Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why Plot?

Do you, as a writer, know ~why~ you need a plot? Have you ever asked yourself this question?

I have. I ask that question quite a lot, actually: Why plot?

Hemingway never had a plot. Angela's Ashes didn't have a plot. Most Cormac McCarthy books lack a plot, as do many of Stephen King's works.

Short stories have no plot. They don't have the protagonist-antagonist interaction, or a character arc, or a three-scene conformity. Many of the chapters and scenes in your favorite books -- Harry Potter for instance -- have nothing to do with the plot.

It is inarguable -- so please do not try -- to state that plot is necessary for a piece to be readable, publishable, or recognizable as a great work. There are simply too many exceptions that violate this rule.

So why plot? What is its function? Why do genre publishers insist on the dang thing?

I'll tell you why: To drive Dear Reader to the end.

That's it.

The only reason you need the plot is to provide thrust and rhythm to the reader. Dear Reader rides the ups and downs of the plot, pacing fast, then slow, and finally, at the end, in a mad rush, they climax and THE END, thanks for playing, what was this author's name again, and who cares because I got mine, where's my next book.

But aren't there other ways to please the reader? Look at Life of Pi. No plot there. The little guy floats in a boat with a tiger and lands in Mexico. No protagonist. No antagonist. Just a boy and a tiger and some turtle blood, which apparently you can drink.

Rather than using a plot or a pro/antagonist conflict as thrust, the author used a story promise, a big question that I've stated before as the only question you need inspire in the reader: What's next? He also used prose, imagery, and scene-driven conflict to sail the reader through to the end.

He kept you turning the page until Pi landed in Mexico and that was a good stopping point and so he stopped writing. The end. Was it good for you, honey?

Using the plot as the only means of reader thrust is severely limiting yourself! Flip over Dear Reader and use good prose. Stand em up and use a story question. Hold em upside-down and use imagery to woo them into the next chapter.

Use plot, sure, but understand why you are using plot. Understand that it is not the only way to satisfy the reader, nor is it a steadfast rule in literature. It may be the most common means of thrust, but there are many more ways you can entice a reader to complete book.

What other ways can you inspire Dear Reader to read to THE END? What methods can you combine with plot to give Dear Reader added incentive to finish your book?

- Eric


Matthew MacNish said...

Sometimes the voice, the diction, the style of the writing is enough. You make a great point here and used a perfect example. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is the best book I've read so far this year and yet both its plot and its characters are thin.

The beauty is that the writing is SO good, that you just don't care.

Phoenix said...

I think the characters can drive readers (and the plot, for that matter) to the end and leave them feeling satisfied. It's all in the great balancing act of characters and plot - you can't have too much or too little of one if the other doesn't balance it out. This is what makes a book great.

Just don't tell James Joyce that. ;)

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I have no idea what you're talking about.
Maybe plot means something else to you, but to me, the plot is what happens in the story. Which is everything that's not description. Even dialog is plot if someone hears it.
Are you talking about "plot-driven" vs otherwise? 'Cause that I get, but every story has a plot, they just aren't all plot-driven.

Julie Musil said...

I struggle with this! As you read on my blog, I'm reading about it, trying to get better. Ugh!

LAF said...

Reminds me of something I've only recently discovered. The rules, or more precisely heuristics, I read about are not hard and fast. And they are not the only way to achieve something. And if you violate one, the prose can still be good, due to excellent use of another.

Jemi Fraser said...

Wondering how the characters will get out of the messes they're in always makes me read on :)

Olivia J. Herrell, writing as O.J. Barré said...

Oh shoot. We need a plot? Dang. :)


Raquel Byrnes said...

I was little distracted with all the thrust and rhythm talk to be truthful...as a writer, after reading that entry, I feel like should be buying somebody flowers or something.

Nighfala said...

I agree with Andrew. Unless you are writing stream-of-consciousness narrative, you have plot. Even then, unless it's like random song lyrics or something, you have plot.

Plot is story. Story is plot. You can't separate the two.

Nighfala said...

P.S. I would also argue that every single sentence in Harry Potter drives the plot. It may be a subplot rather than the main plot, but Rowling is a master of plotting. I am in awe of her abilities.

What makes a good plot good is its invisibility. It seems to rise naturally from the characters and the situation. I think that is what you are talking about here. Plots that the reader doesn't sense are coming from the author.

Nighfala said...

pps raquel you are too funny!

Jai Joshi said...

As with everything in writing, the key is to understand it before you do it.


Anonymous said...

Excellent article. I left something for you on my blog :)