“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.