Film making: Story vs Plot

What is a story?
What is a plot?

A story is a straight line narration of what happens from the beginning to the end. If you have ever watched a film in a foreign language at a function or a play or even a ballet, often the leaflet gives an outline of the story. It tells you what happens to whom with what result so you can follow the ‘story’.

Story: Poor boy meets rich girl/girl from different caste/country/clan, they fall in love, rich father/clannish father objects, they revolt, father gives in, they marry/ doesn’t agree, they die.

This story has been told across the globe in many ways many times: Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story are a couple of western examples, Bobby, Love Story and many others have been told by Bollywood.

What is it that differentiates one story from the other? It is,how the story is told!,

Story example: There is a deadly rivalry between two gangs in New York called the Jets and the Sharks. Tony and Maria belong to the opposing gangs but end up falling in love. Their romance ultimately meets a tragic end….West Side Story

The story therefore, simply put is where ‘someone wants something badly, is having a hard time getting it, then either gets it or doesn’t get it’. The above line captures the story of the film West Side Story in one line

A plot on the other hand, is a mechanical engine of cause and effect, related to events that drive the story forward.

West Side Story Plot: West Side Story is the adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet” wherein, the feuding families of Romeo and Juliet are replaced with two warring gangs of New York. The gangs are the White Jets led by Riff and the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo. The two gangs hate each other to a level where they cannot coexist in the same territory. Tony, a former member of the Jet gang and Bernardo's younger sister Maria meet at a dance, they fall in love. Tony and Mariastart meeting secretly and plan on running away. Their romance is the tipping point that leads to a confrontationbetween the two gangs and the Sharks and Jets plan a rumble under the highway –with the condition thatwhichever gang wins it will get controlover the territory. Maria requests Tony to make peace between the two gangs, hoping it can end the rivalry and the violence. It goes horribly wrong, and leads to tragic eventsculminating in asad ending.

The same story can be told in many ways, where the plot pointsare different. Instead of two rival gangs, Tony and Maria could belong to rival colleges. Instead of meeting at a dance, they could meet while doing summer internship. The conflict could be because Tony’s mother and Maria’s father were in love but fell out badly or because Maria’s younger brother got killed under Tony’s father’s car.
However, the decisions on plot points are not so easy to make as they have to tie in with a larger story, stay believable and as said, move the story forward. These are not decisions made in isolation to simply ‘make it sound different’. There is a lot more to a good plot and a good film.


If you take a map, you can draw a line showing how to get from point A to B. But once you get into details, there are rivers and mountains to be crossed to get from A to B. There is usually more than one way to get from A to B. These are ‘plotted’ on the map.Each route has a different set of obstacles, choices and decisions. But when deciding the route, you choose one that will lead to reaching the destination as optimally as possible.

Likewise in a story, the obstacles on the way, the characters which come up, woven into the story with their own journeys, make up the plot.Sometimes you hear comments on a film like ‘the plot went haywire’. It means that the route taken to reach the end was neither optimal nor consistently persuasive to keep the audience hooked and the story believable.

This is poor story telling with arbitrary choices of events, characters and their behaviours. The characters have to make specific choices, ‘consistent with their characters and situations they are in’ right through the film for the plot to happen. When this happens, it is a ‘tight’ plot.

Let’s take on example from Hollywood. In the popular 1999 filmThe Mummy starring Brendan Fraser, there are any number of quick decisions made by characters to move the story forward in a believable manner. The characters themselves are quickly established where Evelyn (a librarian at the museum of antiquities) has interest in Egyptology and thus embarks on the journey of looking for the ancient city of Hamunaptra(believed to be mythological) with the help of Rick O’ Connell who has already been there, buying his freedom from Warden Gad Hassan who is about to hang him by promising him a share of their discoveries in Hamunaptra.

The Mummy is a good example of establishing characters quickly, making their choices believable because of who they are to arrive at the central action of the film: to the city of Humnaputra.Through a series of choicesdriven out of arrogance, curiosity, character flaws, they allow Imhotep,the priest who had been cursed to eternity as the ‘living dead’ to resurrect himself and unleash terror.

Here, the setting of the film itself, which starts with events several thousand years ago in ancient Egypt, makes the whole journey believable, as the audience knows that the events, the characters in the 20th century believe to be mythological, have actually happened.The ‘contemporary’ action too is set in the 1920’s with old fashioned digging tools and guns to lend mystique and a fairy tale quality to the narrative.This also results in what is called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ where the audience already knows that the film is a fantasy and is therefore concerned only in the believability of events within the framework of the world that the film inhabits.

Thus, the time period and the setting, the characters established in the film and their subsequent choices and decisions, make the plot and thereby the story, believable.

Now, let’s take an example from Bollywood. In the popular blockbuster Sholay.

Story: A police inspector’s family is killed by the dacoit Gabbar Singh and he is captured and his arms are chopped off by Gabbar Singh. He hires two small time convicts Jai and Veeru to help him get revenge.

Plot points: An important turning point in the film is one where the dacoits men come to the village to collect their regular ‘peace offering’ which is usually sacks of grains that the villagers give them to stay safe from their terror. ‘Thakur’as the police officer is called through the film (played by Sanjeev Kumar) has to make a choice to stop the villagers from giving sacks of grain to the dacoits men as a peace offering. He thereby throws down the gauntlet for an all out war against his arch rival Gabbar Singh. His stopping the villagers from giving the peace offering is an act of defiance that makes Gabbar Singh aware that he has a rebellion on his hands.

This plot point also moves forward the character of Thakur, who till now, has been preparing to defy the dacoit leader with the help of two small time criminals, Veeru and Jai. He now takes the decision on behalf of the whole village, thereby taking the responsibility for their protection as well, thereby making his goal bigger than his personal revenge and inspite of his handicap, he is still the hero.

Later, he will fail in giving this protection when one of the village boys (Sachin) is killed by the dacoit and his dead body is returned on horseback. This is another plot point. This is the point where he will either fight with higher resolve or lose the trust of the whole village. Thus, plot points are the ways in which a story moves forwardwhile staying true to the characters. They have to be convincing, logical, with each character behaving true to their nature for turning points to be believable while revealing their character.

The story therefore, is also a revelation of character as drawn by the plot.

In the above example, each character, including the villagers, act true to their concerns, their priorities, their fears and their choices. It is a moment of real conflict where the protagonist’s wishes are at cross roads with that of the very people he has taken the responsibility to protect. The truth is that his motive is not only their protection but his own revenge. And when the two come in conflict, he has already paid a price for which he wants his revenge while they are unwilling to pay it for him to pursue his goal.

Now, the higher goal of ridding the village of the menace of the dacoits is in danger of falling by the wayside with the villagers unwilling to pay the price that it needs (of their lives). This is where the other plot point, planted through the film, comes to the rescue where the dead boys blind father, again true to his character of an upright, religious man, devoted to the tenets of his religion in practice, accepts his sons martyrdom for a cause, silencing the dissenting voices.

The intensity of the rebellion by the villagers is as believable as is its dilution in the face of a bereaved, blind father accepting to carry his sons dead body on his shoulders for his last journey with a sense of pride.

There could be a different set of events moving the story in the same direction. Those then, would become the ‘plot points’ for the story. Thus, the events that lead to choices to move a story forward are the ‘plot points’ while the story continues on its intended course.

To Summarise:
1. A story is a straight line narration of what happens, to whom from beginning till the end.
2. Plot is the ‘how’, the cause and effect engine that moves the story forward.
3.Story is a revelation of character as drawn out by the plot.
4.The plot points are the dramatic turns that the story takes to arrive at its end goal pretty much like a map has different obstacles plotted on it that will come in the way of making the journey.
5.Each plot point has to be believable keeping the integrity of each character in their choice of behaviour for the audience to buy the story.

PurvaRakesh is a multi media professional. She is a qualified film maker with a specialisation in screenplay writing from the New York Film Academy, an MBA and is a facilitator trained in Transactional Analysis and Emotional Literacy You can see her
website: www.matineeclassic.com or
write to her at info@matineeclassic.com
Other contact: +91 9871097857

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