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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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16 Comments

  1. Nick Schwab
    2 January 2022 / 9:17 pm

    I remember getting taught this and just getting really-really confused. At the time I was naive and soft-spoken so I couldn’t really express why it didn’t seem right.
    Many decades later I now know. Forster is just wrong.
    His example should be flipped.
    A plot is a sequence of events not a story.
    Also… ‘of’ implies causation. Thus with the word ‘grief’ if implies depth, characterizations, emotions, and themes.
    Which are story elements not plot.
    The sentiment is there. But this quote should be forgotten.

    • Yooonmi Kim
      9 June 2022 / 4:09 am

      It’s important to note that he was making a series of lectures to refute Percy Lubbock (Closeted gay, which becomes important later for thought)

      Percy Lubbock, at the time, though he gets zero credit for it, was arguing for Death of the Author prior to the actual coining of the term (because bury your Historical gays) and also for conflict in everything. What EM Forster is trying to do, though a bit badly, is argue that plot only needs a cause to effect for it to be effective.

      In effect, you need to read Percy Lubbock to understand what EM Forster is getting at. Percy Lubbock was super focused on one aspect and thought this would open the conversation later, but EM Forster is basically putting the smack down and saying nope. There is a lot more to writing a novel than this.

      EM Forster, also gay, but out is often credited with only that line, but the work in question is far more complex as a total refutation of Percy Lubbock. And the fact that mostly white cishet men later slammed the entire treaties based on a singular line and basically tried to erase him as anything important, also says a lot about our political landscape.

      If you read the two books in tandem and keep in mind this is a transcribed lecture series, you will get EM Forster a lot better. EM Forster is correct that Percy Lubbock’s definitions, etc are super reductive to what a novel could be. Unfortunately Percy Lubbock won, but doesn’t get any of the credit in most academic circles, because *cough* Shakespeare *cough* Aristotle *cough* Aelius Donatus (whose never been translated.) Not some white gay man from 1921. That’s not prestigious enough.

  2. Eleize Silva Ferreira
    3 June 2022 / 10:20 am

    That is brilliant. I totally agree with this statement. Makes all senseto me and help me a lot. Thank you Foster!

  3. Nelson Torres
    1 August 2022 / 5:40 pm

    PLOT: What happens. STORY: How it happens. Forster is using a terrible example, but he’s right. “The king died and then the queen died” is nothing really. It’s just a statement. “The king died and then the queen died of grief”, the “…of grief.” is the plot (again a pretty weak example). It’s the causality of the story. Hope this clarifies the issue.

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