July 29, 2014

Martin Scorsese Breaks Down the Difference Between Story & Plot

MartyWhat is story? What is plot? What is the sound of one hand clapping? Who knows? While story and plot might seem, at first, to be synonymous, in fact they are two different things entirely, and if you're a beginning screenwriter or filmmaker, it can be tough to sift through all of the contradictory information that's out there in the ten billion screenwriting books to figure out which is which and why. It's a tricky question, but never fear, because that cinephile unrivaled, Martin Scorsese, is here to straighten matters out. In this video, he breaks down the difference, and we give some helpful (hopefully) background info to help you create your next masterpiece.

In this clip from an episode of the show Dinner for Five, Scorsese holds forth on why he's more a fan of story than plot, and what he thinks the differences are:  "The films that I constantly revisited or saw repeatedly held up longer for me over the years not because of plot but because of character, and a very different approach to story."

So, Scorsese's definition is very much cinematic, but this is hardly surprising, given that he is a director and also one of the preeminent visual stylists in modern American cinema. Therefore, he is more impressed by the mood, style, camera moves, and general "feelings of threat," as he puts it, in Hitchcock's film. And, though these might be difficult elements to capture on the page, it's not an impossible task, as this post from The Script Lab, about writing visually, explains. Hitchcock, it should be noted, was a man who remarked to Francois Truffaut, in their famous series of conversations, that:

I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion.

Now, a young tyro at his or her typewriter might be in despair at all this reverence for every element of cinema except screenwriting. Don't go to law school yet, though; screenwriters have always had it relatively rough in the great chain of cinematic being, from the days when Jack Warner called his writers "Schmucks with Underwoods," Underwood being a brand of typewriter, and schmuck being a rather dirty Yiddish word that you probably shouldn't repeat in mixed company.

In that linked article, Paul Schrader, the sometimes dour ex-Calvinist who wrote the screenplay for Scorsese's Taxi Driver and co-wrote Raging Bull, opines, “A screenwriter is not really a writer; his words do not appear on the screen. What he does is to draft out blueprints that are executed by a team.” That's a little extreme, but the truth is, a screenwriter is creating a work that will be turned into something else.

But we still haven't arrived at a workable definition of story v. plot. And while it might seem antithetical to our purposes to look to fiction, or, more specifically, a guide to fiction, in Remains of the Day author E.M. Forster's book on narrative craft, Aspects of the Novel, he famously delineated the difference between story and plot as follows: a plot, according to Forster, is a, "narrative of events, with the emphasis on causality." He illustrated the difference famously: "The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot."

Forster's definition of story doesn't hold up for film, of course, though it helps us approach a definition, if only by point of comparison. Perhaps, in film, a plot could be said to be the sequence of (causally related) events that make up the narrative. The plot it what happens. The story in a movie, on the other hand, is why it happens, and how. If you look to any film, you can see this principle at work. For instance, to cite a Scorsese work, while the plot of Taxi Driver might be summed up as, "Travis, an unstable and paranoid Vietnam vet, takes a job as a taxi driver, unsuccessfully tries to meet women, attempts to assassinate a presidential candidate, and finally fixates on saving a teenaged prostitute, killing her pimp and ironically becoming a kind of hero in the process,"  the story might be, "Travis, an alienated young man, looks for and fails to find human connection in the urban jungle, where he finally explodes in a burst of violence."

In one, we have the events of the film, laid out, one by one: Travis becomes a taxi driver, which leads to his meeting Cybill Shepherd's character; when she rebuffs him, he becomes more unhinged, thinks of assassinating a candidate for president who was a passenger in his cab; he then becomes fixated on saving Iris, the young prostitute, killing her pimp and becoming a hero. In the other, we have what is closer to a so-called logline, which is defined quite aptly in this post  at Gideon's Screenwriting Tips as:

The dramatic story of a screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible. It presents the major throughline of the dramatic narrative without character intricacies and sub-plots.  It is the story boiled down to its base. A good logline is one sentence. More complicated screenplays may need a two sentence logline.

Okay, so, you are saying to yourself, what does this have to with me? Well, I'd say the takeaway is that, while a (narrative) film's plot is composed of events that happen, one after the other after the other, leading to a climax, its story is the essence, the lighthouse, if you will, that a writer and filmmaker can use to guide their ship safely through the choppy waters (I'm going to run with this nautical metaphor) of cause and effect.

By knowing the story, the writer will know how to write the film on a granular level, not just the events, but the mood, the tone, and in the macro sense, the theme. They're both equally important, and like peanut butter and jelly, or love and marriage, you can't have one without the other.

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37 Comments

I think this:

“The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.”

and this:

"A plot is the sequence of events, related, that make up the narrative. The plot it what happens. The story, on the other hand, is why it happens, and how."

..are complete opposites. No?

July 29, 2014

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Antonis Antoniadis

I think your first statement is backwards.

July 29, 2014

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I was incorrect. You quoted properly. However I disagree. I think plot is what happens. Story is the meaning or purpose we find in it.

I know the events of my life. To me that's the plot. But is my life the story of a hero troubled by evil? A fool who thinks he's grander than he is? A man who is tired of fighting? A man grateful for the many blessings in his life, when he is wise enough to see them? "a poor player /That struts and frets his hour upon the stage /And then is heard no more?" Is it "a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury /Signifying nothing?" That is story.

Which is think is what Scorsese is getting at. It's the characters and perspective on what happens that makes something memorable and revisit-able, not simply what happens.

July 29, 2014

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i think thats what antonis was trying to say, I noticed it aswell.

July 30, 2014

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Eli

a good read here: http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/2012/10/what-33-years-of-teaching-t...

“Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’ That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel.

July 31, 2014

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I noticed the exact same thing. They're definitely opposites. Debating the semantic differences between "story" and "plot" seems like a pretty pointless exercise to begin with.

July 29, 2014

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David West

"Like love and marriage", Story and Plot are interlinked and not complete opposites. Antonis, i guess you did not read the article till the end. I guess, you wrote and then i replied is a 'plot' and that we communicated is a 'story' Or someone correct me if i am wrong.

July 29, 2014

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Gul Ramani

I had the same thought, but then I remembered what I learnt in Literary Studies. Maybe just citing that king and queen example doesn't do Forster's ideas justice. So I'd try to sum it up in these oppositions:

Story - Plot
Histoire - Discours
What it is about - How it is presented
Content - Way of telling the content
Events, actions (unordered) - chosen order of events

As I write, I would say the story is the more emotional side, more intuitive, the theme, what it's all about and therefore the reason I want to tell it. The story is there first. Now the plot is the more technical side, more about skill, thinking about how I should tell it, when to release which information, how to make the events coherent. The purpose of the plot is to convey my idea of the story to the reader / viewer. The story is what I make up (or should I say what comes to me? Certainly it's something that matters to me) - the plot helps make it accessible to others (it has worked if the story now matters to them as well).

If I try to apply that to the king and queen example, from a writer's perspective I would require that the idea "The king died. Then the queen died" somehow touched me and made me want to tell the story. To do so, I look for coherence, connections, causality, and construct a plot - in this very basic case by simply adding "because of grief". This gets interesting when the events are not so easily relatable, or we can relate them in an unexpected way (the murderer isn't the gardener).

I don't know if this makes sense to anybody else, but thinking about it certainly reminded me how exciting it is to write! Paul Auster once said, "Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them". I would say, stories happen to everybody all the time, but only those who have a need to tell stories will recognize them.

July 29, 2014

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Mirjam

yes , i agree with you , plot could be much much bigger than the story , to help us ( the one who is writing ) to know our characters better . to know about why and how about the events , but it doesn't have to be shown to the audience , the story is gonna be shown ...
for example , in my first short film my kid had a huge problem , but he has no problem with it , i never said that in the final script , it helped me to know how my kid is gonna react after having a problem or any obstacles in his way .
Pejman

July 29, 2014

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pejman esmaily

You're right, the article contradicts itself. It's a typo.

July 29, 2014

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Jason

I've always defined Story as "the means by which character change occurs." For me, a character must come to a realization of his or her flaws... and then CHOOSE to change in order for me to consider it Story. Otherwise it's just "stuff happening," aka Plot. If you want a good example of character change, watch pretty much any Pixar film. They're masters of it.

Strangely enough, I've never really felt connected to any of Scorsese's characters or films.

July 29, 2014

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von

Von -- By your definition of story, P.G. Wodehouse didn't write stories. Which, I think, a lot of people would disagree with.
-- Fritz.

August 11, 2014

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I think the article makes perfect sense. It's always a debatable subject though but ultimately the most important factors that were actually discussed here lean towards what a filmmaker should be concerned about.

I think too often they find the plot first because the sequence of events will have some form of hook to it, a twist or some shock factor to keep the audience engaged. As a visual medium though, the atmosphere created by sounds and image are paramount, not the plot. I'd prefer my audience to be part of a world I'd created, not simply waiting to see what happens next.

The characters in the film must inhabit a believable world before any plot is really considered. By knowing 100% who your characters are, you can throw any event in because you will know exactly how they would react to it.

I could watch Travis (Taxi Driver) in another film simply going about his day and it would be more interesting than a film that puts its twists and turns/shock factors before character.

As a final note, plot focused films have a tendency of having unbelievable characters with no personal story to them. And as Abbas Kiarostami says "Good cinema is what we can believe and bad cinema is what we can't believe".

July 29, 2014

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I can do even an easier summary plot is basically any Michael bay movie , not saying that his movies do not have potential good stories but when he touches them they become only plots filled with special effects and explosions vs a movie with a great directed story such as inception by Nolan

July 29, 2014

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cjay

To me, the "Taxi Driver" has a flimsy plot with a very loosely connected chain of events (some are connected better than others). But, as a setting, a character study and a film, it's brilliant. In that sense, Scorsese is right. Once you watch the film, you know the plot and the only reason to watch it again is for reasons unrelated to it.
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Which is why I love the Marx Brothers films. Plot? What plot?

July 29, 2014

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DLD

HI GUYS,

I'm the guy what wrote this here thing, I'd like to clear up the evident misunderstanding. I'm not logged in as myself because I'm not home and I don't have my password so you don't see my handsome face. Regardless...

To all re: Forster. Typo left over from earlier draft. My bad. I just realized the error.

I beseech, thee, o reader.

July 29, 2014

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Justin

Oh you can see my face. Weird.

Regardless. A thousand pardons, suis désolé...

July 29, 2014

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Justin

Knowing the difference between Plot & Story makes sense (there i disagree with a few in the forum) also because there would be ppl asking you, the filmmaker, this question. Feedback to Justin Morrow; well written on a good subject.

July 29, 2014

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Gul Ramani

The Forster quote is accurate, though--do you mean that you've switched story and plot in the rest of the piece, and that is the typo?

July 29, 2014

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Kevin

I made the correction. It should be obvious, now, that it reads properly...

I remain, a wretch, etc...

July 29, 2014

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avatar
Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

in film studies, story is the chronological sequence of the narrative. plot, conversely, is what the camera shows - hence plot can be non-chronological, show some parts of the story or leave out others as merely implied. plot is thus carried by the camera and the staging of shots, mise-en-scene and editing.

July 29, 2014

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del jones

This is what I have always understood the difference between plot and story as being in film studies.

Story is the chronological events that occur within the narrative. Plot is how these events are presented on screen.

Of course, in literature, plot is the series of related events that occur within a story.

July 30, 2014

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Jason

This article is hopelessly muddled, and the last comment refers to the distinction elaborated within film studies and narrative theory derived from the Russian Formalists: it's a clean, clear distinction. STORY is what happens, both shown and implied, in a causal, chronological sequence: PLOT is the order of the narration, which skips things, repeats things, goes out of order (for flashbacks, say). The story of PULP FICTION is everything that happens in the logical order we understand it to follow. PLOT is the actual, curious sequence of telling that story out of order. WHAT is told is STORY (much of which takes place in our heads), HOW it is told is PLOT -- what is literally on screen, in the order it appears. There are other implications to all that, but almost all other definitions of the two terms are vague and imprecise. Bordwell and Thompson's textbook FILM ART clarifies this in detail.

July 29, 2014

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Corey Creekmur

Corey speaks the truth. This muddled article, and it's improper use of the Scorsese clip to "support" it, is way off. The Bordwell and Thompson book is great for detailing this, and other important film concepts-- they have a wonderful website that features great articles and examples, here: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/

July 30, 2014

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profwilliams

Hello there fellas.
Seems like I'm not the only one here,that finds the whole thing a big paradox.
Or maybe,just like the article said,PLOT is not the same in Literature and Cinema !

July 29, 2014

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MIlad Kiyan

Story is what gives a plot meaning and purpose. I think a writer can work from either direction, but ultimately they both need to be there in order to really make a lasting impression

July 30, 2014

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The interesting thing about that though is it isn't always on the surface. A good actor and director, even a DP, will work hard to unearth the story before attempting to translate it into their respective crafts. That's the difference between great and mediocre work IMHO.

July 30, 2014

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John Ford once received a typical for that era - 1930's - 120 page script (some ran as long as 160 because they included a lot of directions) and began to rip out a page after page to bring it down to a manageable for a Western 40.
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A TV related story ... or is a plot?
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Back in the 1990's before the internet, I used to buy screenplays at a book store on Hollywood Boulevard. They ran $10 for TV and $15-$20 for features and I ended up buying a bunch of sitcoms. The "wordiest" sitcom scripts of the era was "Murphy Brown" with ~ 50-55 pages of dialog. The least "wordiest" was "Married ... w/Children", which was listed at about 40 but, given their odd formatting, was closer to 20-25. And both were 22 minute shows.

July 30, 2014

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DLD

A STORY is 'WHAT happens to the 'Hero' and a PLOT is 'HOW' it happens !! Simple !!

July 30, 2014

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Ashok Patel

Yep!

July 31, 2014

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Kunle Dada

...also, E. M. Forster did not write Remains of the Day. Kazuo Ishiguro did...

July 30, 2014

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Michael Langan

Story is played out. Scorsese is right about that. Look at "Holy Motors," no story, no plot. A film doesn't need story, plot, exposition, or character arc. A film is an experience. A film is not literature.

July 30, 2014

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istanbull

The moment you begin telling a story, you have begun plotting. The medium really doesn't matter; be it told in a film or on the theatre stage. No story can be narrated without a plot. The different mediums are merely different story telling approaches and each is a unique experience. Film is an experience. Well so is the Theatre and the Novel. And they are all platforms for story telling or perhaps I should say story plotting. Hence for me a story is what happened; the telling of which is the plot.

July 31, 2014

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Kunle Dada

So, the story is the emotional journey, and plot is the physical journey. Done!

August 4, 2014

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Miguel Valdez-Lopez

Great article. Great comments too! Really thought-provoking.
Love the Scorsese clip.
Keep up the awesome work!

August 4, 2014

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If we really want to understand what Scorsese is trying to say lets look at 2 of his films. Goodfellas is STORY (& character) driven, while The Departed relies heavily on it's PLOT to pull off the film properly & effectively. In Goodfellas you can easily narrow things down to the idea that it's about how gangsters live their lives and how that one big airport heist unfolded. The telling of these things to the audience are only crucial in the way that the situations involved show you how the characters deal with life circumstances and the conflicts or challenges presented to them. And thus Goodfellas is an amazing STORY. However, with The Departed where a cop and a gangster infiltrate each other's side, the STORY here (while it does include character choice in the face of conflicts that are faced), are presented methodically in a carefully crafted way which we call PLOT. For the STORY to be told effectively here, the PLOT (which are the events) must unfold in an exact way to have its suspenseful effect on the audience work properly. If certain sequences or events are not told or devulged in the proper order at the exact right time, you will not have the desired "ah ha!" moment you are trying to effect the audience with. In The Departed, that note with the name on it is a key part of the PLOT and is inserted at that point of the film to help the audience begin putting the pieces together of what's happening in the movie and / or to cause greater anxiety & fear for the safety of the character we care about. PLOT therefore relies on cause & effect of events, while STORY relies on cause and effect on characters. I hope this helps to get a better understanding of the difference now.

August 10, 2014

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Jinkles

Geez, this comments section is starting to go like Inception :)

August 24, 2014

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RichieRich