Martin Scorsese Breaks Down the Difference Between Story & Plot
What 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.