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Understanding the difference between plot and structure

It is 1959, in the Beat Hotel in Paris, and William S. Burroughs is cutting up a newspaper.

Though it is October and the run-down hotel is uninsulated, Burroughs’s aim is not to keep warm. Rather, he is cutting out individual phrases and words and arranging them into a different order to see what new texts he can compose.

It is a technique that his friend, Brion Gysin, has used in painting, and has recently introduced to Burroughs. It is also a more granular appropriation of the nonlinear style Burroughs himself has already used in his writing.

The apotheosis of the permutation of the written word, it is called the ‘cut-up technique’.

Burroughs never claimed to have invented the technique. But he did popularise it. In decades to come it would influence artists, essay writers, poets, novelists and musicians alike.

Burroughs also explored the concept as a theory. He felt that language in conventional patterns was a way of controlling and limiting thinking, and that rearranging a text could help to decipher its true meaning. He even believed cut-up could be used as a means of divination, claiming that “when you cut into the present, the future leaks out”.

Applied in isolation, cut-up is an interesting but limited exercise, the outcomes of which can range from evocative picofiction to gibberish. Applied to longer works, it amply illustrates the difference between plot and structure.

Defining narrative, plot and structure

Applying the technique to longer works is exactly what Burroughs went on to do in his ‘Nova Trilogy’, a mosaic of concepts, phrases and words. Its fragmented delivery mimics the disorder of human thoughts and allows the reader to experience multiple parts of the narrative at once. But through its disjointed structure runs the vein of a plot, which is constant.

Burroughs crafts a narrative of ‘the word’ as a control mechanism, a literal virus, and of liberation through its destruction. This is a concept he explores both narratively and mechanically, through rearranging his own text to create a new one. His use of structure mirrors the content of the narrative and affects how hard the reader must work to distil the plot.

To understand the interplay between narrative, plot and structure, we must first define the terms as they relate to writing. This is easier said than done. They are often used interchangeably and those who do distinguish them often describe them differently.

For my part, here is how I see them:

Narrative is a sequential account of events and incidents.

Plot is the most important events of a narrative, presented as a causal progression.

Structure is the architecture of a narrative: the order in which the writer tells it and the techniques they use to do so.

These definitions are by no means conclusive. Narrative and story are often blurred, insofar as most narratives exist to amuse, entertain or inform. Narrative can refer to a sequence of connected events, and thus crosses over with plot. Plot can be considered synonymous with structure, and so on.

But what one calls these elements doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are distinct.

Applying the distinction

Structuring a story is about more than deciding whether to present it in sequential order.

Wuthering Heights is a classic example of a nonlinear narrative. It begins in media res, in the middle of the chain of events rather than at the beginning. The frame narrator, Lockwood, receives an account of earlier events from another narrator, Nelly, creating a layered story.

Thus the reader experiences more than a flashback. We see the story through the unreliable eyes of peripheral characters. Neither the effete and naive Lockwood nor the interfering, sentimental Nelly Dean gives us the whole story. The reader must draw their own conclusions, and over the years they have been many and varied — one academic, James Hafley, even argued that the true villain of the piece is Nelly herself.

Yet the book still has a coherent dramatic structure. Applying Freytag’s pyramid, one sees that it breaks with convention by having the ‘exposition’ (introduction) occur towards the chronological end. But the remainder of the plot is quite easy to map, as it switches back and forth between Nelly’s account of events and Lockwood’s experience of their aftermath.

The author, Emily Brontë, chose the most evocative way to present the narrative. The reader knows from the outset that Wuthering Heights has seen its share of darkness and tragedy. When the reader discovers Heathcliff’s past romance with Cathy, they already know that it is doomed. And until events unravel, the reader can only guess as to how the dark-skinned urchin from Liverpool becomes master of the Heights, and what he sacrifices to do so.

So consider the plot of your story and what will be the most dramatic and evocative way of relaying it. Will you use one narrator or several? How reliable will they be? Will the narrative be linear or nonlinear?

In divining the right structure for your story, you will lay the groundwork for its rhythm. In How to beat sagging middle syndrome I described the rhythm of a story as its sense of “motion, rising tension and dramatic struggle”. But it is also the smaller architectural features of a story’s overall design. Patterns and motifs, recurring phrases, places and people. Features that could be as grand and complex as a Dark Tower at the centre of all creation, or as simple as a poignant three-word refrain.

A solid plot, however simple it may or may not be, is the core of any story. But how the storyteller manipulates that plot is what gives a story an identity of its own.