Most of us can go through life, even bestselling authors, with little interest in the difference between story and plot.
Even professionals often use the two terms interchangeably. But understanding the distinction can be helpful, and an author will do well to pay careful consideration to both story and plot and, ideally, find the right balance for their particular novel. In the runaway best seller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, this balance is not there: the story is a compelling one, but the plot is ridiculous. So what is the difference between story and plot?
In essence, story is the protagonist’s emotional journey, and plot is the physical journey. Gone Girl is a fiendishly clever story about the sudden disappearance and likely murder of Amy, and what seems the mounting evidence of the guilt of her husband, Nick. The story has two distinct halves, the first where Flynn toys with the reader through the device of the diary left behind by Amy, which seems to paint her as Mother Theresa, and the second part of the story where we discover, if we haven’t guessed, that things are not all as they appear to be. In part 1 I was rooting for Amy and fearing for Nick, and in part 2 I was desperate that things wor
k out for Nick and that psycho Amy gets her comeuppance. It was a gripping story until…
…until the plot went completely off the rails. To buy into the plot you would have to believe that a man would knowingly take to his bed and sleep soundly alongside a bunny boiler with a long history of psychopathic behaviour who has faked her own murder, framed her husband for said murder, and has meticulously planned and executed the cold blooded and gruesome killing of a hapless sap she had lured into her web of deceit.
I’m guessing that when Flynn wrote Gone Girl she started with story first and then developed a supporting plot. She began with a fascinating ‘what if’ scenario – always a great place to start – what if a woman faked her own death and successfully framed her husband for the murder in order to exact retribution for his supposed wrongs, only to find she must discover a way to undo everything she had done without implicating herself in any crime. Get yourself out of that one Houdini.
Having devised an intriguing suspense story Flynn must then have turned to the series of physical events (the plot) that would unfold to support this story. She does a sterling Agatha Christie type job in setting us on the wrong path with the huge red herring of a diary, but the plot loses its way in the second half of the book as the reader is expected to be as insanely stupid as the cops, who were first taken in by the set-up, and then couldn’t see through Amy’s cover story for an actual murder, a story with more holes than a truck-load of swiss cheeses. I for one, much as I found the book a page turner, was left dissatisfied by the ending, not because it was not happy or because retribution had not been served on Amy, but because it was so implausible.
But, and here’s the rub, the book is a best-seller despite all the holes in the plot and despite the ending, because other than implausibility it is a great yarn that pulls you in and carries you along. Which just demonstrates most readers will forgive failings in plot logic in the interests of great story