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.