There is, I know, a difference between story and plot, though to be sure I’d never exactly been clear where one ends and the other begins. Until I read Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss. It is a good book, but there was something that stopped it being an excellent book. And after a lot of puzzling, I realised that the novel’s story is superb, but the plot gets in the way.

Let me try and explain what I mean by ‘story’ and ‘plot’ using the novel as exemplar.

This may not be what John Clute means by ‘story’, but I’ve started to think of it as a literary equivalent of strategy and tactics. Story is the strategy of the novel, the overarching link that ties together the characters and gives the work its overall coherence. In the case of Generation Loss the story is about Cas, a burnt out photographer addicted to images of death. She made a small reputation for herself in the punk years, but since then she has earned a precarious living in a secondhand book shop and keeps herself going with a steady not to say excessive diet of booze, pills and kleptomania. In her nadir she is given the opportunity to interview a once famous photographer who has now become a recluse on a tiny island off the coast of Maine. The story is the clash of these two strong-willed, self-destructive women; the self-revelation it generates in Cas; and the developing relationship between Cas and the photographer’s son.

Story has a life before the novel begins and after the novel ends: here, for instance, there are whole long lifetimes that created these characters just as they are at this moment; and the consequences of what happens here will only really be felt after the final page. All we see of story is a limited but crucial segment of its trajectory.

Plot, on the other hand, has its existence almost entirely between the first page and the last. It is the tactical element, the short-term sequence of events that provides the dramatic impetus through the novel.

In this novel the plot concerns young people going missing and ends with a gruesome confrontation with an ex-hippy turned psycho. The trouble is, the plot does not sit easily with the story. The opening of the novel is a tour de force, a stunning portrait of character, place and time that sets the story going superbly. But then, as Cas drives into Maine and spends a night at a rather grim motel, the story stops completely while Hand carefully lays the groundwork for the plot to begin. Then, as Cas takes a boat across to the island, the plot drops away into the background and the novel becomes interesting once more.

But then, at the end, where Hand should be resolving the story, she actually switches her attention to resolving the plot. And this is where the clash between plot and story becomes obvious. Because the story shows us a Cas who is 40-odd years old, self-obsessed, gets through a bottle of whisky or more per day, is perennially hungover, and takes drugs like they are sweeties. Yet to bring the plot to its dramatic conclusion she has to behave like a completely altruistic young action heroine: fit, daring, competent, alert. The Cas we have come to know through the rest of the novel is none of these things. So in order to bring the plot to a ludicrously action-packed climax (it even ends with a boat chase straight out of James Bond, in which Cas destroys the predator with one shot from a verey gun, when by rights she should have been shaking uncontrollably from a potent mixture of speed, alcohol, fear and cold) Hand has to undermine the far better work of the story.

What is really sad is that the story is strong enough that the book doesn’t really need the plot.

First published at LiveJournal, 16 August 2007.