Questionable: What’s the Difference Between Plot and Structure?

Lakshmi asked:
“Are plot and story structure the same? Is plot mostly driven by goals? Are twists necessary? How do you define plot?”

So I’m going to reorder your questions from simple to complicated.

“How do you define plot?”

Plot is the events of the story.

“”Are plot and story structure the same?”

No. Story structure is the framework, plot is the content.

One linear cause and effect story structure (there are others) is

• TP 1: There’s an inciting event,

• Act One: which prompts the actions of the characters in the story,

• TP 2: and those actions cause a huge turning point

• Act Two: that propels the characters to do more action with greater intent

• TP 3: so that at the midpoint, they have changed so much they can’t go back to who they were at the beginning

• Act Three: and must try even harder in their actions

• TP 4: which brings them to a crisis point where it seems that everything is lost

• Act Four: and which forces them to throw themselves into a mad scramble to the climax,

• TP 5: where they win or lose.”

The plot you build from that structure can be about a kindergartner trying to convince her parents to get a kitten, or about two people who are all wrong for each other falling in love and building a relationship anyway, or about a lone wolf sniper saving the world.

There are a zillion kinds of story structure and they all do the same thing: give your story form. Without structure, you story is a boneless mess. The most common structure is linear cause and effect (see above for one variation of that), but you can do patterned, picaro, alternating time lines, damn near anything. One writing exercise I like is to do a twenty-six line story, the first line beginning with a word that starts with A, the second with a word that starts with B, etc. The teaching benefit there is in how easy the story is to write; it shows students that structure isn’t stifling, it actually helps creativity.

Is plot mostly driven by goals?

It depends on the kind of plotter you are, character-driven or plot-driven. I think plot should always start with character, but there are some who beg to differ. They are wrong.

So let’s start with plot-driven plots.

Somebody gets a great idea for a plot. There’s this woman and she agrees to be a fake date for a billionaire (because dating is so hard for billionaires) and she doesn’t like him and he’s kind of an asshole, but they’re both really hot so they have sex and the sex is great so they fall in love and have a baby.

Why did she agree to the fake date? Because that’s the plot.
Why do they have to be hot? Because that’s the plot.
Why do they have sex? Because that’s the plot.
Why do they fall in love? Because that’s the plot.
Why do they have a baby? Because they’re too stupid to use birth control. Because that’s the plot.

The events in a plot-driven story happen because that’s the plot.

The events in a character-driven story happen because the character do things because of who they are and what they want.

There’s this woman who is in a bar in a furious mood because her boyfriend just dumped her.
Because her boyfriend just dumped her, she decides to go pick up a very handsome guy .
Because she decided to pick up the handsome guy, she overhears her ex-boyfriend make a date that the handsome guy can get her into bed, but she doesn’t hear Handsome turn down the bet.
Because she overheard the bet, when the handsome guy comes to pick her up, she gives him a hard time .

[Full disclosure: I think plot-driven plots are killing modern romance. They’re the reason fake-date-billionaire stories all sound alike, even though that trope is pretty powerful, it’s the marriage of convenience with the added excitement of a lot of money, the rescue fantasy. But too often it’s the same thing over and over, just swapping out names and occupations. The key to doing a great trope story is to change the damn story, work against the plot. A nerdy girl picks up a guy in a casino and has a one night stand, and the next week she goes to her job to meet the new boss and the new boss is not the guy she slept with. If you do that kind of thing, you’re working with reader expectation which, as long as the reader isn’t invested in the expectation is a lot of fun. That is, in that story, the reader expectation is that the nerdy girl will meet up with one-night stand again so you have to fulfill that expectation. But the one-night-stand-will-be-her-new-boss is a horrible idea to begin with plus it’s a cliche now, so when she goes in to meet the guy and it’s not her one-night-stand, the switch-up is fun, the reader is tired of that trope anyway, and now the question is, How are they going to meet again? Where was I? Oh yeah, full disclosure, I am a character based writer and I hate plot-driven stories, so if you’re interested in plot-driven, you should go talk to somebody who likes writing them. Probably a guy.]

“Are twists necessary?”

Well, let’s define “twist.”

If just at the end, when the protagonist is about to be eaten by a tiger, she wakes up and realizes it was a dream, no.

If the reader is reading a first person mystery story, following the clues with an eagle eye, and at the end realizes that the first person narrator in that story has been the murderer all along, yes. Even though decades of mystery readers have frothed at the mouth about that, that twist was necessary because it was the point of the whole damn thing. The guy was a sociopath and fooled the reader the same way he fooled everybody but the detective (a small Belgian) because he was a sociopath. It’s brilliant, and it’s all contained in that twist.

The best twists are reversals of expectation that on a second look are inevitable. That is, they’re not just thrown in there so the plot has a twist, they’re an intrinsic part of the plot so that the reader doesn’t say, “Where the hell did that come from?” she says, “OH MY GOD OF COURSE.” Those kind of twists are difficult but pay off big. Think The Sixth Sense.

The best twists are also turning points that are integral to the story, they’re not just there for shock value, they actually move the plot. Turning points are events in the story that turn the story into something new. Or if you prefer, twist it into something new. It’s not just that something happens, it’s that something that is inevitable given the previous events of the plot but still unexpected happens to the protagonist in such a way that it gives her and the reader an entirely new viewpoint on the story. She thought it was this but now it’s THIS.

Another name for twist is “reversal,” an event that reverses previous expectations. The reader thinks the new boss will be the love interest but he’s a stranger, the viewer thinks the superhero team will defeat the bad guy but he wins and wipes out half the world, that kind of thing. Turning points that are reversals are very powerful because they upend expectation, forcing the reader to reconsider the story.

Look, you ask me about craft, you’re gonna get a book-length post back. I’m a wonk. Thanks for reading.

34 thoughts on “Questionable: What’s the Difference Between Plot and Structure?

  1. Wow! That is great and explains why certain books just leave me saying “Meh”. I am going to print this off, as I am in a spot in my book where I need to get down to the basics and move along. I love that you can just say “They are wrong.” This is why your books are so moving and gripping, and other books are boring, even while they are full of action and drama. This is why I feel like I’ve been part of a family, and don’t want to let that go, with your books, and some other author’s books. Thank you for that essay!

  2. Wow this is like being in a master class on structure and plot. All I can say feebly, to quote Adam Sander is: “I made a hat with a lobster and a stick.”

  3. Thank you, Jenny. This is why I can’t outline properly: I always outlined plot steps, not character development or the real movement of whatever I’m arguing. Or something like that.

    I did a lousy job of teaching kids to outline as well.

    Yet I take notes in outline form. I “hear” the organization that I can’t do myself in preparation.

    1. The trick is either to do them both (outline the plot steps but also write down how it affects the character development) or at least have a plan as to why the plot steps are necessary for the growth of the character.

    2. I outline after the discovery draft.
      First I find out what my characters do. Then I structure it.
      I don’t recommend this because it takes FOREVER, but it’s the only way I can do it.

      Oh, and I outline in acts and turning points. Somewhere on here I did a think on how to write a synopsis using turning points . . .
      Yep, here it is:

      How to Write a Synopsis and Rewrite a Plot

      There’s a lot of stuff on this blog. Should get that organized.

      1. Your class on turning points at some long-ago RWA conference in NYC literally changed my life. (At the very least, it improved my writing to the point where I eventually got an agent and sold some fiction books.)

        1. I got that from Michael Hauge, and it changed my life, too. That was between Manhunting and Getting Rid of Bradley, way back at the beginning.

    3. When I’m ghostwriting, I normally get a plot driven outline, and my job is to turn it into a character driven outline by figuring out scenarios/ characters/ motives that can make the plot make sense. So in our Billionaire Fake Dating Surprise Pregnancy scenario, I’d do the following:

      Why did she agree to the fake date? –> Because the fake date will benefit her (she’s an actress being considered for a starring role in something, and her agent says it’s up against her and someone who’s got a bigger social media presence. she knows dating someone semi-famous will get her twitter following up, and hopefully help her get the damn role already)
      Why do they have to be hot? (Ok, this one’s mostly the plot, but you can still build around it.) –> She’s in an industry where it’s easier to be successful if you’re beautiful, so she’s put a lot of energy into her looks. His best friend is a men’s fashion designer, and he’s vain enough to listen.
      Why do they have sex? –> because we’ve spent the past five scenes building emotional chemistry by letting them see behind the other’s public facades and realize they actually like each other + building physical chemistry by having them fake physical affection for onlookers + we add a tipping point that pushes them to act — maybe one of them finds out the other said yes to a secret date with someone “real”, prompting the other to realize their true emotions and make a move
      Why do they fall in love? –> because we’ve removed the safety of the “this is fake” label via the sex scene. now when we put them in pressure situations, they can’t pretend their emotions aren’t real, and it’s all snowballing now
      Why do they have a baby? –> Add external plot tensions that give her/him a reason to be tired, not being their usual cautious selves. Pair with birth control errors that actually do happen in real life, albeit rarely — because she didn’t know her birth control had been recalled for a manufacturing error. because they were traveling and she skipped a day by accident. because he used an expired condom by accident and it broke. because she has PCOS and a doctor told her it’s going to be really hard for her to get pregnant, so she’s not as careful with birth control

      Obviously it’s not as good as a purely character driven plot. But it does get you good at brainstorming different possibilities when you have a plot-based idea, and want to try out different scenarios to see how you can make the most of it. Also, when it’s your story, if one plot element is turning out to be too big a stretch (no more billionaires! a hot guy who’s payed off his student loans is implausible enough!) you can ditch it as you find out more about your characters.

      In general I’m an outline-er, but I think of outlines as more of a first draft. Anything and everything can be changed if I get a better idea when I’m writing.

      1. Actually, what you’ve done is turn it into a mostly character driven plot. The characters have good reasons for doing what they do, and their character-driven actions shape the plot. Except for the baby thing, that’s always annoying.

        1. Yeah, it is hard to express the depth to which I hate the accidental-pregnancy trope.

  4. Omg!!! That really cleared it up.

    The structure is essentially the skeleton.

    Plot driven plot made me think of Mills & boon novels. Even the blurbs are 90% the same. You are never surprised. The power dynamics are messed up, why cant we see two strong, interesting people fall in love?
    Plus the only villain you get is the other woman…Why?

    But some newer writers are trying to change this and that’s refreshing.

    Character driven plot is the reason why. The possibilities are endless.

    Jayne Ann Krentz is amazing at marriage of convenience. Most of her books have it and they are all fun.

    Is plot driven plot the reason why books by men read/sound different?

    What would you change in Mills & boon novels?

    Is this the return of Questionable? Can we discuss the writing seen in tv shows?

    Thank you for explaining this at length 🙂

    1. Is plot driven plot the reason why books by men read/sound different?

      That’s mostly because they’re men and their life experiences and assumptions are very different from women’s. Not better or worse, just different. But there is a theory (I was going to do a dissertation on it) that men naturally write in linear structure and women naturally write in patterned. I can do pages on that.

      What would you change in Mills & boon novels?

      I’ve never read a Mills & Boon. I used to write for Harlequin, but they pretty much let me do anything I wanted as long as it was funny and there was a happy ending.

      Is this the return of Questionable? Can we discuss the writing seen in tv shows?

      Questionable’s are always here. It’s just that nobody asks me anything, probably because they don’t want to get buried in a ton of words. What do you want to know about TV shows. Warning: I know zilch about writing for TV. I have done a lot of criticism of TV shows on this blog, but I do not know TV structure or writing for film at all.

      1. Did you ever watch Supernatural? Could we have a criticism for it? I love the one you had for Arrow.
        Felicity is great, Moira is incredible. I hope Iris falls in the burning river….(that was the Flash.)

        1. I think HQ was based on the M&B model. Not sure.
          Harlequin began in 1949. I think M&B goes back before that.

    1. This comment has been moved to the next post. Go over there and read it now.

  5. Whilst I don’t read M&B anymore, I’ll always defend the genre. It annoys me that M&B is still called a guilt pleasure – books to hide in the cupboard and not display on a bookshelf. However, from the Mills And Boon website, if you want to submit for the Modern Romance series:

    The Modern series has classic themes, but we’re looking for innovative takes. What would you say if a billionaire demanded you agree to a marriage of convenience? Does a secret baby have to mean a shot-gun wedding? Our heroes are 100% alpha but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. The Mediterranean, Latin America, South East Asia, Africa…wherever he’s from, it’s certain that he turns the heads of every woman he passes! We love to see characters from a diverse range of backgrounds, cultures and experiences – it’s all part of the international flavour of our books!

    This is why the billionaire trope continuous and won’t die. We modern women dream about marrying billionaires/millionaires so when it all goes wrong we can be called gold diggers in the divorce papers. Whilst men are only really attractive if they have a yacht and a private plane. I think I’ve mentioned on Argh a million times that I hate this plot device/story line. Whilst the publishing industry still views Romance through a Cinderella/Snow White globe, I don’t know how it will change. Yes, there are authors who know how to circumvent these guidelines, but I’d say the majority just give the publishing industry what it wants to ensure being published and it’s obviously (depressively for 2022) selling. But this Romance reader wishes they would drop the classic themes or revise what classic themes actually means.

    I’m definitely a reader of character first and then plot. I’m currently reading The Chain by Adrian McKinty. It’s about what a mother will do to protect her child. Rachel’s daughter has been kidnapped and the only way to free Kylie is to pay a ransom and for Rachel to kidnap another child whose parents will then have to do the same thing to get their child back. It’s how the character’s react and deal with the moral dilemma of putting another’s child life at risk to save their own that keeps you turning the page.

    1. What we need is a billionaire heroine and the garage mechanic who just lost his job, has family problems, and loves her.

  6. Thanks, Jenny, you’re so brilliant and funny! Do you think a reverse Beauty and the Beast would ever work? I think it’s an interesting idea but who would want a boyfriend prettier than her?

    1. Every heroine in Romance Land. It’s a trope, the nerdy girl and the hottest guy in school/work/the neighborhood. In the movies, Adam Sandler gets Jennifer Aniston. In romance novels, Jenny Slate gets Chris Evans. (Except Jenny Slate is beautiful and I think she dumped Chris Evans in real life.)

      1. Speaking of Jenny Slate, her recent romcom I Want You Back on Amazon Prime is delightful.

        (I have one complaint, and it’s a spoiler, but I love everything else about it)

  7. The question of plotting and twists is something that comes up a lot in the realm of fanfiction, because as a writer you’re getting feedback and comments and speculation on each chapter about where things are going, and the question is, do you alter your plans for the overall story because someone has correctly predicted the ‘twist’ that you had coming up (some writers do change course), just to surprise your readers, or do you hold to what you originally intended?

    1. That’s a really complex question, so it’s Questionable for tomorrow now. Thank you.

Comments are closed.