What Plot is Not
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. It’s also the method by which a writer presents her fictional story. In a well-plotted story, the chain of events all connect logically, in a cause-and-effect manner, and then they culminate in a goal or climax.
Plot is for this reason selective in the actions presented by the writer: 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 adversity can be primarily psychological, as in certain Haruki Murakami or Fydor Dostoevsky novels, or it can be primarily physical, as in certain action movies (like Die Hard, which is well-plotted), or it can be primarily romantic, as in certain romance novels, or many other things as well, including any number of cross-combinations. Silence of the Lambs is a well-plotted action thriller combined with psychological drama, as is the first Bourne Identity movie.
Plot is purpose. Plot is obstruction, struggle, conflict. Conflict is clash. A clash of what?
A clash of values. A clash of desires.
Clash is drama.
He loves her who does not love him, because she’s in love with his brother, while in the meantime the wild, powerful hunchback also loves her, and loves as well the one who raised him—the Archdeacon who loves her unrequitedly, who does not love him but loves his brother. That is plot. That is clash and conflict. That is good drama.
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. Drama creates interest by creating curiosity and suspense.
“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 are by definition about human action (or, in the case of certain fantasy or science-fiction or magical realism, human-like action). If, therefore, the subject-matter of the story isn’t dramatized in terms of action, even if that action is mainly mental, the story won’t have a unified plot structure, the lack of which is what leaves readers or viewers feeling bored or unsatisfied.
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, to puzzle it out. When I was nineteen years old, I had some very small literary success, which, small though it was, made me consciously decide to devote my life to literature. It was a full thirteen years before I saw another word of mine published, and the vast majority of that long apprenticeship was spent in my trying to understand plot and learn how to execute and incorporate it. I do not pretend that I’ve fully succeeded.
Plot is a clash of desires—a conflict of values — desires and values which are held by the characters who populate the story. Good plots must move toward some sort of goal or climax.
If as a story-writer you can come up with a strong, convincing climax, 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. The reason you’ll always be dramatically safe if you’ve conceived a good climax 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, have, at least at times, literally written backward from the climax), and you can mend the parts of your story which have gotten off the track.
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 rather are events haphazard or accidental or aimless or a moment-by-moment cataloguing, is a plotless story. Ulysses, by James Joyce, for all its stylistic focus and even eloquence, is a plotless story. A story that consists only of a series of 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 or gratuitous accident — like A Farewell to Arms — or a story that’s sluggish in its pace, is a thinly plotted story. The Godfather is thinly plotted, in my opinion, and so is War and Peace. The play that was later made into the movie called Glengarry, Glen Ross, which I do in fact like, is thinly plotted: it took over an hour for the writer (David Mamet) to smuggle in a plot, very small and he barely made it — whereas, upon the other hand a play like The Browning Version, also made into a movie (or two), may at first appear thinly plotted, for its lack of physical action; and yet the closer attention you give it, the more you realize how intricate and subtle that plot really is.
Complicated, convincing plots are hard to construct, without any doubt. Yet to dismiss plot, as many do, because it’s “invented,” or to describe plot as an “unnecessary contrivance,” is a little like dismissing chess because it has rules which the players must follow.
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 form, and in stylized form. That is what good plots do: they encapsulate and enhance, by means of the writer’s selection of events, the human experience. In doing so, they turn what in life might happen over the course of years or even decades into a condensed and concentrated form, which readers or viewers can then experience in a short span of time.
I’m the author of ten books and counting. I’ve been both traditionally published and also self-published. I write fiction and non-fiction. My latest book is a novel called Neck Between Two Heads: a story of civilization and superstition and it tells the story of a modern-day Apache man named Jon Silverthorne who uncovers something extraordinary deep within the network of caves that lace the earth beneath the Baboquivari Wilderness, some fifty miles south of Tucson.