Lit Up
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Lit Up

What Plot is Not

An essay on dramatic effect

(My image)

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 — as it is not alone any one of the other things listed directly above.

Plot is the integration of these many components.

Plot is purposeful progression — and this is one reason that plot is difficult to isolate: because it is movement and 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 — 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 or conflict — creates drama. The 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 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, and in the meantime the wild and powerful hunchback also loves her (who does not love him) and loves as well, this hunchback, the one who cared for him and raised him from infancy—the Archdeacon who loves her who does not love him because she loves his brother. That is plot. That is clash, adversity, 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 and sustains interest by generating suspense, emotional involvement — in a word, curiosity.

“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 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 small literary success, which, small though it was, made me decide, very consciously, 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 my long apprenticeship was spent in 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—it is 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 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), 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 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 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 and The Unbearable Lightness of Being — 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 the novel War and Peace.

The play later made into a movie called Glengarry, Glen Ross, which I like, is thinly plotted: it took over an hour for the writer (David Mamet) to smuggle in a plot, very small and barely so, but there. 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 plot is “a construct,” “an invention,” or to describe plot as an “unnecessary contrivance,” is like dismissing the game of chess because it has rules which chess-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 provide the vehicle for: they encapsulate and enhance, by means of the writer’s selection of events, the human experience. In doing this, plot condense 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.


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.



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