In this episode of The Book Editor Show, Peter Turley and Clark Chamberlain pit plot and story structure against each other and explore why writers should care about the difference.
After a botched attempt to nail down this topic resulted in dual intellectual crises, Clark and Peter try again with a better understanding that defining plot is more elusive than it seems.
You may have come for the accent and deep voice, but you’ll stay for the discussions of genre expectation, understanding why knowing “The Rules” is useful as a writer, and how these concepts relate to new movie release Joker and the 2000 crime/drama Memento.
Peter waxes philosophical on the meaning of “I” thanks to his current read, The Words of Selves by Denise Riley, and the pair tackle the meanings of plot and story structure head-on and in-depth.
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CLARK: Welcome to the Book Editor Show. I’m Clark Chamberlain. Today, we discuss a major element of fiction: Plot vs. Story Structure. Is there a difference, and if so, why should you care?
Today’s show is brought to you by, well, me and Ironclad Outline. Outlines can really help you get a firm understanding of your story, but an Ironclad Outline is going to help you write faster, increase creativity, and crush doubt. Visit TheBookEditorShow.com/outline to learn more.
In a world fraught with run-on sentences, mixed metaphors, rampaging gangs of mutant babies, and a total lack of punctuation, there was one man spoke of in legend that stands a chance to bring us back from the edge of editor eradication. I’m here to tell you, the legend is true. That man is my friend and co-host Peter Turley. Peter, how are you doing today?
PETER: Man, those mutant babies… You know, I’m not sure —
CLARK: They’re a problem.
PETER: I’m not sure what’s a bigger problem, those or the lack of punctuation.
CLARK: I’m noticing that more and more in text messages, that there’s just — no one even bothers.
PETER: And I’ve really got to choose a cause, you know, and they’re both calling out so… no man, that’s a crisis right there.
CLARK: It’s a lot of work for you. I don’t know how you manage it.
PETER: What, in between my crises?
PETER: You’re one of them by the way.
CLARK: Am I now?
PETER: You know what you’re not having? You’re not having a hair crisis. You’ve had a haircut, right?
CLARK: Yeah, I did.
PETER: It looks good.
CLARK: And we’ve started scheduling them every two weeks because if I’m going to be back in front of a camera again…
PETER: Oh man, that’s a reason to check out the video right there. If you listen on iTunes, you’re missing out. It’s fresh.
CLARK: It is fresh, but I’m noticing there’s a little bit more forehead than normal, and it’s a little shinier than normal.
PETER: Nothing wrong with a shiny forehead.
CLARK: Yeah, I know. I got to look at that for the future.
PETER: Whatever takes the focus off your face.
CLARK: Or some of the stuff that we’ll discuss today, I’m sure.
PETER: In great, great length.
PETER: I mean, if you’re here, you’ve come to listen about plot. And, you know, I just want to say. That’s not simple
CLARK: It is not simple. So a little quick backstory before we get into the show: We spent about an hour and a half this last week doing what we thought was going to be the show and talking round and round about plot because plot, wow, what an easy idea to just talk about and just throw a show together with.
PETER: And we’ll go for the low-hanging fruit. But we climbed the tree [hit] every branch on the way down, and still missed the fruit.
CLARK: It was quite the thing. We’ll make that available for you to listen to. It’s quite humorous towards the end especially if…
PETER: If you want insight into how little we sometimes elucidate when we talk.
PETER: I confused myself during that show.
CLARK: There was a moment during it – because I was pretty firm in my beliefs for about the first hour, and then I was like, “Maybe I’m completely off on this,” and then I started thinking about other things, and I was just going, “oh man.”
PETER: I think, reflecting on it: A big part of the problem is that plot and structure bleed into one another, and I think that’s perpetuated by the fact that you see a lot of books on plot and structure – you don’t often see one of these things tackled alone, and when you try to define the boundaries, it’s problematic, to say the least.
CLARK: It is a little problematic. It’s kind of world crises type problematic.
CLARK: Trying to get those borders situated.
PETER: It’s up there with the mutant babies and the lack of punctuation. And then the boundary between plot and structure.
CLARK: So that in and of itself, of course, is a big part of the writer’s struggle this last week. But you had another going on right now, too.
PETER: Oh, I was talking the other day to you about a book I’ve been reading lately by Denise Riley called The Words of Selves. Is this the particular crisis you’re referring to?
PETER: It was recommended to me, and in terms of, sort of brushing up on my approach to lyric poetry and what it means to write about the self. And man, I don’t know if you’ve ever read that book, but the first chapter of that, it totally deconstructs any notion of self and instills this pure fear of any kind of self-representation. You know, why am I representing myself? Why would I talk about myself? Why would I use the I and what weight is that carrying when you do that? I kind of hoped that I’d be put back together by the second chapter, but that’s just expanded on to sort of how the I is kind of a liar in that it gives the impression of a singularity whereas, in reality, everyone gets to say I. And there’s a universality to it. And it’s these tensions, they keep me up at night, Clark.
CLARK: I can tell why, I mean that’s –
PETER: “I thought I should mention, you look like you’ve been up all night. I can tell they keep you up.”
CLARK: I can, yeah.
PETER: “You look like crap.”
CLARK: It is definitely a struggle, the I and the self and trying to figure out how to put that together. I hadn’t thought of that, though, with your second chapter talk about the I as a universal. That’s interesting.
PETER: Neither did I and now I can’t stop. But, yeah, I mean, if you think about some of the more powerful reasons you might say [I], maybe a declaration of love or something like that, and you’re kind of uttering a phrase that has been said for millennia, and you’re taking it on with a singular ownership to something unique to you. But it’s not. Don’t know what that means yet – I’ll get back to you.
CLARK: That sounds good. But we’ve talked about your poetry before, that this is something that you’ve used as a way to write in almost as journaling, and it’s been a very personal thing for you, right?
PETER: Yeah, and I think that was kind of the growth. I just used to do it as a thing for me, and a lot of it would be like a journaling approach, or it would be like hashing things out from my life, and it was personal. Kind of like you’d get in songs, like with lyrics, you know, about the self, and, “I this, I that,” and it kind of grew from there. And obviously when you look into sort of more, the currently published contemporary poetry, it heavily moves away from that, and there’s a very conscious approach to, you know, the representation of self, but it’s interesting stuff. So I’m currently working on a collection that was part of my final for my Master’s that I’ll hopefully be publishing in a pamphlet, so, fingers crossed for that. So working hard on that right now so hopefully, I’ll have some out there that people can take a look at.
CLARK: So this struggle hasn’t stopped you, then?
PETER: I like a struggle, you know.
CLARK: Struggles are good, struggles are where we grow from. I mean that’s –
CLARK: Well, you know, it’s at least the thing that makes us fail that then we grow from it. One of the two.
PETER: We talked about this, didn’t we, in the sort of “Welcome Back Show,” about the sort of struggle of being a writer. It isn’t just this… See again, I’m already talking about an identity. We’re not going to go down that rabbit hole. But say one identifies as a writer, what does that mean? And we have these struggles. We have them talking about self, we have them trying to record shows on plot…
CLARK: Absolutely right there.
PETER: This one’s going better already.
CLARK: Yes it is. It is going a lot better already.
PETER: Probably because we haven’t started talking about plot yet.
CLARK: As long as we can just talk about the struggle of life, then maybe that’s all – that we should just…
PETER: Plenty of meat to chew on with that one.
CLARK: Sure is. But I think that’s some real excellent insight in a direction you’re starting, and I’m excited to hear more about it. I’m also ready to see how this show goes today, but first, grammar.
[commercial] Do you hear that? Do you hear that? That’s the sound of no grammar taking place right here. This segment’s supposed to have grammar, but we’re still in search of our great grammarian to come in here and to help us out, putting this segment together, so if you are an expert on grammar and would like to take part and be a part of The Book Editor Show, even if it’s just for a couple of episodes, let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org or stop by thebookeditorshow.com, and there’s a link right on there on how you can apply. We’d love to have you be a part of it because we want you to help all the people that have bad grammar, us included. All right, back to…us.
PETER: We’re going to have to talk about plot.
CLARK: Yes, now we’re going to talk all about plot today. And especially, again, if you somehow missed the first part of the show, we are talking about plot. And story structure – [plot] versus story structure, is there a difference? And if so, why should you care? And I think we’ve kind of alluded that there is some difference going on between these two things. That they are not identical.
PETER: I want to start with the, “Why should you care?” Because this is something that I’ve been wrestling with since Saturday.
CLARK: After you’ve wasted all that time. “Why did I care about this?”
PETER: It’s um, man, it’s – I promise we’re going to get into this, but I’ve just got to say that I think it’s pretty crazy how such a massive part of writing can be so elusive and escape definition. Nothing should be allowed to do that. So, by the end of this episode, we’re going to do it.
CLARK: We are going to do it – it’s going to be clear as…clear as clear can be, I’m sure. But really, no, we did – I know we both walked away from that – it haunted me for nights. And I was up, and I was on my crazy boards just writing all kinds of different ideas, and I was looking up from other writers, going to my books, and just really trying to identify… And a lot of it does – a lot of it definitely bleeds through. We know that that there’s structure in story, and do we say, “Here’s the plot of the story, and the elements of plot,” and all of a sudden you’re like, “These are different though,” because I’ve worked on too many different outline books, then moving into the other part, to recognize that we do have a difference between the plot as an element of story structure, or as plot as an element of story versus the actual story structure that takes place in a particular story.
PETER: Yes. And because you have to structure a plot so it kind of, can’t exist independently of the structure. It has a structure, but it isn’t what we talk about when we talk about structure. I mean, yeah.
CLARK: Right. And I think this circles way back, because when we did this show last time, when we were recording, I know I opened up with the whole idea that I took this college course, and I had an instructor who was so against the idea of plot and that plot was this four-letter-word, and it’s not … any good story doesn’t have plot, but you cannot separate plot from the rest of this just like you cannot separate character or setting or the theme. All of these things have to be able to exist both independently and connected at the same time or you just don’t have a story.
PETER: Yeah. I just want to say – I just want to shout out to everyone that when you said, “Plot is a four-letter-word,” I counted how many letters were in plot because I was like, “P… Oh, yep, he was right, he’s got that.” So, okay, I think let’s jump in with a tentative approach to definition here.
PETER: So I think it’s safe to say that when we talk about plot, we are talking about the order of events. Now, obviously, already hinted at structure there by saying “order of events.” It’s the events themselves but is also the order you put those events in. So I think with the clear difference there – if we can place one – is that the events and the order you put them in are unique to your story and whereas structure is quite often universal.
CLARK: Exactly so when we talk about a story structure –
PETER: Boom show done.
CLARK: Done. We’re here for hours… When we say story structure, think of three acts. Let’s just use that as the basis; that is the story structure, and it will be the same in whatever genre, and it will be the same in any type of Western storytelling method: that three-act structure. When we talk about the plot, now we’re talking about, let’s just say for, instance, a romance plot has different elements that happen in an order that also fall over the three-act structure. But you could pull them both out and there would probably be some extra additional elements in the romance plot that’s not in the three-act structure but it still falls over that three-act structure.
PETER: Yes. And then see I just went straight in with the yes I’m just going to agree with you on that. But yeah I mean and then there’s also the verb like plotting. So you know to plot and then that’s the arrangement of the events but you’re still not in what we talk about when we talk about you know the main idea of structure. Story structure.
CLARK: Right. So, in some ways I would hope that one of the takeaways from this is that you think about plotting as outlining or structuring in that way. Plotting or to plot, but when we talk about The Plot of the story, we’re looking at an element of fiction like a character or a setting that is unique in that. And some of the things that, you know, when I was really trying to define where the difference was because that was one of the things that was hanging me up was is because when we talk about plot, the plot an element, we do still have a structure involved especially when it comes to genre. That that is used in a specific genre for that story and so that’s one of the things we want to look at with that so that then when you come in and you say… For instance, you have a beta reader, you have an editor that comes back and says, “Your plot is overpowering the rest of everything.” And you’re like, “Well, the structure is the structure.” Right. No, we’re not talking about the structure in the three-act idea of story structure. We’re talking about the plot as that element ,and then you need to be able to look at that versus, “What is it doing that’s overpowering all the other elements?”
PETER: Yeah. And I mean, you kind of took something there… A great way to kind of avoid potting problems early on, is to write an outline and that’s one strong argument I can recommend for the outlining over, you know, “pantsing” it, discovery writing, whatever you want to call it. Outlining – not just the story that you’re trying to tell but also each individual scene. I think that’s really good. That’s what helps each scene have a purpose and be part of the plot with correct pacing in a productive way. Having a purpose to what you’re writing outlining, and being clear about the end goal. You know, maybe even knowing how the story is going to end when you start out already ignites that kind of causal chain where you know where it is you’re heading so then you can start thinking about the plot points that are going to take you towards that end.
CLARK: Exactly, and in addition to that, making sure that you’re writing the right type of plot for the story you’re trying to tell. So, for instance, use the romance. If I’m going to tell a romance story, there are certain elements of that plot that need to be in place, and if they’re not there, a romance reader will come in and not feel like they’re reading a romance, you know? We talked just briefly – did you get the chance to see Joker yet? Since we last spoke?
CLARK: I use this one as an example: The movie Joker that’s out right now – Joaquin Phoenix – amazing. The story is really strong, it is definitely depressing, but it’s a very strong story, very well acted, very well put together. However, deciding to call him Joker, and mention Bruce Wayne’s family, and mention Arkham and Gotham, and all these elements, made me as a viewer expect a plot similar to other superhero plots. That was not the case, and so I was disappointed because I had genre expectations that would have been met if they had met the genre plot, those plot elements of a superhero story.
PETER: Yeah, totally. There’s a word for that. Which obviously escapes me because now we’re live. But you have those kind of genre-specific crucial scenes that must be a part of it.
CLARK: Like tropes?
PETER: It’s like that, but, no, there’s another word for it that’s used particularly in screenplay. But, you know, the way you sort of have to have certain motifs like, I don’t know, the lovers kissing on a bridge or certain things that are kind of stereotypical and tropey of genres but kind of need to be there to anchor the audience and make them feel like you’re watching the thing that you came to watch, or reading the thing that you came to read.
CLARK: Yeah, and that, again, pacing – I think that’s a really big element that plot does, is that pacing. And when those moments – because we’re talking again about plot as a story element is a chain of events that are set up and put into place that are sort of very specific towards a particular genre and help you pace that together. Now along with that, I’m going to talk around in a circle here because I’ve lost my attention span; it’s gone now.
PETER: Let’s go in that circle then.
CLARK: I will just go in that circle one more time, and see if we can see if it shows back up with those elements that we want to look at. It’s a really good way to be able to sit down and examine… You’ve written out your first draft, and you’re looking at these, and you say, “This is what I was trying to write. Am I meeting that pacing to be able to engage those spots that people expect?” Because it’s like a dialect, you know. Language is a dialect, story language is a dialect, and if I go and try to speak, and someone here in the United States – they speak English down in Louisiana, but not really. They speak a very different dialect of English, and it is difficult to understand. I worked with a bunch when I was in the Army, and it was harder to understand because of how they were structuring their dialect. So, just like that, I go into a superhero [story], I’m expecting a certain dialect, certain pacing, certain elements that should be there with the plot, and if it’s not there, then I continue to look for them, and then I feel disappointed when they’re not there because I don’t feel like I’m understanding the story.
PETER: Yeah, and I think it should be said that there’s a difference between subverting expectations and turning them on their heads and taking an original approach to a genre, and, you know, misselling what it is you were going for.
CLARK: Right. I think that if we jump movies really quick again … I can see it in my mind, and I can’t pull it out, so we’ll skip that idea. Because that’s not going to work. But, like, you can see those a lot of the times, and we want to be able to do something that’s original and change it. If we look at horror movies, some of my favorites are actually ones that change things. So you have You’re Next, it’s this home invasion horror movie, and so in a home invasion horror movie we have these creepy people in masks, of course, and they’re going to terrorize the family and do all this stuff. But in You’re Next, that’s how it starts, with those elements in there, but then all of a sudden we have a character who is a survivalist, and now she starts actually killing. So You’re Next switches the idea of who is really the predator in the film and in that story, and that takes an original spin on it, and that’s one of the things that I love so much about that film. But you definitely still hit all those pacing points that I would expect in a horror movie.
PETER: Yeah, and I think that’s achieved through … and is a way you can avoid this pitfall, is through the choices that the character is making, and showing that. Because the choices that they’re making throughout the story that determine the plot and the upcoming scenes, and having them make authentic choices, and choices that make sense because although original, a plot still needs to make structural sense and sense in terms of the decisions that the character’s making. And I think that that’s a good way of, you know, if you’re going to be risky, and you’re going to try something new, take a new take on things – by taking that approach, you can avoid complete nonsense.
CLARK: Yeah, you really can.
PETER: That was setting a low bar there.
CLARK: But I mean, everyone who’s listening right now is like –
PETER: “How was the book?” “Well, I’ll tell you it wasn’t complete nonsense.”
CLARK: It wasn’t complete nonsense.
PETER: Just moderate nonsense.
CLARK: So why, why does this matter? Like why should we even care about this because I think that probably the majority of people listening at this moment are like, “Well, ok, so it’s a little bit different, but why does it honestly matter?” And one of the things that we’re doing this show for and we’re making these more in-depth and doing more about this is because we want to help you really deeply understand this craft. because when you can understand it, and you can put it into practice, then you know how to mess it up. Then you know why it didn’t work, then you know why it did work. And so then you can make improvements, you can make changes, and, again, editing these things in a way that will make the book that people can’t put down.
PETER: Yeah. And that’s definitely hugely important to us in making these. And I do think that it is by, reiterating what you just said, but by picking these things apart and defining them, and understanding them, you can take those risks, and I mean anytime you try to do something new or reformulate something, then you want to know what you’re doing. Something where it toddles down so much Saturday.
PETER: You know, we should have, we didn’t do an outline, we didn’t do a scene-by-scene breakdown, you know, you go by the seam of your pants and you risk ripping them. You do risk ripping them. Baring your ass to the world.
CLARK: Because when you want to hit a 30-minute show, you ought to have an idea of what you want going into it and then you don’t get [unintelligble]
PETER: What was it, it was 80 minutes, wasn’t it?
CLARK: Yeah it was ridiculous, like over. And I think that’s actually, I think you could take a look at Harlequinn romance novels, the publisher, is that they do, they set a complete word count for their authors. They know exactly how much they want from their authors. There’s no wondering around. THere’s exactly delivering it and you have people that consume those I read an article where a lot of romance readers are a book a day almost on this. So, you know, you have these rabid readers that just, because they’ve got that down. They know exactly, they’re going into it with certain expectations and so if you want to break someone’s expectations, you need to know how much you can change, and that’s what this will help. Like, how much of this pacing can you have in there, these plot elements can you have in there, and still have enough to break it a little bit different way?
PETER: Yes. And then, have we talked about Memento before?
CLARK: No, no, yes, we did, a long time ago, because I saw it when I was reloading the website. And I don’t know what it was.
PETER: I want to just touch on this example again, it’s used quite widely. Just to kind of elucidate what it can mean to do something different with plot and maybe give you something to think about going forward and when you’re approaching your story and how to plot it and what your plot’s going to be. Anyway, we don’t need to go that deep into this, but the formalists separated plot and story pronunciation messed up here, but syuzhet and fabula.So syuzhet was plot and fabula was story. It was kind of two different elements, and Memento is a great example of that, and I’ve probably gone on about it before because it’s amazing. So I know we’re talking about films again here, but it just exemplifies this so perfectly. That you can have your story, say you have a thriller, or a murder investigation, or you’ve got a love story, or whatever it is for you, and you’ve got the chain of events and you know the order that that’s going to go through. So that’s the story, but the plot is then how you arrange those to tell them. And you obviously might want to do that in an unfamiliar way. You know, just to have the reader sit up and pay attention, just to take a new approach to the story and kind of jiggle it up in a way that creates that kind of hook throughout and you might have these kind of like flashback, you might skip backwards and forwards in time, anything that kind of gets in the reader’s path of just knowing what the story’s going to be and how it’s going to play out. And if you’re not [sentimental?], then go and watch that because the plot kind of runs inverse to the story. And it kind of goes backwards as he tries to piece together how he kind of got in this position. And it’s just a great example, and it can really get you thinking about what you can do with plot. And the distinction between that and a story, you know, if you were just going to give say outline a page before you’d actually tried to write, and see how this story was going to unfold. I guess, is plot the unfolding of the story?
CLARK: In those particular elements that it incorporates the pacing and incorporates the problems, those conflicts that are going to arise throughout it, and what order they’re going to come into it. Because I like how you mentioned with that with Memento, I think that’s a really good way to look at it because the plot is actually kind of running in reverse while the story structure is still running forward. Everything is still hitting at those right times because if it didn’t – it’s just like if you, you can’t change how long the first act should be. Right? You can’t have the first act taking up two-thirds of the book and still have the rest of those elements. That story structure needs to come in those right spots but how and what happens there can be different. If we were looking at Hero’s Journey, maybe the mentor doesn’t come along right at the beginning although we’re still going to move from Act I to Act II at that same time where we’re supposed to be and those other elements can be in different orders.
PETER: Yeah, and like we said before, yeah it’s – be careful when you’re messing with it too much in that way and just because the story must still make structural sense.
CLARK: Because again, thinking of it as language, right, that we have a certain particular order of things, that’s where that three-act structure is, that’s our order of how this should be and then the plot can also run those other elements into the actual story.
PETER: Yeah, I mean, you couldn’t just start talking backwards and everyone’s going to understand you. But you could be inventive with your language, you could take new approaches. I’d advise talking backwards would be impressive, though, if you can.
It would be very impressive.
I’d say we’d have you on the show to give us a go of that, but I wouldn’t be able to tell if you were faking it, so.
CLARK: As we’re running here towards the very end, I just want to kind of just go through this one last time really quick. So when I think of this, in looking at these, I would say the plot is those problems and conflicts that they’re pressing in on the protagonist in a familiar order prescribed by the genre, right, and that the plot also determines that pacing of the story. Where when we talk about story structure, we’re talking about how to deliver that in a way that will also make the most sense to the audience you’re trying to reach. And if we’re talking about the three-act structure, we’re talking about a Western audience, occidental storytelling.
PETER: Yeah, and you really want to, like you said, these outside events pressing in, you really want to hold that in your mind. It’s the events acting on your character and forcing them into action, making them embark on the story kind of without a choice. And a great way to make sure that this is happening, use tools like outline, write your ending first, choose your antagonist before you start writing the story, make sure that you’ve got these external pressures such as an impending event, and antagonists that are acting even from a distance and not yet closely on the character, but that are there and are going to drive the plot.
CLARK: Right, and then, if you’re looking, because of course we’re going to go into this in even more detail in the future shows, but if you’re at this moment right now and you need some help editing that plot, and you’re looking at things, one of the things you can ask yourself immediately is my plot dragging the entire story along? Does it give opportunities for other elements to act in accordance with that plot? Are you doing a Michael Bay?
PETER: Ooooooh! You know, we made it almost 33 minutes –
CLARK: Before Mike came in?
PETER: I think that’s a record. Only because, we got it out of our system on Saturday, but no one knows that
CLARK: No one does. Not just yet.
PETER: They were all probably pretty impressed that we hadn’t said it yet.
CLARK: Went that long.
PETER: Michael Bay. Michael Bay all the way.
CLARK: That’s a great T-Shirt. That’s a great T-Shirt.
PETER: I think it would be remiss before we finish just to touch it: And Something we’re going to do a show on, is subplots. I just want to say that. Just say subplots. Put it in your head. Subplots. And that’s it.
CLARK: That’s right.
PETER: We’re not ignoring them. We know they’re there.
CLARK: Yep. We’re going to hit those
PETER: I can hear them knocking on the walls of plot.
CLARK: Because the plot does what? It’s going to thicken.
PETER: The thick plottens. Memento. Hashtag “Memento.”
CLARK: Peter do you have any last thoughts here before we wrap things up.
PETER: Yeah, I just want a good plot’s plot. I’ve lost it.
CLARK: All right
PETER: I would like to say though, as an example of how you could kind of invert a plot would be showing the emotional breakdown that we had on Saturday in the opening scene, and then going back through the key events of the podcast.
CLARK: Yeah. How that happened.
PETER: And kind of brought us to our knees.
BOTH: And all the crying.
PETER: They’re the crucial plot points. Each tear was a plot point.
CLARK: It was. Well, thank you all for tuning in. Don’t forget to stop by TheBookEditorShow.com/Outline to learn more: How Ironclad Outlines will help you, and tune in next week as we expand on this season with plots and subplots. For my co-host, Peter Turley, thank you for listening, keep writing, keep learning, and build a better book.