Plotz and Plots

A while ago I was trying to plot a story which was (and is still) giving me some trouble and suddenly my brain plotzed. I had one of those mental crises where I realized I didn’t know something I thought I knew.

What is a plot?

Dictionaries are useless for this sort of thing, of course. Here’s the OED: “The plan or scheme of a literary or dramatic work; the main events of a play, novel, film, opera, etc., considered or presented as an interrelated sequence; a storyline.” So if I take out the non-main stuff, what remains is the plot. Sort of like defining a statue as what’s left when all the non-statue marble has been removed. Thanks, OED Rex!

Aristotle’s Poetics is a little more help: “the plot being a representation of a piece of action must represent a single piece of action and the whole of it; and the component incidents must be so arranged that if one of them be transposed or removed, the unity of the whole is dislocated and destroyed. For if the presence or absence of a thing makes no visible difference, then it is not an integral part of the whole.” There’s more about the plot–what’s a good one as opposed to a bad one, etc.–but it’s mostly focused narrowly on tragedy.

And anyway, I didn’t even look at that stuff until my crisis was over. I got up and walked around muttering to myself, my preferred way of resolving any issue. (It makes me very popular on transatlantic flights, or so I am willing to believe.)

Plot, I decided, isn’t just a set of events, even significant events. It has to be a sequence of events that are causally linked somehow. But even that isn’t enough. If I want coffee, I make it or buy it, and the events in that sequence of actions are causally related, but they’re not especially significant, even to me: it’s the end result that matters. If some significant events happen in the course of acquiring the coffee (e.g. I find a silver dollar while ransacking the house for change; I have to kick my way through a pack of wild spotted dogs to get to the door of the coffee place; etc.) so much the better (for storytelling purposes). But what really matters, what distinguishes a plot from other event-sets, is that it is a significant series of causally linked events. The events may or not be significant, but their cumulative effect must be.

Significant to whom? is the salient question. To the audience, certainly, but more immediately to some character in the story. This isn’t actually necessary. You could write a story with a lot of ironic force where the events, meaningless to any viewpoint character, matter to the reader. But usually it’ll be the other way: the reader measures significance by the impact on some character or characters in the story.

With that out of the way, I stopped plotzing and went back to plotting.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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12 Responses to Plotz and Plots

  1. kythiaranos says:

    Are you a plot-as-you-go writer or do you need it all organized in your head before you start? I wish I was the latter, since I seem to draft by flailing. (Hey, when we’re famous bestselling writers, we can charter flights together so we won’t bother anyone else!) I got some good comments on a story recently, wrote out my ideas for plot changes, and went ‘ehn.’ Couldn’t make myself write it.

    • JE says:

      Hey, when we’re bestselling authors we won’t have to charter flights; we’ll be racing our Learjets!

      Re plotting: I don’t have to map out every detail, but I do need some sense of where the story is headed before I start writing it. Usually I’ve daydreamed the story through a number of times before I hit the keyboard and I’m building the story out of variant dreams (making up some new ones as I go).

  2. ryanharvey says:

    I personally make a dinstinction in my writing planning stages between what I call plot and story. Plot are all events that occur within the book, starting with whatever happens in Chapter I until “The End.” It’s “Stuff That Happens.” Story is what the work is “about,” and includes everything that happens before and after the plotted events, instead of, as you as mentioned, the casually linked events. Story for me becomes an internal issue, while plot is events required to move the story. I know this all sounds hopelessly vague, but its part of the things that bounce around in my head while writing.

    For example, a simplified thought process I used when outlining my novel Stillwood: “Okay, let’s plot this out… Kirsten has to run to the basement ceremony room, while Kerwin and Hannah chase her. The doors slam and stop them, Kirsten is trapped. A storm starts outside the house. Kirsten has her breakdown.”

    “Storywise… the house is exerting its influence on Kirsten through her connection to her great-great grandmother. This is the point where the reader starts to realize the extent of the houses’s ability and the fragility of Kirsten’s mind.”

    • JE says:

      I know this all sounds hopelessly vague

      No, not at all– it’s not how I usually sort things out, but it seems like a useful and important set of distinctions.

  3. al_zorra says:

    I usually think of it like this:

    A plot is the chassis of the story. It’s what keeps the story + characters rolling along.

    The chassis will likely come as a standard, but the story and characters are what are original and individual.

    Love, C.

    • JE says:

      It sounds like I call plot what you call story and I’d call plot-types what you call plot. Terminological distinctions aside, I like your metaphor.

      • al_zorra says:

        Perhaps ‘axel’ is a better metaphor. That thing that the wheels go on?

        As you can tell, my knowledge of internal combustion vehicles is about nada. Despite coming out of a family in which all the men could take apart any kind of vehicle, any kind of engine, any kind of machine and put it back together again, and if they didn’t like the machines they had, they created different ones out of ‘spare parts.’

        They were terrible with animals and other people though.

        Whereas I was really good with animals.

        (Farm girl here. Working small family farm. Emphasis upon WORKING …. which is why I’m a useless layabout s l a c k e r writer today, doubtless.)

        Love, C.

        • JE says:

          I tried working for a living for years, but I don’t think I ever got the hang of it. (My bosses mostly agreed.)

  4. Plot is one of those terms that is integral to what we do, but damned hard to put your finger on when it comes down to saying “What it is.”

    Causally links events? To an degree. Significant? It should be, else why take the journey? But when you start talking significance, you get into whole other realms of meaning, and we can spiral out from there. (Please, let’s not 🙂

    I would say that plot is more about actions leading to a destination. It has to go somewhere. And yes, that somewhere should be significant, but that is almost a by-product of the journey in some ways. If the actions of the plot aren’t significant, then we’re just pushing our characters along a slotted track, taking them to the end of the line. The actions have to have meaning – for the characters, for the story, for the reader, or some combination thereof – else there is no impetus to move forward. The significance, the meaning, is a culmination of the developments that have led to the (hopefully significant) conclusion.

    A lot of people see plot as a verb – as a series of things that happen as the story unfolds. And that’s not wrong. But I think it contains much more than that. It enables the characters, captivates the reader, and pulls the story not only forward, but together. A good plot is more than just the action or the result or the skeleton of the story: it is the journey, too. It is a process.

    • JE says:

      plot is more about actions leading to a destination.

      Shrewdly observed. A story without an end is not a story, in my book (though I’m all for sequels).

  5. zornhau says:

    Sage thoughts…

    I have friended you…

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