Aren't these just two ways to say the same thing? Does it really matter if you don't know the difference?
On a very basic level STORY is what happens and PLOT is how it happens. There are various simplified explanations of this, the most famous probably being E.M. Forster’s:
The King died and then the Queen died – is a story.
The King died and then the Queen died from grief – is a plot.
The suggestion being that plot provides a deliberate causal relationship between events that tells the reader the reasons for what happened, and what it means in a wider context. This is all very well but how does it help you to be a better storyteller?
The problem is when people tell you what the story is about they do it backwards. They’ve read/seen the story first and then reduce it to something like: It’s about a man’s struggle against impossible odds to save his true love. Which, if you already know what it’s referring to, if you have the context, will sound very grand and noble and fitting.
But if you’re a writer planning a story and this is what you’re aiming to base an unwritten story on, does it sound like a good idea? I’d say the answer is that there’s no way to tell. It might be. Or it might not. A story idea with no other context can be pretty generic and meaningless.
Similarly, people often say story comes from character, or that they are happy to follow a character whom they enjoy, but again this is looking at it in hindsight. If you’ve just started reading a story, how do you know if you like the character yet? It’s only by what they do that you get to know them, which means you need to come up with something interesting for them to do before anyone will start liking them.
Which brings me to the core thing about ‘story’ from the perspective of a writer. A story idea has to be more than an on-the-nose literal breakdown of what your story is about. An accurate summary of events isn't automatically interesting.
Writing fiction is storytelling, and if you don't have a good idea for a story then it doesn't matter how clever the plot, or how beautiful the prose.
Bear in mind that the same story can be told in numerous ways. Different plots can be about the same thing. And I think that is the key to understanding what story is.
Let’s take the classic tale of Robin Hood.
A man’s struggle for justice in a medieval land where the laws and lawmakers are corrupt.
You know the characters and setting, and the general touchstone events that occur and what they represent, but you could have those events occur in any number of sequences.
But if you didn’t know this was Robin Hood, would the story summary above sound like an interesting story? I’m not asking if it has the potential to be interesting, I’m asking does it sound like it from the summary?
What if I said the story was: An outlaw in Medieval England steals from the rich and gives to the poor.
Even though this way of putting it is still not very specific about exactly who, what and how, it narrows the concept into a much more focused idea with an element of the unexpected which makes it interesting. And that's what story is, an idea that implies more than its literal meaning.
Rather than a vague idea like it’s good vs evil, or a woman has to choose between two guys, a story only becomes a story worth telling when it has an idea in it that is tangible, something that catches the attention from the start.. And the plot then becomes easy: it shows what happens when you slot a character into the idea. Well, maybe easy isn't the right word...