I’ll do my best to explain how I view the two and how I approach both as a writer (watch it will be simpler than I expect it to be).
For myself, I view plot as the overall arc of the narrative being told, and the story is the individual journey of each character. Yep, that’s simple.
We can easily think of a series of stories, told from the perspectives of characters–major and minor–forming a greater plot. The challenge is always balancing the rises and falls of each smaller story and how it affects the plot. Characters should have victories and failures (otherwise we fall into the “perfect hero” cliché).
The best thing to develop as a writer is the ability to plan enough of the story(ies) to know the ending but also give enough leeway so as not to strangle the possibility of shifts to the stories or plot itself. These can often lead to surprises that otherwise could not be planned out. Sometimes, these surprises are amazing and other times a bit disappointing. Early on in my writing, I noticed that I could start the story well but without a clear plot, I did not know where to go with the characters.
It’s important not to view the characters within the narrative as plot devices themselves. Just because their stories make up the plot does not mean they are solely in the service of serving the plot. Yes, their decisions should add context and even provide obstacles along the way but to have characters conveniently act so the plot comes together as it needs to by the conclusion is a bit a cheat and disservice to the reader. (Hint: twists, turns, and surprises keep the reader engaged and always questioning what could be coming next.)
I believe it’s a slight slap to the readers if they are able to figure out how the plot and/or stories will conclude. Sometimes, this is inevitable. How many actually thought the Lord of the Rings would not end with the one ring being destroyed? The genius of the plot is how Frodo and Gollum’s stories take turns that affect them as characters. What are the consequences of their handling of the one ring? This is story whereas the plot of the one ring being destroyed to destroy absolute evil can only be done by the journey of the characters involved in the common goal.
As I write and create complex characters in worlds of equal complexity, I often have to remind myself that the plot is “x” but the variables of characters (a, b, and c) make up the equation (I’m crap at “advanced” math so if I did that wrong…well, it just goes to show why I got A’s in English and Literature and C’s in algebra and all the other evil math classes I had to take).
Call to Action: Try looking at your favorite books or movies. Can you spot where stories and plots are different? Are there bad examples and good examples? Share your findings!
Also, sign up for the newsletter if you haven’t yet! The Shoals to the Hallowed short story has a title: The Queen’s Gamble. Really excited to share the story with everyone.