Plot and Story

There’s a huge difference between plot and story. Plot is what happens and this is easy to visualize in a pitch such as “a lone cop must battle an army of terrorists in a skyscraper” (“Die Hard”) or “a man is falsely accused of being a spy and must survive and find out what’s going on” (“North by Northwest”). It’s easy and fun to come up with high-concept plots. The hard part is turning those high-concept plots into actual stories.

While plot describes what happens, story defines how and why it happens. The plot of “Jaws” is no different than almost any monster movie ever made. A monster appears and must be killed. That’s basically the entire plot. Put a shark in space and you get “Alien.” Change the shark to a serial killer and you get “Halloween.”

What makes a difference is how and why. “Why” defines the emotional journey the hero goes on and “How” defines the challenges this particular hero must face. You can see this difference in stories with identical plots such as “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid.”

Both “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” are about an underdog fighting for a sports championship. That’s the plot. The story is what makes each movie different and unique.

In “Rocky,” the story is about a down and out boxer who must train and prove himself in a boxing match against the heavyweight champion of the world who has never let an opponent last an entire fight.

In “The Karate Kid,” the story is about a kid who moves to a strange neighborhood and gets picked on by skilled martial artists. Now the only way he can get the bullies to leave him alone is if he challenges them in a martial arts championship.

The “how” in “Rocky” defines how a down and out boxer in Philadelphia must deal with his one chance to prove himself by training hard for the upcoming fight. The “why” is that Rocky falls in love with Adrian and wins her over. Now he wants to make her proud to be with him.

The “how” in “The Karate Kid” defines how a kid with no skills gradually learns karate from a skilled mentor. The “why” is that the hero wants the bullies to stop taunting him and the only way he can do this is by fighting them in a martial arts championship.

The “how” and “why” is what makes each story different even if the plots are identical. “Alien” is nothing more than “Jaws” in outer space so the plot is identical. What’s different is the “how” and “why” of each story.

In “Alien,” the “how” is about a mysterious alien that’s a perfect killer. The “why” is that a crew must fight for their lives in a freighter without any weapons.

In “Jaws” the “how” is about a man-eating great white shark. The “why” is that a sheriff must redeem himself for letting a kid die on the beach from the shark after he declared the beach safe so he must redeem himself by killing the shark.

Don’t try to create original plots for your screenplay because you never will succeed. Always try to create original characters, environments, and emotional goals because that’s where originality truly comes from in any story.

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