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Monday, October 19, 2020

Plot vs. Structure: The Difference Explained

Often in the writing world, we lump together plot and structure (#guilty), which makes sense, because they're so intertwined. They're sort of like two peas in a pod. But they are actually two different things, which can be difficult to discern at first when you are learning the craft. 

So what is the difference? And why does it matter?

Self, I'm glad you asked that 😉 because that's what I'm going to talk about today.

And I'll be using two of my favorite foods, Mexican food and sandwiches 😋 🤤, to illustrate.

Hopefully you aren't on a diet that restricts those things, if so . . . 😅

At first I was going to refer to Cafe Rio 😍 as an example, but since that is more of a regional thing (proud to say the original started in my hometown ✌️), I decided to go with Chipotle, which is at least across the U.S. . . . I think. 

Anyway, plot vs. structure, Chipotle food. Let's do this.

When you go to Chipotle, you mostly have four options: burrito, taco, salad, or what they call, a burrito bowl (basically the burrito without the tortilla). 

But what some of my family members occasionally laugh about is that it's all the same food. You're just picking how you want to deliver that food to your mouth.

Meaning, whether you get a salad, burrito, taco, or a bowl, you have the same food options. 

I could choose chicken and black beans and then choose whether I want it in a salad, burrito, taco, or bowl. What goes in each is all the same. 

This is a good example of taking a plot and structuring it.

Plot = the actual content of the story. Plot is the events, usually brought on by cause and effect, that make up the narrative. It's what happens. It's the chicken, beans, rice, and lettuce (and salsa and sour cream and . . . you get the idea).

Structure = how it is delivered to the audience. Structure is which content goes where and in what order. If I'm getting a salad, the lettuce is put in the bowl first. If I'm getting a burrito bowl, the meat and beans and rice are put in first. 

In most stories, plot and structure will fit together in rather straightforward ways. For example, the majority of stories are told in a linear timeline. 

But not all stories. 

Some stories take place in multiple timelines, some jump all over in time (The Prestige & The Time Traveler's Wife), and some even play with the passage and delivery of time to the audience (Arrival). 

In this sense, the plot is structured in a way that is not the linear order. The delivery to the audience is different than the basic cause and effect the characters are experiencing.

But September! (you lament.) What about all those story structures we've been learning about?

Well, yes, don't worry, we are going to touch on those too. It's sort of like learning about light. You can view it as a wavelength, or you can view it as a particle. They are both correct. (And it's helpful to have both.)

But the Mexican food point is, the plot is the ingredients and the structure is the delivery method. You can fit the ingredients into a structure.

K, I'll come back to that in a second. Let's talk about sandwiches.

How do we define a sandwich? Okay, well, let's not get crazy, because if we get out into the weeds, it can actually be difficult to define (I do often prefer open-faced sandwiches for one), but for the sake of this post, let's just say it's two sides of something (usually bread), and a middle or filling. 


So you can have a ham sandwich, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a tuna sandwich, a panini, an ice cream sandwich, maybe an oreo, and heck, why not include those little peanut butter and honey cracker sandwiches I made as a kid?

For the point of this discussion, those are all sandwiches. 

But they can each have very different ingredients. A ham sandwich vs. an ice cream sandwich? Totally different! 

This is sort of like taking a structure and fitting in a plot. (Similar, yet reverse of the previous example.)

You can make any sandwich you want. But it needs to have two sides and a filling to be a sandwich. 

Okay, it's important to not get too deep into this figuratively, because these metaphors are imperfect, and I don't want us to confuse ourselves. 

The main point is, on the one hand, you can have a plot and structure it differently. 

And on the other hand, you can have a structure that you fill in with a plot. 

In either case, it's important to understand structure, because that's how the audience is going to have the plot delivered to them in a satisfying way. 

I mean, you wouldn't want to make a peanut butter sandwich for someone with the peanut butter on the outside of the bread, would you? (Well, okay, maybe if it was your enemy 😈)

But let's look at some Chipotle examples first (wavelength vs. particle, remember?). 

As I've been studying structure over the last year or two, one thing that has been interesting to me to consider is that while The Hunger Games book and The Hunger Games movie have essentially identical plots, they are actually structured differently. 

Sure, some content is obviously different, like we get some scenes in the movie that we couldn't have in a first person POV, and the book is more graphic and Katniss a bit less of a hero in it. 

But the events are by and large the same. And they are even both linear. They have the same plot.

Nonetheless the same events are structured slightly differently. 

The biggest, most obvious example of this is the midpoint (which happens right in the middle of a story). In the book, the midpoint is when the Careers chase Katniss up a tree, she drops the wasp nest on them, and Peeta saves her (she shifts from responding --> action).

But because film is different than books, filmmakers had to shift the story a bit (which I'll talk about in a sec), which would have made that part in the story come too late as a midpoint. So instead, they structured the cornucopia blood bath as the midpoint of the story. Prior to that point, Katniss is responding and preparing for the Games, but after that point, she's actually active in the Games.

Same ingredients. Different delivery methods. 

The book puts the emphasis on Katniss going active in a more personal sense.

The film puts the emphasis on Katniss going active in a more external sense.

And if you think about it, it's not too surprising, because books better explore the internal while film better explores the external. 

But anyway! There are other shifts as well. 

For example, in the book the inciting incident actually occurs about 5% into the story, while in the film, it hits later (though the events are the same).

Part of this is simply adjusting to film. In the book, Katniss can relay a lot about the world to the audience in shorter space than the film can. (On the other hand, the book can be longer than a film.)

I could go into a bigger, longer explanation of all this (and am tempted to), but I want to try to keep these concepts simple, the point being that while the events are largely the same, the film had to structure the plot slightly differently. 

Which can work, because as I've explained before--structural components are relative. (They have to be, because structure isn't plot.) For example, the inciting incident shifts the protagonist into a new direction--"new" compared to what came before

Okay, but let's not get too complex! I'm sure I'm losing some people. Stick with me!

Let's look at another example that may be more obvious. Splitting one book into two films.

If you watch Mockingjay, Part 1, it more or less has the same plot as the first part of the Mockingjay book. 

However, filmmakers still had to structure it as a complete film.

Remember, plot and structure are different.

Same ingredients.

Different delivery methods. 

Some of the ways the filmmakers did this, is . . .

- They made the missile attack the climactic moment of the middle (Act II)

- They made the scene in the bunker and the following scene when Katniss is on camera the subsequent lull, or "All is Lost" moment. (Katniss realizes that Snow is just going to keep toying with her as long as he has Peeta.)

- They made retrieving Peeta and the other tributes the climax of the story.

Just to name a few. (In comparison, retrieving Peeta is structured more or less as the midpoint of the book, meaning they retrieve him, he's been hijacked, which pushes Katniss to go to District 2 and become more obsessive with killing President Snow. Aka, she becomes more proactive.).  

 They took the same ingredients and structured them into a different delivery.

My next question to you is, is Mockingjay, Part 1 as satisfying as the prior films?

No, because it's only half the plot, pushed into a complete structure.

This isn't to say that it's bad by any means. I mean, if you are going to split a story in half, I feel like they did the best that could be done, probably.

But it's not as satisfying on its own. 

So while structure is relative, at the same time, some "ingredients" work better in certain places than other ingredients. 

I mean, was retrieving Peeta really as powerful as any of the other films' climaxes? No, because other than Katniss trying to pacify Snow through a phone call, the heroes are met with no resistance.

When structuring a story, some content works better at parts than other content. 

The ingredients in a sandwich can make all the difference. I mean, even a cheddar cheese sandwich is different than a blue cheese sandwich. What kind of experience do you want to create? 

Maybe consider what your audience ordered. If they wanted something sweet and indulgent, maybe give them the ice cream sandwich and not the tuna one.

Ingredients matter and make a difference.

This is a point where some writers get confused once they fully grasp structure. They may learn the Hero's Journey structure and think, This is the answer to all my problems! Everything I write now will be amazing!!

While it's true a solid structure can be 💯 amazing and do wonders (seriously). It's not everything. Which is why sometimes it can be frustrating when a writer understands a structure, but doesn't nail the plot.

Just as structure changes the experience of Mexican food, ingredients change the experience of sandwiches. 

If structure is relative, what ingredients do you use where?  

What ingredients do you use, period?

Obviously it's helpful to take into consideration who the audience is (like I mentioned)--is it just you? Your friends? Readers on Amazon? 

It's helpful to consider the genre too. Is this romance? Horror? Mystery? Fantasy? 

What kind of conventions and scenes are expected or obligatory? What tropes are common in the genre? How will you address or twist those things?

And just as you can take your plot, and structure it for a better experience, you can also take structure and use it to better your plot. (Remember: wavelengths vs. particles) 

After all, few people want the peanut butter on the outside of their peanut butter sandwich. There is a structure the audience is expecting the ingredients to follow, even if they aren't aware they have those expectations. 

We decided for a sandwich to be a sandwich, it needed to have two sides of something and a middle or filling.

We probably have some idea on the ingredients we are going to use based on the sort of story we want to tell. 

Let's make this a deli sandwich (more options). (Deli = genre)

I know I want to start my sandwich with wheat bread. What's next? Meat, lettuce, mayo, then pickles and tomatoes? Maybe that's not necessarily a "wrong" order, but most of the time, people are expecting mayo to come first. We grab the bread, spread the mayo on. From there, usually the pickles and tomatoes go next.

I know some people are going to disagree with me on that order--but I mean, it's a metaphor, and you get the point I'm trying to illustrate, right? I hope?

We might not necessarily know what condiment we want to use once we pull out our bread, but we know that it's the next step. So we ask, do I want mayo? Mustard? Ketchup? Miracle whip? Ranch? Hot sauce? BBQ? Peanut butter? Honey?

Well, as you might notice--some of those condiments don't typically go well with making a deli sandwich. 

Some ingredients work better than other ingredients. 

And I guess you could try to skip the condiment altogether, but if you make a deli sandwich without any condiment, it's usually dry--not a satisfying experience. 

So as you work with a structure in mind, it helps feed into the plot--the events that take place and move the story forward (to the next ingredient). 

Say you know your inciting incident. If you are familiar with structure, you'll also know what sorts of things need to take place right after it. Typically, this is where the protagonist really reacts. When you know that structure, you'll be able to pause and think, Which reaction do I want to plug into this spot? Which reaction is best for the story I want to tell?

Makes sense? Or clear as mud? 

🤦‍♀️ Structure is so difficult to grasp and "see" when you are learning, so if you don't understand everything in here yet, that's fine. Doesn't hurt to be introduced to some of the concepts though (as long as you don't let frustration take root). Like a lot of people, one day it will start to click. 

At least take away these points. 

Plot and structure are like Mexican food: You can take the same ingredients(plot) and structure them differently.

But plot and structure are also like sandwiches: You can fit whatever ingredients(plot) to make up the structure.

Some ingredients are more satisfying than others. And some ingredients are more satisfying in certain places than others.

And that's the simplest takeaway. 

Anyone want a burrito? 🌯


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