A Note on Plotting the Plot
Plot is one of those things readers of fiction are very familiar with. It’s probably what got us to read fiction in the first place. Besides, everyone with a sense of sequence will have a sense of plot, so it’s not just something habitual readers of fiction will feel close to home.
Here’s a fairly simple definition: according to the Norton Introduction to Fiction, the plot is “the arrangement of the action” (p. 71). There’s a nice take on this subject in chapter 6 of Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. He says that the “theory of narrative postulates the existence of a level of structure—what we generally call ‘plot’—independent of any particular language or representational medium. Unlike poetry, which gets lost in translation, plot can be preserved in translation from one language or one medium into another: a silent film or a comic strip can have the same plot as a short story” (p. 84). A plot is never wholly in the story. It is an abstraction, a summary of a piece of fiction’s main events. Two people will probably never describe it in exactly the same way.
I don’t want a make a grand statement on plot. I just want to share a quick way in which I put a story’s plot to the test. My test is straightforward: I tell the story’s plot to someone else. Of course, I’ll ruin the tale for that person, but I’ve found at least one receptive audience for that kind of thing. This usually tells me if the plot passes muster.
Take “The Nice Little People,” which I’ve described before. It’s a great story. When I described it to someone, that person didn’t stop talking about the story for a couple of days (based solely on a retelling, mind you). That’s how good it was. To put it more precisely: that’s how good its plot was.
Another example. I’ve been reading Hobart 10 lately, on and off; I’ll post something about it when I’m done. I’ve found at least two brilliant short stories in what I’ve read. There’s a third that has a brilliant scene. Well, I sat down with someone and related the plots from those three stories. Before I was done with each, judging by the person’s reactions, I already knew if the plot would get a positive or a negative reaction. Two of the three stories fizzled out. One of them proved captivating.
I want to be really finicky with what this means to me, though. This doesn’t mean that a story is bad because its plot doesn’t stand up to a retelling. In fact, I still think the two (or three) brilliant Hobart stories were brilliant, even after they flunked the plot test. There is just so much more to a story than plot. Many readers, many writers, and many commentators often put plot above all. I’ve often heard that a good plot makes a good story, or that a narrative text without a plot is just not a story. (Here’s Jonathan Culler, even, in the same book I just quoted from: “A mere sequence of events does not make a story” [p. 84].)
I see it differently, though. Perhaps one of the greatest distinctive traits of modern and contemporary literature, as it has drifted away from an oral culture and into mass-produced writing, is its decreased reliance on plot. Sometimes plot can be dispensed altogether (at least in a traditional or highly structured sense), and we can still have a great story. There are a zillion of fantastic stories whose strength is language or structure or playfulness, and whose plot is weak and ailing. Try them real-time before a live audience, and they’ll probably be a total failure. When you tell stories orally, plot is one of your best allies. It keeps people’s interest, it creates suspense. That’s why I think my simple test, administered orally, is a good measure of a story’s plot. I like reading stories that I can retell. But I also like stories that depend on other things, things that are best read on a page (or a screen).