Plot vs. Story

As I was working on the rough draft of my new screenplay, I found myself thinking about the difference between plot and story. We’re always told that we should eliminate anything that doesn’t advance the story, especially in a screenplay, which should be simple and direct. I recently took a 6-week intensive on film editing at The Edit Center (an excellent program), and they also stressed, if it doesn’t further the story, cut it out.

This is great advice, but you’ll get yourself in trouble if you confuse plot with story. Yes, everything should advance the story, but everything doesn’t need to advance the plot.

I can explain with an analogy and with a concrete example.

First the analogy. If you think of making a movie as bulding a house, you can think of the plot as the frame of the house. The frame, like the plot, needs to be well made and well-designed. The material needs to be durable. The rooms need to flow nicely into each other. You need to have good natural light from the windows. You shouldn’t put the kitchen on the third floor or the boiler room right inside the front door.

But all of that by itself doesn’t make a house you want to live in or visit over and over again. That takes the right color of paint, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing furniture, maybe some ornamental fixtures, or some stained glass on the windows, tasteful artwork on the walls, a nice carpet, a modern, clean and efficient kitchen, a luxurious bed, etc., etc. Those are the things that make a house a home. Those things are the story.

A concrete example:

We all know the film The Godfather (if not – and do I even need to say this? – spoiler alert). Think about the scene after Sonny has been killed and Don Corleone takes his bullet-ridden body to the undertaker and tells the undertaker. “Remember you owe me a favor? I want you to fix up Sonny’s body so his mother doesn’t see him like this.”

You don’t need that scene for the plot. You could perfectly follow the story if you just cut that scene out.

But it is such a wonderful scene for so many reason: it ties things back to the very opening of the movie, and it does it with irony, since that’s not the kind of favor we expected Don Corleone to ask; the opening scene seemed to portend something much more ominous. The scene also shows us how much Don Corleone loves his family and how he tries to protect the women in the family from the consequences of the business and so is echoed at the end when Michael lies to Kay for entirely different reasons.

It’s an amazing, rich scene that resonates throughout the movie. It’s one of the scenes that everyone remembers and talks about. But it’s not plot. It’s story.



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