What Plot is Not

An essay on dramatic effect

Ray Harvey
Lit Up

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(My image)

Plot is not style.
Plot is not memoir.
Plot is not diary.
Plot is not journal.
Plot is not history.
Plot is not dialogue.
Plot is not essay.
Plot is not philosophy.
Plot is not sex.
Plot is not chronicle.
Plot is not action alone.

Plot is something deeper and more difficult to get inside the heart of: it’s a progressive and purposeful sequence of events.

This is the reason that plot is not action alone — just as it is not alone any one of the other things listed directly above.

Plot is the integration of many components.

Plot is integrated purposeful progression culminating in climax and then resolving.

That’s one legitimate definition of plot.

Plot is the method by which a writer presents her fictional story.

Plot is non-static by definition.

In a well-plotted story, the sequence of events all connect logically — in a cause-and-effect progression— and then they culminate in climax.

Purposeful progression is the reason that plot can be difficult to isolate: because plot is forward sequential motion pointed toward a goal.

Plot is the opposite of the unchanging and the still.

Plot is for this reason selective in the actions chosen by the writer.

A story wherein the characters move without aim or act without clear goal-pointed purpose is an aimless, purposeless story. Such a story will never engage readers, even if the writing is stylistically excellent.

Readers, all readers, you and I included, require a sense of uncertainty — uncertainty of outcome in the sought-after goal — so that we grow emotionally invested in a story. A brooding sense of expectation — the expectation of surprise — is ultimately what creates interest and generates anticipation.

When there’s nothing discernible to care about, no discernible goal, and therefore no clear idea of why we should keep reading or watching or listening, we the audience quickly lose interest because we can find no point or purpose to what we’re reading or seeing or hearing.

Plot is the opposite of the journalistically recorded.

To plot is to create.

The root of the word plot in a literary context comes from the Old-French word complot, which means to conspire.

Plot requires some form of adversity or obstacle.

“Good stories stem from characters under adversity,” wrote Crawford Killian.

The reason for this is that adversity — also known as obstacle, clash, conflict, struggle, or trials-and-tribulation— creates drama.

The term “drama” is often now termed “tension” — a vague and overused word, which in my experience as both a writer and teacher of fiction-writing confuses much more than it clarifies.

The plot-drama created by characters under adversity can be primarily psychological, as in certain Haruki Murakami and Fydor Dostoevsky novels.

Or it can be primarily physical, as in certain action movies, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is well-plotted.

Or it can be primarily romantic, as in any number of romance novels.

Or it can be many other things as well, including any number of cross-combinations.

Silence of the Lambs, for example, is a well-plotted action thriller combined with psychological drama, as is the first Bourne Identity movie.

The latest movie version of Casino Royal, starring Judy Dench, Eva Green, and Daniel Craig, is an well-plotted espionage thriller with elements of psychological drama that both the original Ian Flemming novel and also the first movie (starring Sean Connery) completely lacked: neither possessed anywhere near the psychological depth which the writers of the latest movie gave to the characters of Vesper Lynd and James Bond.

Plot is purpose.

Plot is obstruction, struggle, conflict, and purpose pointed toward some goal.

Conflict is clash.

Precisely what is conflict a clash of?

It’s a clash of human values. A clash of human desires. A clash of human interests, wants, wishes, dreams. It’s a clash of means, ends, and consequences.

A convincing clash, which requires convincing characters, is what makes for good drama.

He loves her who doesn’t love him but loves his brother, as the wild and powerful hunchback also loves her, and loves too the one who cared for him and raised him from infancy — who, indeed, found this wild and powerful hunchback when the hunchback was but an infant, who was left upon the steps of Notre Dame cathedral: Dom Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon, who loves her who doesn’t love him but loves his brother.

That, reader, is good plotting. It’s good plotting because it’s a convincing clash driven by opposing human desires, dreams, interests, values, valuations, and goals.

It’s adversity.

Adversity is conflict, which is clash, and this conflict and clash progress inexorably from the starting-point and then move logically forward, building toward a seemingly inevitable consequence, which is the climax.

I emphasize the word seemingly because in a well-plotted story, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the sequential elaboration is logical — yet logical here does not mean predictable but just the opposite: The unexpected — also known as the plot-twist — is integral to good storytelling.

Seemingly inevitable in this context means that the sequential progression of events makes sense, even when there are twists you didn’t see coming. Such plot twists, when they’re done well, fit into the story with perfect logic and unity and therefore have the power to delight readers or viewers with the magic of surprise. The story doesn’t stop its logical movement or its build toward climax, which in turn delivers — even when there are surprises in store.

Such are the stories that hold audiences rapt and leave audiences feeling giddy with satisfaction — satisfaction with the carefully crafted structure and the twists and turns, which after it’s all over seem inevitable, because they’re entirely logical, even when audiences don’t anticipate what’s coming.

What’s coming is the consequence.

The consequence is the end.

Everything that precedes it is the means to the end.

The consequence is a component of the climax.

The opening of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is flawed because the story begins slowly — poorly paced for nearly 100 pages — but that flaw is minuscule in comparison with the totality of the drama. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is by any standard high drama, as time and history have proven.

High drama —i.e. real drama — has an antithesis, and its name is melodrama.

High drama is distinguished from melodrama in the following way:

Melodrama is action devoid of character-development and character depth.

In its full elaboration, melodrama is devoid of theme.

Melodrama is action for action’s sake or romance for romance sake, without explanation of character or character motives.

Melodrama forsakes deep exploration of the characters’ dreams, desires, passions, interests, wishes, and wants.

Melodrama replaces these things with tropes, platitudes, and hackneyed stereotypes — such as the twirling of mustaches, or damsels-in-distress tied to railroad tracks with locomotives barreling at breakneck speed toward them.

This sort of classic melodramatic action also often includes explosions, fist-fights, gun fights, car chases, and orphans-in-distress.

Yet it’s vitally important to emphasize that these action-story tropes and stereotypes can still be used effectively and without melodrama, provided one thing: the writer takes the considerable thought and time required to develop the characters in such a way that the action comes from well-developed motives — i.e. deeper motives and psychological depth — and that it all coalesces logically.

The principle at work here is nothing more or less than another of the many variations of body-brain harmony: the drama may be purely physical action (i.e. the body), while the characters’ motives represent the brain (i.e. the psychology that motivates the action).

Development of character is ultimately a depiction of motive.

The better the character’s motives are explained and therefore developed, the better the writer has presented depth of character.

True Detective, The Bourne Identity, Silence of the Lambs, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Casino Royale — these are all examples of deeper character development which result in drama that’s not melodrama, even though many, most, or even all the action-scenes are indeed car-chases, fist-fights, gun fights, explosions, and other stereotypical action-scenes.

On the other hand, many will argue that Speed and Diehard lean more toward melodrama.

The Matrix movies, like the Star Wars movies and the Lord of the Rings movies, are perhaps more debatable.

The television series Twin Peaks veers wildly back-and-forth between real drama, high drama, unbelievably poignant drama, with, at other times, an over-written caricaturization of soap-operatic proportions.

Soap-operas are almost always melodrama — to one degree or another.

Soap-operas possess plenty of action, but the characters, even the longstanding characters with many years behind them on any given show, are rarely developed with any real sophistication or psychological depth. Soap-opera characters overwhelmingly remain two-dimensional. (The movie Tootsie, starring Jessica Lange, Dustin Huffman, and Bill Murray, was largely about this very subject: drama versus melodrama in the world of soap-opera.)

Think of drama-vs-melodrama as existing along a spectrum of degrees, which it does.

Plenty of movies, television shows, plays, stories, and novels possess elements of both.

It is the preponderance in total — the totality of the story, I mean — that ultimately determines whether or not the designation of melodrama applies or whether the designation of real drama applies.

Good plot is good drama.

Good drama is real drama.

This stratified spectrum is also the reason that plenty of rational people debate plenty of different stories—good debate, healthy debate: because the depiction of character motive and character psychology is, especially when the story is protracted (a la Game of Thrones), a subject about which rational people can legitimately disagree.

I, for instance, would argue that the most melodramatic movie of all-time is Titanic.

I regard Titanic as the epitome of melodrama.

I do not, however, think the first Terminator movie is melodrama.

Nor do I think the first two Alien movies are melodrama.

Plenty of people disagree with me about these things, and I regard these conversations as friendly and interesting and pleasant to have. I enjoy discussing these subjects, as do those good people with whom I regularly discuss such things. Yet every once in a while I come across a rabid, fanatical fan of some particular book or movie (like Titanic) who’s instantly hair-triggered — at which point the enjoyable, friendly nature of the conversation devolves into another pro-life-pro-choice level of dogmatic rage.

There’s one final thing I’d like note about the subject of melodrama versus real drama:

William Shakespeare’s plots are almost always unoriginal and even undistinguished, his themes often (though not always) fatalistic and uninspiring. No person I know denies this. Yet you’ll rarely if ever hear anyone, even Shakespeare’s most caustic critics these past 400 years, describe Shakespeare’s plays as melodramatic.

Why is this so?

It’s so precisely because Shakespeare’s psychological insight and depth-of-character are the greatest the world has ever seen — and this is among hundreds and hundreds of different Shakespeare-created characters, many of whom (like Cordelia in King Lear) have only a handful of lines.

This, reader, if you’ve ever wondered why Shakespeare has persisted for so many centuries, with an undiminished reputation as a writer, is one of the two primary reasons.

The other reason is the unparalleled depth of his writing style — what Vladimir Nabokov called “the verbal-poetic texture of Shakespeare” — which is also the greatest the world has ever known.

Many writers throughout history — including screenplay writers in the present day, as well as innumerable writers from antiquity — have most definitely achieved Shakespeare’s level of character-depth and pyschological insights. Some, in fact (like Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment, Demons, and The Idiot), have surpassed Shakespeare’s character-depth and psychological insights. But no one — and I mean no one — has come close to William Shakespeare in creating even a fraction of as many profoundly developed characters, and certainly not with anything near the concision and stylistic depth that Shakespeare achieved.

Quasimodo, for instance, the unforgettable hunchback in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, is unlike any character I’m aware of, in all the world’s literature. Quasimodo is an incredible character. He’s every bit as rich and as real and deep as any character Shakespeare created. So is Dom Claude Frollo, who cared for and raised Quasimodo. So is the character of Gwynplaine in Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughed. Gwynplaine is one of my all-time favorite characters, from any writer, from any era. Gwynplaine influenced me beyond measure. Victor Hugo has many such characters — foremost of all them, in my opinion, even more than Quasimodo and Gwynplaine, is Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, whom I have more than once, at various points in my life, argued is the greatest literary character ever created. This doesn't necessarily mean I like him more than Gwynplaine or certain other fictional characters — though I do love Jean Valjean — but rather that his psychological depth as a fictional creation, which includes most fundamentally the full and sustained depiction-of-character motive throughout the entirety of a very long novel, is arguably the most complex, protracted, insightful, comprehensive, and profound in all the world’s literature. Yet these novels are by any standard massive — and most certainly compared with Shakespeare’s brief plays. Added to which, they’re novels, which by definition possess narrative, which is precisely what plays and screenplays lack.

Real drama is what keeps the reader reading late into the night and the listener listening late into the night and the movie-watcher watching late into the night.

Real drama commands attention and sustains interest by generating wonder, suspense, emotional involvement — in a word, curiosity: curiosity at what the outcome will be — because the writer has plotted the story in such a way that the outcome is uncertain, surprise inevitable, and because of the writer’s skill in making her audience feel attached to the characters and the human actions they’re experiencing. And what will happen to them?

“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere,” said Kurt Vonnegut.

Plot is neither haphazard events, nor is it merely a series of conversations strung together — even if those conversations are in and of themselves interesting.

Plot is not a catalogue of day-to-day, minute-by-minute activities.

Novels and plays are by definition about human action (or, in the case of certain fantasy or science-fiction or magical realism stories, human-like action).

If, therefore, the subject-matter of the story isn’t dramatized in terms of action, even if that action is primarily mental or psychological, the story won’t have a unified plot structure, the lack of which is what leaves audiences feeling bored or unsatisfied, and unattached to the characters because the audience isn’t invested in them.

Good plotting is difficult.

It’s difficult to do, but it’s also difficult to get the head around, especially when you’re first learning it, striving to grasp its intricacies, puzzling it out.

When I was 19-years-old, I had some small literary success, which, small though it was, made me decide, very consciously, to devote my entire life to literature.

It was a full 13 years later before I saw another word of mine in print.

The vast majority of my long apprenticeship was spent in trying to understand plot and learn how to convincingly execute it. I don’t pretend I’ve succeeded.

Plot is, I reiterate for emphasis, a clash of human desires.

Plot is a conflict of values.

Plot is the pitting against of different human (or human-like) desires and values, which are held by the characters who populate the story.

Good plots must move toward some sort of goal or climax.

This is unquestionably the most crucial point to grasp about plotting and to incorporate into plotting, and if you only remember one thing about what I’m saying here, let it be that.

Without a sequential, forward progression that moves toward a goal or climax, the story will fail — even if it succeeds in every other aspect, and even if the writing is stylistically spectacular.

In this sense, climax is the most important component in good storytelling. It’s more important than plot twists and other unexpected surprises in the story, though they are often inextricably linked, especially when the plot is good.

Climax is the nucleus of good plotting because every good climax contains the essence — or the core — of the story’s idea.

When the ancient Roman orator Cato, who in his lifetime was considered one of the greatest orators in human history and who’s still regarded this way — who’s still remembered from antiquity for the sheer power and clarity of his words — was asked the secret to creating consistently brilliant orations, Cato replied:

“First, find the essential core of your message, and all your other words will fall into place around it.”

That is what a good climax is: the essential core of your message, toward which your entire story has been moving and around which all the other action orbits.

Whenever I have the honor of teaching fiction-writing to aspiring writers — writers of any and every age — I invariably, in the first five minutes of the first class, begin by urging everyone to think first and foremost, even before any of the rest of the story is conceived, of a strong convincing climax. I urge people to imitate climaxes in books or movies which they themselves find exciting and satisfying. “Get to your climax as quickly as possible,” I say.

Why do I go about explaining it this way?

Because if as a story-writer you begin with a strong, convincing climax in your mind, you’ll always be dramatically safe, no matter how many parts of the story leading up to your climax miss the mark or go off-track. It stands as your terminus point. It is the eye in your needle toward which all your threads are aimed.

The reason you’ll always be dramatically safe if you’ve conceived a good climax first is that you can, in effect, always write backward from that climax (either literally or inside your head — and more than a few famous writers, like Eudora Welty and Truman Capote and Ray Bradbury, have, at least at times, literally written backward from the climax). You can then easily mend the parts of your story which have gotten off-the-track.

Provided your climax is strong and convincing, you’ll aways be dramatically safe.

There are, of course, degrees of plot-versus-plotlessness.

A story that has a sequence of events that aren’t motivated by purposeful action, but consists rather of events haphazard or accidental or aimless or are a moment-by-moment cataloguing, is a plotless story. Ulysses, by James Joyce, and Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy, for all their stylistic focus and even eloquence and poetry, are plotless stories. So is Marcel Proust’s colossal and impressive oeuvre: Remembrance of Things Past.

A story that consists only of a series of conversations — even good, well-written conversations — is a plotless story. The movie Dinner with Andre is an example of one such, as is the movie Mindwalk.

A story that has a sequence of events which does progress purposefully, or even semi-purposefully, and yet which is resolved by pure chance, coincidence, or gratuitous accident — like A Farewell to Arms or The Unbearable Lightness of Being or This Property is Condemned or Chinatown — or a story that’s sluggish in its pace, is a poorly plotted story or a thinly plotted story.

Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather is thinly plotted, in my opinion, and so are The Godfather movies.

Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace is thinly plotted.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a stylistic masterpiece, is also thinly plotted but much less so than War and Peace.

The play later made into a movie called Glengarry, Glen Ross, which for its absolutely outrageous dialogue I do love, is most definitely thinly plotted: it took over an hour for David Mamet, the writer and director, to smuggle in a kind of plot, very small and barely so, but nonetheless there. Whereas, upon the other hand, Mamet’s movie State and Main is well-plotted and cleverly so.

A play like The Browning Version, by a great English playwright named Terence Rattigan (1911–1977), also made into a movie or two (or three), may at first appear thinly plotted, for its lack of physical action. Yet the closer attention you give that story, the more you see how absolutely intricate and tight— tight but subtle — the plot of that story really is. The Browning Version is a tightly plotted, brilliantly dramatized story the main action of which is primarily psychological—contained in the psychologies of the two main characters: a smart young student and his teacher.

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest is also tightly plotted, but the action of it is psychological, not physical, and the tone is lighthearted, the style witty and clever, and so its tight plot is often overlooked.

Complicated, convincing plots are hard to construct, there’s no question about this.

Yet to dismiss plot, as many do, because plot is “a construct” or “an invention,” or to describe plot as an “unnecessary contrivance,” is exactly equivalent to dismissing the game of chess — and all people who play the game of chess — because chess has rules by which chess-players must abide. (You can replace chess in my example with, for instance, tennis, golf, football, basketball, baseball, soccer, poker, billiards, bridge, cribbage, scrabble, Go, monopoly, trivial pursuit, or any other good game or fun sport, and the exact same principle applies.)

Plots are invented because there exists within the human mind, which is inductive and therefore long-range, a profound need to see human life in encapsulated, intensified form, and in stylized form. That’s what good plots provide. Plots are vehicles for this.

Good plots encapsulate and enhance, by means of the writer’s selection of events, the human experience.

Plots intensify the human experience.

In doing so, plot condenses what in life might happen over the span of years or even decades into a concentrated form, which readers or viewers or listeners then experience in a short span of time, and this, in turn, is what gives us all, as an audience, the profound satisfaction of having lived through an experience.

That experience is called the artistic experience.

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Ray Harvey
Lit Up
Editor for

Creative director of all things delightful.