What is the difference in story writing between a "plot," and a "storyline"?

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th Edition) says a story line is:

the plot of a story or drama

Collin's COBUILD Dictionary says:

The storyline of a book, film, or play is its story and the way in which it develops. N-COUNT = plot.

Does this mean that a storyline is just the same as a plot?
Thank you,

  • 1
    There might be important distinctions that fiction authors and literary critics recognize, but for me they are mostly the same thing. I might use them differently in different circumstances, but really they mostly both mean 'what happened'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 14:41

6 Answers 6


A 'plot' is usually thought out in advance where B follows A, leading to some tension or climax. A 'storyline' doesn't have to have any real tension. You could have a storyline of your day-to-day activities sitting in an office, but there's no real plot to it.

Learning nerd describes this well:

A story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order.

A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.

  • I appreciate your link to the Learning nerd Website as I was looking for something like that. I perhaps should also take a look at Aspects of the Novel quoted on that Website to get the full story. Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 13:45

This is an interesting question, as these are certainly different words that can be used in different ways, and yet most dictionaries blur any distinction.

I agree with Ronan's answer, but a key difference might be causation:

If an author writes, "The king died and then the queen died," there is no plot for a story. But by writing, "The king died and then the queen died of grief," the writer has provided a plot line for a story.

A plot is a casual sequence of events, the "why" for the things that happen in the story.

As such, "The king died, then the queen died, then..." could be thought of as a storyline, indicating a series of events much as a history timeline does, whereas "The king ate an apple that had been poisoned by his brother. The queen, upon finding his body, went into a state of despair and gradually died of grief" is a plot.

The Wikipedia entry has the following relevant entries to which "storyline" may refer:

  • The plot or subplot of a story;
  • The narrative of a work, whether of fictional or nonfictional basis;
  • The narrative threads experienced by each character or set of characters in a work of fiction


"A narrative (or story) is any account of connected events, presented to a reader or listener in a sequence of written or spoken words, [...]."


"A narrative thread, or plot thread (or more ambiguously, a storyline), refers to particular elements and techniques of writing to center the story in the action or experience of characters rather than to relate a matter in a dry 'All knowing' sort of narration. Thus the narrative threads experienced by different but specific characters or sets of characters are those seen in the eyes of those characters that together form a plot element or subplot in the work of fiction. In this sense, each Narrative thread is the narrative portion of a work that pertains to the world view of the participating characters 'cognizant' of their piece of the whole [...]."

We all know the issues inherent in blind faith in Wikipedia, but the distinction made there is an important one: what one might think of as a "storyline" is described on Wikipedia as a "story", while "storyline" is either synonymous with plot or is a character/narrator-prescribed element of plot.

I also looked for clues on etymonline but found only that "timeline" is from 1876, from, of course, time + line, and "story-line" was first attested 1941. It is possible that the latter was constructed as the narrative equivalent of a timeline; it is of course also possible that it was used as a synonym of "plot" right from the start.

It would seem that any distinction currently comes down to subjective opinion/interpretation. In my own studies in the field of narrative theory, I have not seen any particular concern about the need for a distinction. It might pay to consult writing guides or head over to https://writers.stackexchange.com/ to get field-based thoughts on this. A Google book search will also give you some real-world usage examples.


For the contents of a novel or drama or something similar you will find a lot of variants. Summary, résumé, plot, storyline, précis. They mean all the same, a short text that gives you an idea about the contents of the novel or another literary text. It is a pity that dictionaries seldom give variants to a special entry.


The replies given so far seem to me to exclude the crucial aspect of human agency in the explanations. A story is a form and structure we use to tell about events. We use this as the preferred way to tell of events; it seems entirely "natural".

The point I want to make is that when we tell a story we have a need to tell it in a way that entertains our audience for, without being made interested in what we tell, the audience will become passive or stop listening.

A plot (following from its 16th century meaning of being a plan or scheme for the achievement of a purpose) is the way we try to make our audience interested in what we tell. It is different from a "storyline". It is the telling of events taken from the storyline in ways that cause the reader to be interested - to want to know what will happen next or where it all is leading.

A "storyline" is a series of events that occurred through time; a "plot" is the telling of these events in ways that create reader interest (which often means using a narrator and dialogue to create emotional attachment to a protagonist).

  • 1
    Welcome to the ELU :-). Your answer would be more persuasive if it included references (e.g. for the part where you explain the etymology of plot)
    – Lucky
    Commented Apr 26, 2015 at 14:17

This is subjective.A story is about something.Then you decide a plot that would best suit this.If you want to present a man's life as a story- an example might be Steve Jobs or Henry the Eight- then you only select the events that would illustrate the story you want to tell.If You want to project someone as a hero or a tyrant and that is the point of your story, then you have to invent(shape-select) a plot that fits.

We all do this, even though we also rail that newspaper stories are sometimes biased or spun in a different way.Boris Johnson is hanging on a zip wire what a fool,Boris is hanging on a zip wire what a triumph.That was a bad example because the plot was the same for two different stories, but for the most part the plot (facts?) have to be tweaked to fit the story.

  • Why would it be subjective?
    – Helmar
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 8:41

I think people are getting confused as a result of context. When trying to define these terms we must differenciate between the subjects for which we are trying to define the terms. A film professor will define a plot vs a story, as plot is what we see in the film, where story would be what may be implied by the film but not necessarily seen on screen and going beyond what is shown. An authors definitions may vary.

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