Story, Plot, Arc and Theme — how they work together

Story, Plot, Arc and themeAny new writer might well be confused by some of the terms used in writing such as story, plot, arc and theme. Aren’t they interchangeable terms? It’s easy to see why the terms might be confused.

The first person to distinguish story from plot was E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927). Forster wrote a story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.’

‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. But 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.’

This is a reasonable definition of plot. But is story just narrative? In screenwriting, the term ‘story’ is often used in a much wider sense to explain the deeper meaning that the audience experience through the protagonist’s inner struggle to deal with the plot points.  It is what the story is really about. Kate Wright in Screenwriting is Storytelling Creating an A-list Screenplay that Sells explains this approach as follows:

Story and plot are intricately woven inside story events, and while the audience cannot tell them apart, each is distinct: Plot is self evident, and we experience it objectively, scene by scene. Story is the deeper meaning behind the plot, and we subjectively infer its moral truth–or absolute truth–sequentially, by identifying the inner moral struggle of the main character.

Under this approach both Plot and Story are separate important elements. An audience (or readers) may be fascinated by the progression of events that a human being encounters in the plot, but what really engages them emotionally is how the main character reacts to this progression of events and this insight is what the story is really about.

Audiences and readers don’t fall in love with a plot, they connect with the main character and experience his/her emotional struggle to deal with those events. As the conflict escalates, audience/reader tension rises until tension is finally resolved at the climax of the story. This release of tension is what Plato described as catharsis: the release of emotion that makes us all feel better. At that point, we figuratively punch the air and celebrate our main character’s victory, or we cry if the story ends in tragedy. This emotional effect is the primary reason why we engaged in the story in the first place. We empathise with the hero/heroine and want to see them succeed. Story is therefore more about the emotional experience of the audience/reader.

How the main character changes over the course of the story is the character arc, or what some screenwriters describe as the hero’s inner journey. It will be part of the audience’s/reader’s emotional experience. For example, it’s Luke Skywalker inner journey from a scared farm boy to courageous Jedi knight.

As explained in the previous blog, the main character usually has a flaw at the start of the story, and during the story the plot challenges the main character to overcome his flaw. And as we have seen from the previous blog, the main character’s flaw or weakness should be the right type of flaw to be tested by the story. Depending on the type of story, the main character’s initial weakness could be anything. For example: naivity, lack of confidence or self belief, hubris, or some negative believe which he/she needs to overcome during the story in order to reach their story goal.

The underlying story is often about what the main character learns during the course of the story. If he/she changes for the good, then the story ending is normally positive. If he/she refuses to change, the story may well end in tragedy. Either way there is a moral undertone that we can attribute to the theme of the story. The theme is the moral of the story or some self evident truth about human nature. For example, even death cannot defeat love (Romeo and Juliet).

So the deeper meaning of story, plot, theme and character arc are all different aspects of a storytelling, but they are closely linked together.