Movie professionals frequently draw a distinction between story and plot when discussing movies. An example is the interview comments on this subject by Martin Scorcese. The distinction is technical and subtle, but it allows us to better understand how a movie works and why we like it.
Plot refers only to the information explicitly presented audibly or visually by a movie. It is a restricted concept. Plot is the literal data conveyed by a movie, excluding any additional meanings given to that data by a viewer.
By contrast, story is a wider concept that includes meanings inferred by a viewer. It includes inferences arising from a viewer “reading between the lines”. It also includes factors such as the mood, tension, tone or feel of a movie. Story includes the added context given to a movie by a viewer based upon his or her deductions, emotions, life experience, prejudices, imagination and so on.
Citizen Kane Opening Scene as an Example
The opening scene in Citizen Kane provides a very simple example of the plot-story distinction. In that short scene, a mustached man lying in his bed utters the word Rosebud. A snow globe he is holding falls from his hand and smashes onto the floor. The noise alerts a nurse. She rushes into the bedroom and pulls a sheet over his head, indicating he has died. That ends the scene spanning only a few minutes.
The information summarized in the preceding paragraph is plot. Throughout the scene, the man’s face or identity, is not revealed. Most people viewing the scene will assume it is Charles Kane, the main character in the movie. That one additional inferred data point is story.
The only features of the character shown in the scene are his mouth and mustached upper lip. His full face is not revealed. The matter is clearly not trivial. The director could have easily shown the face. Indeed, he has expended some effort not to do so.
The director has purposefully planned the plot in this scene so that it stops short of telling the entire story. It is expected the audience will fill in the gap. This technique effectively invites the audience to participate in the construction of the story. It draws us in to the storytelling process and keeps us engaged.
Briefly, some other movie examples that highlight the plot-story dichotomy are virtually all the David Lynch movies and the way in which Aliens withheld the appearance of the creature from the audience.
Plot-Story Dichotomy Explained Using Aristotle’s Dramatic Elements
Another way to frame the plot-story distinction is to engage the six elements of drama listed by Aristotle in his Poetics around 335 BC. Those elements were plot, character, theme, dialogue, music and spectacle. Note that plot is only one of the elements. By contrast, our concept of story is the sum total that all six elements provide to a production, both directly through the production’s explicit content and indirectly by the viewer.
For Aristotle, plot was the most important of all the six dramatic elements. However, the importance of plot has been downgraded through the ages. For example, William Shakespeare has been described by Professor Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, as happy to “steal a plot from wherever he could find one”. Shakespeare was more interested in characters rather than plot.
In our contemporary world of moviemaking, Martin Scorcese has explained he is far more interested in story rather than plot. Based on the relatively weak plot line of a large number of modern movies, it would seem other directors share this view.
The information gap between plot and story may be thought of as the audience engagement demand made by a movie. It is a measure of the extent to which a movie requires a viewer to fill in information gaps in order to flesh out the story. The greater the information gap, the greater the engagement demand and the more fulfilling the movie is likely to be as an experience for a viewer. The more we are cued by plot to add our own meanings to a movie, the richer our relationship is likely to be with that movie.
For moviemakers, the plot-story dichotomy encourages them not to cram a plot with too many details. They gain greater benefits if they plan the plot economically and then cue viewers to participate in constructing the story. For viewers, the distinction allows us to better appreciate how a movie engages and draws us into the development of its narrative.