The only way you’re going to be able to successfully write a screenplay is if you know the key terms of the profession like the back of your hand. There are two concepts that are often seen as interchangeable, but this can lead to confusion: story and plot. At first glance, they may seem exactly the same. Though they contain overlapping aspects, story and plot are quite different.
“Spider-Man 2” Courtesy Sony Pictures
Simply put, story refers to the narrative of your screenplay—it is what your project is about. A story conveys crucial narrative components such as character, the main conflict those characters face, where it all takes place, and the themes.
Think of the story as the big picture. When someone asks you what your screenplay is about, generally you are giving them the story: “My script is about this character (or characters) who must overcome that obstacle in this location (or locations if it’s a road film).”
Another way to identify story is the “what if…?” game. What if Spider-Man didn’t want to be Spider-Man anymore? (“Spider-Man 2.”) What if a hitman forced a cab driver to drive him around Los Angeles all night? (“Collateral.”) What if a shark terrorized a popular beach community? (“Jaws.”)
“Jaws” Courtesy Universal Pictures
The plot is the nitty-gritty details of a story. The plot answers the questions that are inherently raised by your story: What is happening to your characters? How are your characters going to overcome their conflicts? When is this story taking place?
Plot is the road map, the structure. Acts, sequences, the inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution are all of the components that make up the plot. The plot advances the story your characters are in.
When developing your plot, try not to think of it as “and then this happens… and then this happens…” Rather, think of the plot as cause and effect: “X happens because of Y” or “X happens, therefore Y happens.” This will help you create interesting and complicated plots within your story.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
The story is what happens in your script and the meaning behind it; the plot is how it happens. The easiest way to differentiate between the two is with a couple of examples. Spoilers ahead.
Story: The story of “The Godfather” sees the Corleone family struggling for control over their territory in New York City. The overall narrative deals with themes of power dynamics and family, particularly the ways they can intertwine.
Plot: “The Godfather” is full of different plots, however, the main plot is the rise of Michael Corleone because of the family’s struggle. At the beginning of the film, Michael wants nothing to do with the family’s criminal dealings. However, when his father, Vito, is shot, Michael decides to join the family and climb to the top. The plot includes several key moments and plot points on Michael’s journey, such as killing Sollozzo and McCluskey, hiding out in Sicily, and eliminating the family’s enemies.
Story: The story of “Heat” is a Los Angeles detective investigating and trying to apprehend a career criminal. Through both characters, “Heat” interrogates how obsessions can take over your life on both sides of the law.
Plot: The plot of “Heat” is two-fold but eventually comes together. We follow Neil, the career criminal, as he and his crew accept, plan, and execute a heist, as well as attempt to escape Los Angeles shortly afterward. Meanwhile, we also follow Vincent, the detective, as he investigates Neil, attempts to thwart the heist, and searches for the crew.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark”
Story: The story of “Raiders” is about Indiana Jones, an archeologist and professor, who searches for the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis can find it. The story’s underlying themes deal with the battle between good and evil, as well as the part faith plays in which side you fall on.
Plot: The plot of “Raiders” presents Indiana’s quest from beginning to end. He finds out why the Nazis want the Ark, tracks down clues and information, suffers setbacks both before and after finding the Ark, and struggles to survive a climactic showdown with the Nazis.
Story: The story of “Community” follows a diverse study group at a community college in Colorado. Throughout its many plotlines, “Community” is about the importance of found-family in an uncertain world.
Plot: Because “Community” is a TV show, each episode has its own story and plot. However, every individual plot derives from how the study group reacts to a given story.
For example, in the episode “Modern Warfare,” the story is the college descending into chaos over a game of paintball assassin. But the plot explains why that happens (everyone learns the winner gets priority on class schedule) and how the study group reacts to it—first, they come together to survive, and then they turn on each other as players remain.
Story: The story of “Ted Lasso” is an American football coach leading an English soccer team despite not knowing a thing about the sport. Together, the show’s three seasons look at the ways happiness and empathy are their own kind of victories.
Plot: Since “Ted Lasso” is a little more serialized than “Community,” the plot of each episode generally feeds into the larger story: We learn why Ted got the job in the first place (revenge against the owner’s unfaithful ex-husband) and how Ted ingratiates himself with the players. Each episode (both in individual story and plot) advances Ted’s story as he bonds with the team and the organization.
For example: Early on in the series, there was tension between two players, Roy Kent and Jamie Tartt. In episode 4, tensions boil over after a particularly bad loss and a hurtful comment. Ted intervenes and soon Roy and Jamie begin to work on their issues. This episode’s plot helped advance Ted’s story.
“The 40-Year-Old Virgin” Courtesy Universal Pictures
As a writer, it is important to know the definitions of your craft. More importantly, knowing the difference between plot and story can help you shape how you want to present your project. No doubt you’ve heard the phrases “plot-driven film” and “character-driven film.” While all films incorporate elements of plot and character, these two terms can tell a reader or viewer what kind of story to expect.
Generally speaking, a character-driven film doesn’t necessarily have an outrageous or complicated plot. They tend to focus on the psychology of a character over the course of interconnected moments that are connected. The overall concept and story is what draws a reader in. Meanwhile, a plot-driven film is the opposite—it’s the promise of various twists and turns that make a reader want to sit down with your script.
“Taxi Driver,” a character-driven film, follows Travis Bickle—a Vietnam vet with PTSD who becomes a New York City cab driver—and his descent into madness as he works. The plot of the film isn’t necessarily complicated and focuses more on the story of Travis’s downward spiral through small moments. Meanwhile, “Ocean’s Eleven” is about a crew of thieves planning and executing a heist at a Las Vegas casino. While there are some fantastic character beats, the film is very plot-heavy: we see the planning of the heist, the obstacles before the heist, the execution of the heist, and the twists and turns along the way.
But here’s the key point: Once someone does sit down to read your script, both the story and plot should work in tandem to create a satisfying experience. The storytelling mechanics should work so seamlessly that the reader almost experiences the underlying story themes without noticing.
“Plot is the things that are happening, and story is what it’s actually about,” Seth Rogen explained in a 2019 interview. “The plot should be the thing that seems the most important at first and the story should be in there…and then as the movie goes on that ratio should completely reverse itself.”
Rogen points to a conversation he had with filmmaker Judd Apatow while making “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” noting that “this movie’s really good and smart and emotional, why are we calling it ‘40-Year-Old Virgin’? And the trailers just seem so reductive. [Apatow] was like, ‘No, the whole thing is we’re going to trick people into going to see a movie that is smarter than one they would want to see.’ ”
Now that you know the difference between story and plot, it’s time to get started on your own script.