You may be familiar with E. M. Forster’s (more or less) famous quote “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.” Forster comes to the conclusion in his craft analysis that plot is distinctive from story due to the causality that links events. That is, of grief is the causality of the queen’s death, linking it to the king’s death. We understand there to be a relationship, a connection between these two deaths that might not otherwise be apparent. Plot, Forster suggests, indicates linkage.
While Forester’s point might be construed as a largely semantic problem–that is, the perhaps arbitrary difference between a plot and a story–his example points us to something crucial about all storytelling: things that happen must be relational to have meaning. For the purposes of this post, I consider plot and story to be interchangeable terms, both identifying the necessity of causality in the events they describe.
(Personally, I think “story” to be more representative of causal/linked events than “plot,” which to me describes the discrete moments that make up a story, but like I said, semantics.)
When I assist students with their fiction writing, one of the most common questions I pose to them is Why does this matter? Their character falls from the top of a tall building, their character’s wife leaves them, their character learns to ride a bicycle. None of it matters without the context of the person’s life–without seeing where that event fits in the full spectrum of other events that character has experienced.
Consider Forster’s example: of grief is a two-word phrase that illuminates the significance of the king and queen’s relationship. Of grief also shows the radial impact of the king’s death. Of grief reminds us that with the king’s death, something personal and irreplaceable was lost. The king died is a news headline. The king died and then the queen died of grief paints a picture of love, devotion, and deep connection. None of that is clear without indicating the relational quality of these deaths.
To the student who writes a story about their character falling off a tall building, I say Why does this matter? The student answers something like Because the character died. The conversation continues:
And why does their death matter?
Everyone’s death matters.
Their friends. Family. Loved ones. Their dog.
But these characters aren’t in the story.
And as the conversation continues a web starts to expand outward from the main character’s life. A web of family, work acquaintances, pets, neighbours. How is the event of their death connected to these other features of their life? I’ll ask.
The character was only on the roof of the tall building because he had a fight with his wife and needed a smoke.
So the character died because he had a fight with his wife. Why were they fighting?
He’d been fired from his job and was taking it out on her.
Why was he taking it out on her?
Because that’s the only way he knows how to deal with anger. That’s the way his father was with him.
So in effect, your character died because he never learned how to properly manage his own emotions.
How can you connect the reason for his death to the death itself? How can you make the death less of an accident, and more of an inevitable consequence of his actions?
And this is where the story starts to take shape. When characters take action that link the events of their lives. Stories are not random events strung together. They’re a series of linked moments that stem from who our characters are as people.
The queen’s death is an inevitable consequence. The subtext of that story varies depending on your perspective, and likely your understanding and relationship to love. Perhaps the subtext of the story is that the queen was too reliant on her husband. Their relationship was co-dependent, and because the queen enabled this, her death was inevitable. Perhaps the subtext of the story is that their love is so powerful and so deep that the world irrevocably dimmed after the king’s passing and the queen couldn’t bear to keep going. This is a consequence of her decision to love him as well as she did.
Perhaps there is yet another interpretation of this sentence. This is why stories often contain more than one line.
The job of the story is to give meaning to something that might, if not handled carefully, be considered unimportant. To some, the king’s death is a piece of trivia. The queen’s consequent death reveals how deeply meaningful this loss was–how it completely changed the trajectory of her existence. The king’s death is what causes her to leave this world.
Stories show us these connections and in doing so create significance for each moment, minor and major. We see how things fit together, how they culminate. We understand the pieces of our lives better for it. Stories help us to make sense of all the random occurrences in our lives. They give us history, legacy, identity.
The king died and then the queen died of grief suggests that our lives are connected, and through the very virtue of their connection are meaningful, are significant.
What makes a story? Characters. Choices, Events, Causality. All of these factor in. But even more fundamentally than that, a story has meaning. It is meaningful to the lives of the characters and the lives of the readers. Stories show us how the moments in our own lives are linked through our actions, our choices. Stories remind us that these seemingly random moments we experience in our own lives are tied, connected, building into our own stories.