Story vs. Plot

Szechuan Mountain House June 4, 2019

My friend asked me to join a brainstorming session about the podcast his company wants to produce. Four of us met at a Sichuan restaurant in the East Village. During our session, I mentioned the concept many writers use to explain their artistic substance: “story” versus “plot.” It’s a useful concept that can be applied to many aesthetic subjects. Briefly:

A plot is a series of facts, like this happened, that happened, and then he did this, she did that, etc.. It would also include things like logical consistencies, motivations, and cause-and-effect. If a movie only has a plot, no story, it would be boring to watch it again because you already know what happens. In fact, it’s rather mysterious that many great movies are enjoyable even if we know exactly what happens. Why is that? That’s what “story” is.

The key difference between an educational video and a documentary film is that the former only has a plot. Once you understand what you are supposed to learn from it, it has no other use. A documentary film that has artistic substance, i.e. story, can be watched many times. Because it has many layers and dimensions, you get something new every time you watch it.

My friend pointed out that it’s similar to what Robert Pirsig called “Quality” in his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” It’s true. To be more specific, “story” is what he called “dynamic quality” which cannot be formally defined, whereas “plot” is equivalent to “static quality,” everything that can be defined with words and logic. “This is why the dynamic beauty of a piece of music can be recognized before a static analysis explaining why the music is beautiful can be constructed.” So, story and plot exist even in music.

In food, perhaps the closest expression is “soul” or “love.” Some restaurants serve food that is perfectly executed, clever with lots of twists and turns, yet unmemorable. You might be impressed while dining, but afterward, it doesn’t make you want to go back. It has plenty of plot but no story. Even many years of training and expensive ingredients cannot make up for the lack of soul in food, because before you can add it to your cooking, you have to have it in you.