The simple answer is both are critical to a satisfying read. You book nerds know what I’m talking about. The kind of read where ordinary life comes to a screeching halt. You skip meals, stop returning phone calls, and maybe miss a hair wash or two - just so you can keep flipping those pages or swipe that screen.
So, what exactly is the difference between plot and story? Although they are often used interchangeably, plot is the protagonist’s physical journey. Story is the protagonist’s emotional journey. What we’re really talking about is scenes and sequels. There are many ways you can look at this, but it really comes down to cause and effect. Scenes are the CAUSE of a protagonist’s actions and Sequels are the EFFECT of those actions. Put another way, scenes show and sequels tell.
Goal + Conflict = Disaster
Goal – What the character wants. Must be clearly definable
Conflict – Series of obstacles that keep the character from the goal
Disaster – Makes the character fail to get the goal
If a scene is truly effective, the protagonist will fail to reach his or her goal and be worse off than before. (Again, this drives the story forward keeps those pages flipping like Grandma’s pancakes). Side note: Time always unifies a scene!
Reaction + Dilemma = Decision
Reaction – Emotional follow through of the disaster
Dilemma – A situation with no good options
Decision – Character makes a choice and sets up a new goal
If a sequel is truly effective, it will turn the disaster into a new established goal (which won’t be met, of course, until perhaps the end of the story). It will establish the character’s motivation and force him or her to make a choice, which is the key to suspending disbelief. This is the time for any character soul-searching or backstory. Side note: Topic always unifies a sequel!
So to spring back to my original point, both scenes and sequels are what cause the reader to flip pages or swipe screens. They both drive the story. By using scenes and sequels effectively, you as the author control the pace of the story.
For instance, scenes read fast because they’re active keeping the reader engaged, whereas sequels slow down the pace of the story. They give the reader time to breathe and contemplate as they TELL what happens rather than SHOW the events. (The protagonist also takes five as they emote about the success or failure of their actions and think about options for Plan B, i.e. a new scene).
Writing should flow like a song. As with anything melodious, it requires harmony and balance. By interweaving plot and story or scenes and sequels, a writer honors both the pace of the story and the evolution of the character.
So the next time you’re sitting around with your own Algonquin round table writing pals, and the topic of plot versus story comes up, lay it on thick with the scenes and sequels argument. I don’t know about the sequel part but you’re sure to make a scene!