In my Big List of Questions for style research, there is an entire section on plot, narrative, and story. As humans, we have an innate and natural understanding of these things: so natural that we rarely have to think about them. But in order to change the way we tell stories, we need to take some time understanding the way story works.
Narrative. Plot. Story. A lot of improvisers throw these terms around pretty interchangeably. To really develop, an artist needs to eventually understand the difference.
When someone tells you a story, the story exists in their head: It is their understanding of the plot (and the non-plot-related facts). What they actually say to you is the narrative. And through your experience of the narrative, you reconstitute that narrative into a potentially different story in your head.
It might help to think of stories as constellations.
Imagine that, on their own, all the stars with their positions and brightness are facts. But the narrators of ancient history declared some of the brightest starts to be plot and drew lines between these stars, giving them names. Those narratives have lasted across the years so that each person who tries to see those constellations creates, in their own mind, something like their own unique story.
Some Working Definitions
Facts: The facts are all the information in the story, including those not tied to the cause-and-effect of the plot. Facts include the events that comprise the plot, but also things like the characters, settings, descriptions, etc. The audience will usually assume related facts figure into the story in some way, even if they don’t know how.
Plot: The plot is all the events that the narrator reveals or implies, in chronological sequence. It may also include events which the audience assumes or guesses at.
Narrative: The presentation of the plot and facts to the audience: the manner and order in which the events of the plot are revealed to the audience. (Sometimes called the narrative discourse).
Story: The full experience and conception of the plot, facts, narration and their relationship as imagined or perceived by the audience or artist. This includes all the connective tissue between plot and facts: what plot events cause what, why things were related, what parts of the narration the audience believes or doesn’t believe, assumptions about things which weren’t narrated, etc.
Put another way: Story is created in the mind of the audience (and improvisers) as they learn about the Facts and the Plot through the Narrative lens provided by the improvisers.
With those terms defined, let’s look at an example in Part II. (We will then look at ways to apply them to improvisation in Part III).
Tony Beeman has lived in Seattle as a writer, performer, director and software developer since 1998. In addition to performing, directing and serving as Artistic Associate at Unexpected Productions in Pike Place Market, Tony performs regularly with 4&20 Improv, Seattle Experimental Theater, and Improv Anonymous. He has taught workshops in seven countries. His Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is INFP.