Mark Twain once wrote, "Of course truth
is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense." Twain was
right. A novel needs to have a discernable internal logic—a plot—and
without that, most people won’t want to read it. Of course there
have been some famous works that lack this element; Finnegan’s
Wake and Swann’s Way come to mind. Does anyone really
know what the plots of those novels were? But barring the work of
Marcel Proust or James Joyce, a solid plot and narrative structure
are critical, particularly in commercial fiction.
by Lori L.
So what is plot, and how can writers be sure they
have nailed one? This article and subsequent ones in June and July
will discuss aspects of plot to answer those questions.
E.M. Forster called a story a "narrative of events
arranged in their time-sequence." A story, however, may not contain
much of a plot. If you’ve ever had a five- or six-year-old child
tell you about a movie she or he has seen, you will understand.
"First it was dark, then a big ship came and these silver guys got
out, then somebody ran and fell. There was lots of noise,
explosions, gunshots, then—oh, and wait—at the beginning, two other
guys got killed, and it was all bloody…" Such an accounting, even
with the flashback, is episodic—jumping from event to event—like the
structure of Dafoe’s novel, Moll Flanders. A story may be
episodic, but the plot is insufficient and not fully developed if it
does not contain more than just "and then…and then" throughout. It
needs to contain an orderly logic that explains more than just the
events; it also gives a coherent meaning to the story as a
Forster’s famous line differentiating between story
and plot goes something like this: ‘The King died and then the Queen
died’ is story; ‘The King died and the Queen died of grief’
constitutes the beginnings of a plot. Story tells events, but plot
inserts additional information, including the answer to the question
Why? When you get to the end of a well-plotted piece of
fiction, you understand character motivations, events, and
Plot calls for conflict and for resolution of that
conflict within a structure of time. It’s a meandering thread that
winds all over, connecting even the most disparate or puzzling
scenes from beginning to end, though not necessarily in
chronological order. Plot moves the events of the story. It carries
the story along, using momentum, action, puzzles to solve, and
characters and details to understand. Plot is not static. Modern
readers expect it to be compelling, educational, or entertaining—and
sometimes all three at once.
Jane Smiley’s novel, A Thousand Acres, is an
elaborate, modern example of a strong plot in a book that turned out
to be both literary and commercial. A Thousand Acres depicts
what happens when aging farmer Larry Cook decides to leave his land
and worldly goods to the three daughters he raised on a large farm
in Zebulon County, Iowa.
Did you notice that the story summary is accurate
but isn’t very compelling? That’s because it is only a
description—not a plot. Smiley reveals the plot as you learn
about the conflicts and problems that occur in the aftermath of
Larry Cook’s decision to cut his youngest daughter out of the will.
The events that follow includes family strife, alcoholism,
misunderstandings, adultery, death, destruction, and the unearthing
of grim family secrets while what initially seemed to be a loving
family comes unraveled. The action unfolds in such a way that the
reader is never sure of what will happen next, but by the conclusion
of the novel, the flow from beginning to middle to end is woven
seamlessly into an artful tale that resolves the conflicts and
It is exactly that process of "making sense" that
gets at the heart of plot. Plot is what happens when the writer
develops a harmonious, interrelated pattern of events and actions
that move through time in such a way that the story is fully
depicted and engages the reader.
In the 4th Century, Aristotle wrote
Poetics, which is considered the first book of literary
criticism. He specifically addressed plot, character, language,
thought, spectacle, and melody. He was the first to analyze and
write down his opinions about plot, and one thing he determined that
has tended to remain constant over the centuries is that fiction is
a unified action made whole, which usually contains a beginning, a
middle, and an end. Ancient writers favored that structure. So do
modern writers—but since the late 19th Century, the
beginning, middle, and end may not occur in a linear fashion at all.
How many times have you read a book that began somewhere near the
end, then circled back to the beginning or middle to continue with
the story? Or consider the play Waiting For Godot for which
there is obviously no ending. Many books and plays start the action
without ever telling what came before, and one is left to assume
what might have happened in the past to cause characters to become
who they are and behave how they do. Anne Tyler’s book about the
mixed-up Tull family, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,
tells the story in fits and starts, from various characters’
viewpoints, yet by the end, the reader experiences it as a unified
Aristotle also wrote that sub-plots tended to make
tragic works inferior, and he discouraged their use. By
Shakespeare’s time, however, a major plot (for instance, Beatrice
and Benedick’s love story containing much verbal sparring in Much
Ado About Nothing) and a secondary plot (Hero and Claudio’s love
story) were often utilized. The two plots wove together, and the
story line for each affected the other in a myriad of ways.
Nowadays, of course, multiple plots make for more complex and richer
But let’s return to the question, "What exactly is
plot?" If you check the Internet or your library’s catalog for books
about writing and plot, you will find that most writers, professors,
and literary analysts agree that there are a limited number of
plots. Some say 36; others, 25 or 40. Ronald Tobias wrote a book
called 20 Master Plots (And How To Build Them) in which he
outlines what he thinks are the top twenty.
"What?" you say. "Such a small number of plots?
That’s not possible!"
But it is possible, and it does make sense
that there are a limited number of plots to rely upon. Plot consists
of pattern, and we are limited by how many overall patterns we can
develop in fiction. The main plot pattern of almost every modern
novel can be boiled down to one of only a couple dozen plot lines.
Some of these include: revenge, discovery, transformation, good vs.
evil, a quest, growth/maturation/coming of age, wretched excess,
rescue, disaster, adventure, pursuit, overcoming insurmountable
obstacles, greed/pride, solving puzzles/riddles, rivalry, sacrifice,
friendship, loss/recovery, ambition, escape, temptation, love,
forbidden love, the underdog, and rags-to-riches stories. (There are
likely a few more, but these are sufficient basics.)
One of the most common plots of all time is about
love. The largest segment of published fiction is, believe it or
not, romance. Every romance includes the same general plot: boy
meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Of course many
authors play with the plot to conform it to their own vision.
Perhaps it’s girl meets girl or boy meets boy. Sometimes maybe the
boy gets a different girl in the end—or a kind-hearted alien. In
addition, other plots—or dual plots—are often included (coming of
age, rivalry, adventure, etc.) But the basic plot is similar, and
the differences from book to book exist in the characters, details,
Another familiar plot example is found in J.K.
Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. The main plot is the growth,
maturation, and coming of age of the young wizard. Sub-plots abound:
adventure, friendship, loss/recovery, the underdog, and good vs.
evil. When twined together, the main and sub-plots make for a wild
and rollicking good read.
Compare a very different book, J.D. Salinger’s
Catcher in the Rye. It, too, is about growth, maturation, and
coming of age. If you break down the elements of both Rowling’s and
Salinger’s books, the main plot patterns are the same: each youth is
misunderstood and attempts to make his way in the world in spite of
uncaring adults. Through a series of confrontations with others,
their stories move from beginning to end and to resolution. But it’s
the thoughts and deeds of Harry Potter and Holden Caulfield that
distinguish each book as unique.
As a youth, I was mad for mysteries, and I loved
Earl Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series best. Every one of
his mysteries seemed new and different to me, and yet the plot to
each was the same: somebody was accused of murder and faced
insurmountable odds. Without the help of Perry, Della, and Paul, the
innocent person would be convicted. Perry and his helpers
researched, investigated, and confronted potential witnesses before
finally unmasking the guilty party. How many other mysteries have
been written based on exactly that same plot?
Not surprisingly, every one of the plots listed
above can also be found in the first book ever printed, the Bible.
Paraphrasing Ecclesiastes, there’s really "nothing new under the
sun," just infinite ways for individual writers to create new
variations using the old plots. This provides the possibility of
falling in love with another author’s plots and ideas and using them
as a springboard into new creations.
It is possible to take the general plot from
practically any novel, exchange the characters for creations of your
own, place the story in a new locale, add your own details and
ideas, and generate a brand new, copyrightable literary sensation.
Peter Benchley did this with his novel Jaws, which might be
considered his take on Moby Dick. Dorothy Allison wrote
Bastard Out Of Carolina, which one could argue comes directly
from the tradition of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and
Oliver Twist. And the example I used above, A Thousand
Acres, is a surprisingly similar retelling of Shakespeare’s
King Lear, right down to Larry Cook’s three daughters’ names
being reminiscent of Lear’s daughters. Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia
become Rose, Ginny, and Caroline, and the arc
of events is so similar that anyone who has read King Lear
notices immediately. Yet A Thousand Acres, its themes, and
the characters developed are richer and more fully realized than
even Shakespeare managed. Jane Smiley may have lifted the plot, but
she produced a fascinating new creation that is compelling and all
To end this first installment about plot, let me
quote the words of screenwriter Robert McKee from his book entitled
Story: "To PLOT means to navigate through the dangerous
terrain of story and when confronted by a dozen branching
possibilities to choose the correct path. Plot is the writer’s
choice of events and their design in time."
Navigating Dangerous Terrain© Lori L. Lake, 2003
Author of the novels Different
Dress, Gun Shy, Under The Gun, and Ricochet In Time.
From Lake’s untitled book about novel writing, a work in
Not for distribution or copying without the express
permission of the author. Lori Lake can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and
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