To Plot or Not? Anthony Bonds Ponders
What is a plot? On the most basic level, it’s what happens in a story, right? More specifically, plot is the chronological series of events that happen in the story, with an emphasis on causality.
Take E.M. Forrester’s famous example from his Aspects of the Novel: “‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.”
When writing a story, a good plot is one element that will keep readers turning pages. A plot excites the need to know what will happen next—and it’s what keeps readers hooked. Forrester goes on to say, “A plot demands intelligence and memory on the part of the reader, to remember incidents and create connecting threads between them. This allows the novelist to delay explanations and introduce human mystery to the narrative. Mystery is essential to a plot, and cannot be appreciated without intelligence, part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.”
This pretty much sums up my thoughts about plot. Until recently.
This past weekend, I had an interesting discussion about plot with the well-known author, Samuel R. Delaney (in Boston, at the annual science fiction and fantasy conference, Readercon). Sharing his thoughts on plot to a small group of us, he said that plot only exists in outlines. On the page, plot dissolves.
“Let me tell you a plot,” Delaney said to us, “and let’s see if you can tell me what movie this is. A stranger comes from far away and commits a murder, then joins up with three friends in order to set out and eventually kill again. Sound familiar? It’s the plot to the Wizard of Oz.”
Delaney intentionally omitted what is arguably the most important aspect of the plot, which is the main character’s desire to return home. His point was this: when extracted from the context of the story, the events (i.e. the plot) can be perceived subjectively. A good story is much more than simply what happens.
Dorothy’s desire to return home is vital to the plot, but so are the people she meets, the trials she faces, and even the songs they sing (we get the clearest sense of Dorothy’s ennui through song, after all). The plot—what happens and why—is only a part of the picture that is the larger work of art.
Forrester’s and Delaney’s comments on plot aren’t incompatible. Forrester says plot is the element of causality in the book that keeps readers on the edge of their seats, salivating to find out what happens next. Delaney suggests that plot is a good tool to use in an outline in order to sketch out what happens in a story, but that it’s just a springboard. To be sure, if you’re tied too closely to your plot and are unwilling to veer from it, even for the sake of richer characterization or a more plausible story, then you’ve got a problem.
Whether you’re a meticulous plotter or not, remember to be flexible when writing. Listen to your story, it wants to guide you. If you believe in your project, and are writing it with love and attention, your characters will tell you where they want to go.
Anthony Bonds is the author of The Moonflower King, and is a member of Calypso Editions. Having earned his MFA in fiction from San Diego State University, he has worked as an editor and designer in publishing since 2008 and lives in San Diego with his wife. You can read his blog at www.anthonybonds.com.
He is also included in A Year in Ink, Vol. 5 and recently chosen to be the prose editor for the upcoming A Year In Ink, Vol. 6.