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Michael Wolfe
03-26-2010, 09:56 PM
I recently had a friendly disagreement with someone over the question of what a story is. The person claimed a piece of mine was "not a story" because it lacked plot, which itself I didn't agree with, but I also questioned whether or not plots were the single thing that separated stories from "non-stories".
I mentioned E.M Forster, who said "The king died, then the queen died' is a story; the king died then the queen died of grief" is a plot." One thing I take from that is that Forster separated to some extent the concepts of story and plot. Is that a fair reading of the quote? And finally, do you agree with the quote, or do you believe a story lacking in plot is no story at all?

Thanks for any insights,

Michael

Cyia
03-26-2010, 10:04 PM
A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Plot is extra.

Slice of life stories aren't necessarily plot-driven. They're snapshots.

Phaeal
03-26-2010, 10:14 PM
Let's not even get into what word counts separate the short story from the novelette and novella and novel. Or from the short-short and the flash fic.

Well, let's see. I think of a conventional story as a narrative in which some sort of change or movement occurs. That's broad enough. To that, I oppose the vignette, which is static, descriptive.

"The king died, then the queen died" would be a story in that there is change, occurrence. The difference in "The king died, then the queen died of grief" is that now we have causation -- why the queen died. When we speak of something as plotted, we may be talking about chains of causation. "A" happened. Therefore "B" did "C." "D," effected by "C," did "E," which made "B" say "F," and so on.

Interesting.

DeleyanLee
03-26-2010, 10:18 PM
Story is the synergy from combing various elements, which often include character, setting, theme, plot/events and possibly more I'm not thinking of. It is the entirety that gives the experience to the reader. Depending on the needs of the story, some of those elements will be stronger and some weaker.

Though I've also heard people defining "Plot" as I define "Story".

It's one of the challenges of this writing thing--finding common definitions for common words.

Terie
03-26-2010, 10:29 PM
A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Plot is extra.

Or, as I've head it put another way: 'A story has a beginning, a muddle, and an end.' Wish I could attribute that properly, but I don't know who said it.

RemusShepherd
03-26-2010, 11:39 PM
I don't even agree on the 'beginning, middle, and end' formula. "A king died" is a barebones story without clear beginning or end.

A story is a collection of elements meant to be visualized. Those elements might be events that string together into a plot. Those elements might be characters, or settings, or themes, or just emotional moods. Many stories combine all sorts of elements together.

Ernest Hemingway wrote a wonderful six-word story: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn." No characters (unless you could the shoes as a prop or the missing baby), no setting, no beginning, middle or end, just a prop in a situation that evokes emotion. Classic.

If you can picture it in your mind, then it's a story.

Cyia
03-26-2010, 11:43 PM
I don't even agree on the 'beginning, middle, and end' formula. "A king died" is a barebones story without clear beginning or end.

beginning - he was alive
middle - something happened
end - he's dead

Michael Wolfe
03-27-2010, 03:04 AM
Thanks for all the responses. I found another interesting thing to support my original argument: in the poetics, Aristotle says that plot is the most important feature in a story, defining it as "the arrangement of incidents" within the story. Thus, it is not the story itself or even the thing that makes something a story. He argues that plot-driven stories are superior to character-driven stories, but not that plotless stories are not stories at all.
Very interesting.

DeleyanLee
03-27-2010, 03:07 AM
Thanks for all the responses. I found another interesting thing to support my original argument: in the poetics, Aristotle says that plot is the most important feature in a story, defining it as "the arrangement of incidents" within the story. Thus, it is not the story itself or even the thing that makes something a story. He argues that plot-driven stories are superior to character-driven stories, but not that plotless stories are not stories at all.
Very interesting.

I offer that the market and reading tastes have changed a bit since Aristotle originally got published. ;)

Michael Wolfe
03-27-2010, 03:19 AM
Ha, DeleyanLee, that's undoubtedly true, although that's not exactly the point I was arguing. But it might be interesting to people to know where many ideas about literature originally came from - after all, the "beginning, middle, end" theory suggested earlier in this thread also originated with Aristotle.

SPMiller
03-27-2010, 05:42 AM
Dramatized conflict.

RemusShepherd
03-27-2010, 06:21 PM
beginning - he was alive
middle - something happened
end - he's dead

Okay, you've demolished my example. :)

But 'beginning, middle, end' implies that the story contains some passage of time. I can think of many ways to write a story without that -- a character sketch, a setting description, a collection of props. "There is a dead king" might serve better.

I can't see a way to make a plot without time, but I think you can still make a story.

SPMiller
03-27-2010, 06:37 PM
Okay, you've demolished my example. :)

But 'beginning, middle, end' implies that the story contains some passage of time. I can think of many ways to write a story without that -- a character sketch, a setting description, a collection of props. "There is a dead king" might serve better.

I can't see a way to make a plot without time, but I think you can still make a story.Those are not stories.

Jamesaritchie
03-27-2010, 11:07 PM
You can plot to rob a bank, but the plot is not the robbery. You only get the money when you actually go inside the bank, point the gun, and walk out with a bag full of cash.

Plot is not story. Plot, as Bradbury says, is the footprints left in the snow after the characters have run by.

I've never thought the E. M. Forster quotation made any sense at all. It's just dumb. It's a great sound bite, but I can't imagine anyone making it work in writing fiction. Neither side of that quotation is a story. The second part is a plot, but story is how well you execute that plot, how well you add all the details you add from the beginning, though the middle, and at the end. It's going from plot to such things as action, character development, conflict, emotion, tension, mood, tone, etc.

Stories are what editors buy. Editors do not buy plot, and they do not buy silliness such as "The king died, and then the queen died."

Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, or, put another way, a reason for being, a coflict/tension/ and a resolution, and all three are executed with enough detail to make each part come together as a coherent whole.

dgiharris
03-28-2010, 11:37 PM
A better question to ask is "What interests the readers?" "What do readers want?"

IMO, readers want to escape, they want an adventure, they want an emotional experience of some kind....

There was a Top Chef competition in which the chefs had to cook a healthy low fat meal.

The majority of Chefs did a good job, using Turkey instead beef, using certain fish, using spices instead of mayo, etc. etc.

But there was one Chef who majored in nutrition in college. He went out and got all this super healthy food like wheat germ this and the bark of some tree that and just a bunch of crap i've never heard of. He mixed it all together and it looked like dog food but worse, it tasted like it.

In the Chef's excitement of using his superior nutrition knowledge, he forgot the fundamental objective, that the food is supposed to taste good.

I submit the same thing can happen with writing. Sometimes, pretention gets the best of us writers and we succomb to the ego-centric urge to demonstrate our superior knowledge of the writing arts. But that is all for naught if the story (however you define it) does not interest the reader.

Never lose sight of that objective.

Can a story be a story without plot?

I honestly don't care because IMO, the majority of my readership wants a plot. So it is a moot point as far as I'm concerned.

Mel...

Exir
03-29-2010, 12:15 AM
But there was one Chef who majored in nutrition in college. He went out and got all this super healthy food like wheat germ this and the bark of some tree that and just a bunch of crap i've never heard of. He mixed it all together and it looked like dog food but worse, it tasted like it.

In the Chef's excitement of using his superior nutrition knowledge, he forgot the fundamental objective, that the food is supposed to taste good.

Where can I read more about this? :ROFL:

Jamesaritchie
03-29-2010, 05:23 PM
Can a story be a story without plot?

I honestly don't care because IMO, the majority of my readership wants a plot. So it is a moot point as far as I'm concerned.

Mel...

My opinion is that it's impossible to have a story without a plot. No plot, no story. Period.

But this does not mean the plot comes before the story, it means that when you tell a story you get a plot as a byproduct. The story is what you write, the plot is the synopsis you send an agent or editor.

Readers want a story, not a plot.

RemusShepherd
03-29-2010, 06:37 PM
But 'beginning, middle, end' implies that the story contains some passage of time. I can think of many ways to write a story without that -- a character sketch, a setting description, a collection of props. "There is a dead king" might serve better. I can't see a way to make a plot without time, but I think you can still make a story.


Those are not stories.

I disagree. But let's experiment. Let's add story elements, but *not* any elements that create a plot or the passage of time:

There is a dead king in a white castle, and the queen is ill. A thousand subjects mourn in the persimmon-lined courtyard.

We have characters, settings, props, situations and a mood. No time is passing -- it's a snapshot of a particular moment -- and we have no plot. But I'd say this is still a type of story. I could certainly extend it. We could continue writing timeless description and layer in the moods for thousands of words.

A story is a collection of elements that can be visualized. Those elements can be varied, and they often include plot (and probably should, if you want to
be published), but they do not have to.

DeleyanLee
03-29-2010, 06:50 PM
Can a story be a story without plot?

Depends on how you define "plot".

For many, "plot" is the series of events and actions that happen to move things along. However, "plot" can also be a series of internal/emotional revelations which expand the reader's understanding of the story, which is far more subtle than the general understanding of it.

I think there has to be plot to be a story--but how "plot" is defined can be totally up to the story's needs.

Shadow_Ferret
03-29-2010, 07:01 PM
Can a story be a story without plot?

I honestly don't care because IMO, the majority of my readership wants a plot. So it is a moot point as far as I'm concerned.

Mel...

I disagree. Academics care about plot. Readers, all the readers want are some interesting characters having interesting things happen to them.

They want a good STORY.

As james said: Plot is not story. Plot, as Bradbury says, is the footprints left in the snow after the characters have run by.

Ruv Draba
03-30-2010, 01:40 AM
A story is just an account. It comes from Latin historia -- meaning an account of what happened. A plot is a logical connection between events in a story. A story doesn't need a plot because there may be no cause or effect, or it might not be known, or it might be uncertain.

Plot however, makes stories easier to follow and challenges the reader to predict what happens next.

Michael Wolfe
03-30-2010, 02:09 AM
The more I read, the more I think my story does in fact have a plot, at least if plot is being defined as the logical connections between events in a story. I'm still a little hazy though on defining plot, and haven't thought about it much, so does anyone else have another definition of it that may be useful? I'm thinking if I have a stronger idea of what it is, I may be better able to think about how essential it is to a story.

Also, I'm glad someone finally pointed out the etymological connection between "story" and "history". I was thinking about making that point myself and then forgot about it. On Merriam Webster online, the first entry for "story" is "history", followed by "an account of events or incidents." The entry for history says that the Latin Historia actually comes from an even older Greek word, histōr, which is akin to the Greek eidenai, meaning "to know". The first two entries for history are: 1. Tale, story; and 2. a chronological record of significant events, often including an explanation of their causes.

DeleyanLee
03-30-2010, 02:52 AM
Plot: The structure imposed upon story by the author to make it comprehensible by the reader.

Mac H.
03-30-2010, 09:29 AM
In my mind "The dog died." is not a story.
In my mind "The dog died. Then the cat died" is not a story.

They are both lists of facts/events - but a story is more than that. Would you class the phone book as 'a story' book ? Would you regard a list of my ancestor's names a story? Why not?

In my mind "The king died. Then the queen died" CAN be a story though.

It isn't a story by itself ... but it's inviting the reader to fill in 'the story' bits to create a story. It's

So it is inviting the reader's imagination to fill in the reason and connection (cause and effect) between the king dying and the queen dying. It's inviting the reader to imagine the characters and how they interact with the world. So the outcome is a story in the reader's head ... even if it isn't exactly on the page. Nor would all readers have the same story. Some might have a murder-suicide. Others might have a tale of loss and remorse.

That's why "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." is a story - it's inviting the reader to fill in the 'story' part.

Without a reader's imagination no written story is really a story.

With a reader's imagination, even 'He once took my parking space. He now sings soprano' has a cause and effect, even though it is never actually stated.

Mac

Michael Wolfe
03-30-2010, 03:31 PM
In my mind "The dog died. Then the cat died" is not a story.

In my mind "The king died. Then the queen died" CAN be a story though.

It isn't a story by itself ... but it's inviting the reader to fill in 'the story' bits to create a story.

That's why "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." is a story - it's inviting the reader to fill in the 'story' part.


Mac

Mac,

I'm a little confused by your logic here. You seem to be saying different things about "the dog died, then the cat died", and "the king died, then the queen died." To me, these "stories" are structurally identical; they just have different subjects. You also seem to be saying that a story can be the creation of a reader rather than a writer: that "the king died, then the queen" isn't a story by itself, but a reader can make it into a story somehow. Then you say that the Hemingway piece IS a story, because it invites the reader to fill in the story; while "the king died, then the queen died" is only a potential story, even though it supposedly does the same thing as the Hemingway story.

As for the phonebook point, I think I would say the phonebook isn't a story for a number of reasons, but one important aspect of it is that it doesn't have any events or even allude to any events. For me, the Hemingway piece is powerful because it alludes to a pretty major event: the unexpected death of a baby. However, I still wouldn't confidently call that piece a story.

As for "He once took my parking space. He now sings soprano" - I would have to say that's actually quite a hilarious story, if you think about it.

gothicangel
03-30-2010, 04:08 PM
Mac,

I'm a little confused by your logic here. You seem to be saying different things about "the dog died, then the cat died", and "the king died, then the queen died." To me, these "stories" are structurally identical; they just have different subjects. You also seem to be saying that a story can be the creation of a reader rather than a writer: that "the king died, then the queen" isn't a story by itself, but a reader can make it into a story somehow.



A story needs two plot points to be connected by some kind of causality. This is the space that is filled by character [action/motivation.] A reader shouldn't be making a story, that's the writer's job.

Mac H.
03-31-2010, 02:55 AM
Mac,

I'm a little confused by your logic here. You seem to be saying different things about "the dog died, then the cat died", and "the king died, then the queen died." To me, these "stories" are structurally identical; they just have different subjects. You also seem to be saying that a story can be the creation of a reader rather than a writer: that "the king died, then the queen" isn't a story by itself, but a reader can make it into a story somehow.I guess I'm saying the story is never really on the page - it is always in the reader's mind.

The words on the page are a mechanism to GET the story into the reader's mind.


As for "He once took my parking space. He now sings soprano" - I would have to say that's actually quite a hilarious story, if you think about it.Exactly. The words on the page are pretty much structurally the same as the non-stories. The difference is that your mind filled in the missing gaps to fill in the story.

The 'story' was in my mind. I selected some words that would trigger the 'story' in your mind .. even though those words might be structurally fairly mundane.

If you just look at the structure of the sentences to track down the magic line where 'story' starts you are guaranteed to miss it.

Good luck !

Mac

dgiharris
03-31-2010, 03:02 AM
Originally Posted by dgiharris http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/images/buttons/viewpost.gif (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=4792555#post4792555)
Can a story be a story without plot?

I honestly don't care because IMO, the majority of my readership wants a plot. So it is a moot point as far as I'm concerned.

Mel...



I disagree. Academics care about plot. Readers, all the readers want are some interesting characters having interesting things happen to them.

They want a good STORY.

As james said: Plot is not story. Plot, as Bradbury says, is the footprints left in the snow after the characters have run by.

I guess I mispoke kinda sorta :)

My brain is pretty small-- tiny in fact. Ameobas laugh at its smallish nature...

So as such, I can not percieve of a good story without a plot. Without a plot, you just have a list of facts.

And as was mentioned above, I don't see how that differs from the phone book.

If you somehow are able to write a good story without plot, more power to you.

Be as for myself, it is beyond the abilities of the peanut rattling around inside my skull. So I leave such exercises to the higher beings whom claim that such a feat is possible.

Mel...

pianoman5
04-02-2010, 07:20 AM
and then... = story

and so... = plot

I think this is the most succinct description of the distinction that I've come across. A story is simply the narration of a series of events, but a plot adds texture by overlaying some elements of causation which, when they're related to human foibles and circumstances, enriches the whole experience of the story for those of us who are interested in how people work. (Or goblins, dragons, fairies etc, according to your genre.)