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E.M. Forster: The Difference Between Story and Plot

E.M. Forster: The Difference Between Story and Plot

Story: the king died and then the queen died.

Plot: the king died and then the queen died because of grief.

Edward Morgan Forster was an English novelist, short story writer and essayist. He is best known for A Room With a View (1908), Howard’s End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924).

Forster wrote Aspects of the Novel in 1927. Aspects of the Novel was a pioneering work,  examining ‘aspects all English-language novels have in common: story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.’

While in the third century Aristotle had noted the subtle difference between ‘incident’ and ‘plot’, it was Forster in Aspects of the Novel who developed this idea and established the difference between ‘story’ and ‘plot’, defining a story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence.’

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.’

‘A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality –  “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.’

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9 Comments

  1. Brian
    6 June 2016 / 8:47 pm

    Plots: The king died and then the queen died because she had eaten the same poisoned food.”

    The king died and then the queen died so that her son would not inherit the throne.

    The king died and then the queen died because the king’s closest friend avenged his death.

    …you can go on and on.

  2. 18 March 2017 / 5:17 am

    Forster’s example is wrong. Perhaps even his statement is wrong.

    Story is what happens

    Plot is the deliberate arrangement of story elements to create drama for the reader.

    • Marshall
      15 November 2018 / 5:31 am

      Forster’s definition matters. Forster’s 1927 explanation of plot is important because it reminds writers that there must be a compelling underlying causality–a rich vein of “why” (in the best cases connected to character) that can be mined and forged into behaviors and actions. Forster’s definition also helps readers and critics to think more carefully as they analyze a work of fiction. The “deliberate arrangement of story elements to create drama for the reader” refers to structure or pacing.

      • Randhir Kumar Yendremvam
        17 May 2020 / 7:24 pm

        Is plot not inside a story? What Foster says seems to mean a plot is a narrative with a cause.

  3. Marilyn Flower
    11 June 2018 / 10:44 pm

    I can’t imagine why I used to be so impressed by Forster’s distinction between story and plot. I think Kenny Chaffin above got it right.

  4. 20 September 2018 / 10:56 pm

    I agree with Chaffin as well. Who is this forster? But still… give examples honey.

  5. Peter Ross
    28 October 2018 / 9:59 am

    Story is what you have to read to appreciate a Plot, The plot is just a 25-word-or-less sound byte a literary agent tells a newspaper or magazine to print, if there still is one, to get readers interested to pick up the book in a brick & mortar store, if there still is one, and then order it from Amazon.

  6. Dangee
    15 March 2020 / 7:49 am

    I think it’s a great insight but I agree that the order should be reversed (at least according to the way we use the words today.) The plot has to do with plotting points on a line, and the story is the thing that gives it urgency and forward motion.

  7. Abby Ripley
    8 May 2020 / 5:12 am

    Our earliest storytellers were the ancient Greeks beginning with Homer. He told stories. He told us in a time sequence what happened between humans and gods, including what happened when they interacted. We don’t learn about plot until we get to Aristotle who considered tragedy as a kind of plot. That it had a beginning, middle, and end but those had to be causally related. But when you check the Russian formalists you get what, to my mind, is closer to the fact. I take this from Wikipedia: The fabula (story) is what happened in chronological order. In contrast, the syuzhet (plot) means a unique sequence of discourse that was sorted out by the (implied) author. My feeling has always been that plot is “man-made,” that is, the writer is tinkering around with the story to make it appeal more to the reader. This, of course, became important when books were something written to sell. You still find natural, impromptu storytellers going forth with their tale as it happened in time. Plain and simple.

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