Plot vs. Story

Before you write your screenplay, ask yourself what is your plot and what is your story. If you don’t know the difference between these two, you may wind up writing a less than effective screenplay.

The plot is simply what happens. The story is who it happens to. There’s a big difference.

Take any sequel and you can see that they have the same plot, but sequels often feel less satisfying than the original. “Jaws” was a great movie where the plot was about someone trying to defeat a shark.

“Jaws 2” was less satisfying, but the plot was basically the same where the hero is trying to defeat a shark. “Jaws 3-D” was even worse, where the film centered mostly around the hero trying to defeat the shark. “Jaws 4” is the worst with the hero trying to defeat a shark.

What’s the difference between all four movies if they have the same plot? The difference is the story, and that makes all the difference in the world.

In the original “Jaws,” the hero is the sheriff who tries to redeem himself after a boy gets eaten on the beach by the shark. The story is less about defeating the shark and more about the hero trying to achieve an emotional goal, killing the animal that killed the little boy.

In “Jaws 4,” the hero has no emotional goal other than to get away from a shark that’s following her from New York to the Bahamas and targeting her family. Instead of a story, “Jaws 4” focuses solely on plot. Without the emotional backbone of a story, the plot makes no sense.

For your own writing, look at your plot (what’s happening) and your story (who it’s happening to). You could have the best plot int he world and a lousy story, and you’ll wind up with a lousy screenplay. Likewise, you could have the worst plot int he world and the best story, and wind up with a boring screenplay.

Your goal is to create an interesting plot and with a compelling story about characters we can care about. If you just focus on plot, then your characters will just behave in ways that further advance the plot, like having a shark travel from New York to the Bahamas just to target one woman as in “Jaws 4.”

Given a choice, story (who the plot affects) is probably more important than plot (what happens). If we like the hero and empathize with him or her, we’ll forgive a weak plot, but a weak story with a strong plot will just appear as mindless action that means nothing, obscuring whatever interesting plot twists we may see.

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