction”) they can be told both forwards and backwards, leaving us somewhere in the middle. Often, a story starts “in medias res” (“in the middle of things,” a Latin phrase I’ve used in posts), because that is where our attention can be most successfully engaged; often, then, a story will back up, or otherwise fill in information, or provide some exposition, to give the reader sufficient background and context for the story and its characters, and their situations.
But there are many possibilities. Time can be directed, replayed, skipped, and multi-layered. Think of the Akutagawa story (the basis for “Rashomon,” one of our first exercises): the same story is told several different ways, according to the different characters’ points of view, and their differing motivations/limitations. Many stories, especially films and novels, will present a scene in one place, according to one character’s point of view; and then jump to a different character/location to show us simultaneous or coterminous events, often linking the two plot lines later in the story.
Also, plot elements can be nested: we can go back in time, or forward, and then, within that secondary chronology, we might be pushed further back or forward. A good example of this is in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”
This story begins with the narrating character learning of his younger brother’s arrest for drug possession; from this point, we go a little forward, partly to gain some further understanding of our narrator’s perspective; then we go back, to learn of the brothers’ shared past, and within a dramatic framework, we go further still, through a story told by the mother (long dead in the story’s present) of their father’s childhood, and a dark event that shaped his destiny – his, and his own brother’s (creating a parallel, of course, with the narrator and his brother’s destinies). We also have the narrator’s memory-scenes that present us with an idyllic past, when both mother and father were alive, and the family was in equilibrium (but with a threatening darkness not far off).
So, we have story within story, and in a sense, our questions “why?” – why does Sonny, the younger brother, have a drug problem; why should we care about him; why does the narrator, the older brother, feel regret – are suspended, amplified, and (perhaps) internalized: the characters’ investments in one another become our own, in part, I feel, because we enter their story (their plot, really) as if it were a labyrinth of meaning, leading not out but toward a center as the point of liberation.
Consider, then: when you have a story to tell, how should you construct the plot? Is chronological order the best way? Even if so, will foreshadowing or flashbacks enhance your purposes? Is there a point in the midst of events from which you can work back, then forward, to catch the reader’s attention? Are there simultaneous perspectives to alternate between?
The most important thing, I believe, is to think in terms of scenes: how can you help the reader “see” what is happening? Create a series of self-contained, extended moments: what action, what realization, what gesture, what knowledge will give that moment its purpose within the story? What mode of storytelling will predominate: dialogue, narrative, description, interior monologue?
My preference, even in essays and poems, is to think “cinematically,” at least at some stage of the composition: to imagine where the cameras would be placed; to design the tracking, the series of angles, to try out medium vs. close-up vs. long-shot distances; to imagine the montage of shots, considering both what is shown and what is omitted, and how the gaps communicate meaning; and to consider “mise en scene” (what is placed within the frame), also thinking of the relation between presence and absence, and how best to use what I expect a reader to know of what I don’t reveal.