What Plot is Not
An essay on dramatic effect
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 these many components.
Plot is integrated purposeful progression culminating in climax.
That’s one legitimate definition of plot.
Plot is purposeful progression — and this is one reason it’s difficult to isolate: because plot is motion — forward sequential motion aimed toward a goal.
Plot is non-static by definition.
Plot is the method by which a writer presents her fictional story.
In a well-plotted story, the sequence of events all connect logically — in a cause-and-effect progression — and then they culminate in climax.
Plot is for this reason selective in the actions chosen 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 reason for this is that adversity — also known as clash, conflict, struggle— creates drama.
The term “drama” is often now termed “tension” — a vague, 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 certain 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 and Daniel Craig, is an excellently plotted espionage thriller with elements of psychological drama, which the first movie (starring Sean Connery) and also Ian Flemming’s original novel lacked: neither possessed anywhere near the psychological depth which the writers of the latest movie gave to the characters of Vesper and James Bond.
Plot is purpose.
Plot is obstruction, struggle, conflict and purpose pointed toward some goal.
Conflict is clash.
But precisely what is it a clash of?
It is a clash of human values. A clash of human desires. A clash of human wants and wishes. It is a clash of means, ends, and consequences.
A convincing clash, which requires convincing characters, is what makes for good drama.
He loves her who does not love him but loves his brother, while in the meantime the wild and powerful hunchback also loves her (who does not love him) as this powerful hunchback 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 does not love him, but loves his brother.
That, reader, is good plotting. It’s good plotting because it is a convincing clash, and it is driven by opposing human desires, values, and valuations.
It is adversity and conflict that progresses inexorably from its starting-point and then moves logically forward, building toward an inevitable consequence, which is an end, a climax — meaning: a climax that seems inevitable because of the sequential elaboration, moving forward logically, and then it delivers in full.
The opening of this novel 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 this antithesis is named melodrama.
High drama is distinguished from melodrama in the following way:
Melodrama is action that’s devoid of character-development and character depth.
In its elaboration, melodrama is therefore devoid of theme.
Melodrama is action for action’s sake, without explanation of character motives.
Melodrama forsakes deep exploration, evaluation, valuations and explanations of the characters’ desires, passions, interests, values, and wants.
Melodrama replaces these things with tropes and hackneyed stereotypes: the twirling of mustaches, for instance, or two shallow young lovers hocking luges into the ocean.
This sort of melodramatic action also often includes fist-fights, gun fights, car chases, and damsels-in-distress tied to railroad tracks with a locomotive barreling at breakneck speed toward her.
Yet it is very important to note and 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 — deeper motives (i.e. psychological depth) — and it all makes logical sense.
The principle at work here is another of the many variations of body-brain harmony: the drama may be purely physical-action (i.e. the body), but the characters’ motives are the brain — which is to say, the deeper motives.
Development of character is ultimately a depiction of motive.
The better the character’s motive are explained and therefore developed, the better the writer has presented the character’s motives.
True Detective, The Bourne Identity, Silence of the Lambs, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — these are examples of deeper character development which result in drama that’s not melodrama, even though many, most, or even all of the action-scenes are indeed car-chases, fist-fights, gun fights, and other stereotypical action-scenes.
Upon the other hand, Speed and Diehard, for example, perhaps lean more toward toward melodrama. Some would even argue they cross it: they don’t have enough character depth to rise above 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, in my opinion, between real drama and an almost quintessential soap-opera-like melodrama.
Soap operas, incidentally, are almost always melodrama — to one degree or another.
Soap operas possess plenty of good action, but the characters, even the longstanding characters with many years behind them on any given show, are rarely developed with any real psychological depth or depth-of-insight into motives or passions or desires. 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.
This stratified spectrum is also the reason that plenty of 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 — and have argued, the moment the movie burst onto the scene, and I am fully prepared to continue my argument — that the most melodramatic, overrated movie of all-time is Titanic.
I regard Titanic as the epitome of melodrama.
I do not, however, think the first Terminator movie was melodrama.
Nor do I think the first two Alien movies are melodrama.
Plenty of people disagree with me about all these things, and I regard these conversations as fun and interesting and always friendly. I like having these conversations, as do many if not most people with whom I discuss such things.
Yet everywhere once in a while I come across a rabid, fanatical fan who instantly gets hair-triggered — at which point the fun and friendly conversation immediately devolves into another pro-life-pro-choice level of perfervid rage— a climate-change-denier-vs-non-catastrophic-climate change shouting-match.
One final thing I wish to say here about the subject of melodrama versus real drama: Shakespeare’s plots are almost always unoriginal and even undistinguished — garden-variety action — yet you’ll rarely hear anyone, even Shakespeare’s most caustic critics these past 400 years history, describe Shakespeare’s plays as melodramatic.
Why is this so?
It is so precisely because his psychological insights and depth-of-character (i.e. motive) 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 exactly why Shakespeare has persisted for so long, is one of the two primary reasons.
Many writers throughout history — including screenplay writers into the present day, as well as innumerable writers from antiquity — have definitely achieved Shakespeare’s level of character-depth and pyschological insight. 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 Shakespeare in creating even a fraction of as many profoundly developed characters, certainly not with anything like the concise stylistic depth Shakespeare achieved. No one compares to this.
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. I love him. Quasimodo is an incredible character, and he’s every bit as rich and as real and deep as any character Shakespeare ever created. So is Dom Claude Frollo, who cared for and raised Quasimodo. Victor Hugo has many such characters — foremost of all them, in my opinion, even more than Quasimodo, is Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, who 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 any other fictional character— 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 entire novel, is arguably the most complex, protracted, insightful, comprehensive, profound.
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.
Drama commands attention and sustains interest by generating wonder, suspense, emotional involvement — in a word, curiosity: curiosity at what the outcome will be.
“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 primarily mental-psychological, the story won’t have a unified plot structure, the lack of which is what leaves your audience 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, puzzling them 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 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 do not pretend that I’ve fully succeeded.
Plot is, I reiterate for emphasis, a clash of human desires—it is a conflict of values: desires and values which are held by the characters who populate the story.
It’s also crucial to reiterate for emphasis that good plots must move toward some sort of goal or climax.
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 very greatest orators in human history — and Cato still is regarded this way, still remembered from antiquity for the power and clarity and concision of his words — was asked the secret to his 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.
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.
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). 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 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 — 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 a story that’s sluggish in its pace, is 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 also thinly plotted. Anna Karenina, a stylistic masterpiece, is thinly plotted, but less so than War and Peace.
The play later made into a movie called Glengarry, Glen Ross, which I do for its outrageously brilliant dialogue love, is thinly plotted: it took over an hour for the writer (David Mamet) to smuggle in a kind of plot, very small and barely so, but nonetheless there. Whereas, upon the other hand, a play like The Browning Version (by a great English playwright named Terence Rattigan [1911–1977]— 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 that story, the more you see how absolutely intricate and tight— tight but subtle — the plot of that play actually is. The Browning Version is a tightly plotted story the drama of which is primarily psychological —contained in the psychologies of the two main characters: a smart young student and his teacher.
Complicated, convincing plots are hard to construct, without any doubt.
Yet to dismiss plot, as many do, because plot is “a construct,” “an invention,” or to describe plot as an “unnecessary contrivance,” is exactly equivalent to dismissing the game of chess — and all people who play it — because it has rules by which chess-players must abide. (You can replace chess in my example with, for instance, tennis, football, basketball, baseball, soccer, poker, bridge, Go, monopoly, trivia 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 form, and in stylized form. That is what good plots provide. They are the vehicle for this:
Good plots encapsulate and enhance, by means of the writer’s selection of events, the human experience.
In doing this, plot condenses what in life might happen over the span of years or even decades into a concentrated form, which readers or viewers 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.