Story and Plot are Not the Same Thing
By Chad Upton | Editor
Movies are extremely captivating because of their complex combination of: music, characters, dialogue, lighting, story, plot and everything else. Yes, story and plot.
These two words are often used interchangeably. I don’t have a problem with that, but I do find this little known fact interesting and heck, that’s what this site is all about.
Whether you’re talking about books, films or campfire tales, the differentiation between story and plot applies. I’ll start by oversimplifying the difference:
Story is what happens; plot is how those events are presented.
To be more specific: the story is a chronological arrangement of the events, including everything you’re presented with and also the implied or assumed events that you are not explicitly given. On the other hand, the plot includes everything that contributes to how you experience the story, including everything you see and hear, but not including the story events that are implied or assumed.
These two words are confusing because the elements they describe have some overlap — the parts of the story that you see are also part of the plot. While they do have this overlap, it is important to note that both plot and story include elements that do not overlap. Lets look at a popular film for example.
By now, I think most people have seen The Hangover (2009). If you haven’t, that’s ok, there are no spoilers beyond this point, but there is a basic description of the story and plot.
At a high level, it’s a comedy about four guys who go to Las Vegas and lose their friend, then retrace their steps to find him.
At the start of the film, the main characters are already friends; the film doesn’t show you how the core group of people met or became friends. Because we don’t see when they originally met, the formation of their friendship is part of the story, but not the plot.
The second act begins with the characters waking up from a blackout. Their hotelroom is a mess, but they can’t remember what happened the night before. The plot jumps from the night before to the morning after and skips everything in between. Because we did not see what happened, the events the plot skipped are just part of the story at this point.
The story ends by revealing something that happened the night before. Because the events in the story are rearranged (the plot), the viewer is part of the adventure, they know just as much as the characters. The plot makes the story more captivating because we want to know what happened, just as bad as the characters.
In movies, the plot also includes the music and credits because these are not generally part of the story — they’re not things the characters experience, but they do affect how viewers experience the story. This is where The Hangover does something really interesting; during the credits they show some still “pictures” from parts of the story that were skipped in the plot, bringing those elements that were once only part of the story into the plot too.
Bonus fact: music can be part of the story if, for example, there is a person/band/radio in the scene that is playing music.
Sources: Film Art (ISBN 0073386162)