People always say the story is the most important thing in good science fiction. But excessively "plot-driven" science fiction is dismissed as mindless or worse. What's the difference between story and plot anyway?

Are "plot" and "story" just two different ways of saying the same thing? They're both about a sequence of events that starts in one place and ends in another? (Or goes in a circle, in a hopefully meaningful fashion.) And yet, people seem to use them to describe very different things.

When people talk about a "plot-driven" science fiction book or movie, they're usually implying that the characters are as wafer-thin as the exploding mint in Monty Python's Meaning Of Life. The only thing a "plot-driven" work cares about is marching us from one plot point to another. There's a spaceship that's going to crash, and we have to stop it! But if the spaceship doesn't crash, then the hero's mother will never have been born! And so on. It's all about the mechanics of the plot.

(For some examples, see the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Of America glossary of critiquing terms, which says "plot-driven" stories are ones in which the author forces the characters to go in the direction the plot requires, whether it makes sense or not. Also, a commenter at SFSignal says serious science fiction is being replaced by plot-driven spectacle.)

Meanwhile, you hear creators, and fans, talk about "the story" with awe. Joss Whedon, for example, talks regularly about how "the story" is the most important thing in his works, and everything else is secondary. (Says Joss, "The STORY is in charge, the story that keeps on speaking to me, that says there is much more to tell about all these characters.") Usually, there's an implication that "story" involves more of an emotional component, or some kind of magical alchemy, that's not present in mere plot.

Here's Doomsday Book author Connie Willis, talking in 1997 about how her religious beliefs affect (or don't affect) her writing:

I think writers have to tell the truth as they know it. On the other hand, I think every truly religious person is a heretic at heart because you can't be true to an established agenda. You have to be true to what you think. I think Madeleine L'Engle and C.S. Lewis both have times when they become apologists for religion rather than writers. I want always to be a writer, and if my religion is what has to go, so be it. The story is everything.

Samuel Delany talks, obliquely, about the relationship between plot and story in his book, About Writing, which I reviewed a while ago. First, he quotes E.M. Forster, from his 1927 book Aspects Of The Novel:

The more we look at the story (the story that is a story, mind), the more we disentangle it from the finer growth it supports, the less we shall find to admire. It runs like a backbone - or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary... it is a sequence of events arranged in their time sequence - dinner coming after breakfast, Tuesday after Monday, decay after death and so on. Qua story, it can only have merit: that of making the audience wonder what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audence not want to know what happens next. These are the only two criticisms that can be made on the story that is a story... When we isolate the story like this and hold it out on the forceps - wriggling and interminable, the naked worm of time - it presents an aspect both unlovely and dull. But we have much to learn from it.

Delany adds:

With some extraordinary exceptions throughout the history of all these fields, most comic books, TV series and action movies don't have good stories. Neither do most published novels, and for the same reason: the logic that must hold them together and produce the readerly curiosity about what will happen is replaced by "interesting situations" (or an "interesting character"), which don't relate logically or developmentally to what comes before or after. That is to say, they are wildly illogical. We cannot follow their development, even - or especially - if we try. If we look at them closely, they don't make much sense. The general population, day in and day out, is not used to getting good stories.

You'll notice that both Forster and Delany use the term "story" instead of "plot," to describe the backbone of the narrative. Delany also says that he and Forster share a healthy respect for the ancient power of the story, so it seems like in these quotes, both writers are using "story" to mean both "story" and "plot."

And yet, I feel like I keep coming across the same dichotomy, especially as people talk about science fiction. Stories are nobel and revered, plots are ugly and spine-like, best concealed by layers of muscle and fat. So what is it that makes "plot" mechanistic and "story" magical? Here's one theory that I've come up with: plot is about the future, story is about the past.

Think about it this way: when you focus on the plot of a book or movie, it's always about "What happens next?" You're constantly watching to see how the hero's predicament will turn out, and how the clues you've picked up on will be resolved.

Meanwhile, we tell stories to answer the question, "How did we get here?" Like, for example, I want to know why the U.S. army is fighting in Iraq. I can tell a story about how there was this evil dictator who invaded Kuwait, and we had to stop him, but then he kept flouting the terms of the peace agreement. Or I can tell a story about how our president had an agenda that involved toppling the government of Iraq, and after a terrorist attack, he decided to use that as a pretext to invade. Which story I tell depends on my viewpoint - Does the story begin in 1991, or 2001? And which elements do I include? But either way, I'm telling a story about how things got to this point.

So maybe a good plot is something that takes you from A to B to C without wrecking your suspension of disbelief, and keeps you guessing about what's going to happen next. And maybe a good story is something that delivers you at a destination, and in the end you understand how the journey all led up to this point. The best works, of course, do both. And the worst works do neither. But I guess I tend to think of it as more of a continuum, with most works falling somewhere in the middle. What do you think?