Plot cannot be just one damned thing after another

  • John Mullan incorporated novels and TV series into a recent essay on plot.
  • A good plot engages the reader by posing questions.
  • The ideal plot hides its own structure in plain sight.
  • Plot is often regarded as the domain of genre rather than literary novels.

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John Mullan in 2015 (British Council Russia [CC / Flickr])

Arnold Toynbee said ‘history is just one damned thing after another’. We might think of plot as the fictional history of a story, but it needs to be more than that. Our readers experience one damned thing after another every day of their lives. They look to us to be surprised, delighted and horrified. We can do this for them, or perhaps to them, by the way we structure our plots. As John Mullan puts it in a recent article:

Plot is not just a sequence of connected events (in this sense, every TV drama or novel equally has a plot). It is something rarer: the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed…The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her.

Question before answer

Like most writers, I nurse a certain scepticism of professors of English literature like Mullan, suspecting many of building careers out of tenured naval gazing. Mullan’s definition of plot, often a difficult concept to pin down, is incisive enough to persuade me to read the rest of the article. That in itself demonstrates a key element of plotting: he showed me early on that he had something to say that I was interested in, motivating me to read the rest of it.

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Poor plotting (Chris Martin [CC / Flickr])

I mention that because of something I see a great deal of in critiquing early drafts. Writers often overestimate how information a reader needs at the beginning of a story, which leads them to open with lengthy explanations of characters and setting. A reader doesn’t approach reading a story like he approaches his first day at a new company, so he doesn’t want a story to be structured like an orientation document. He wants his emotions engaged so much that he wants that explanation before it’s actually given to him.

It’s more satisfying to receive the answer to a question than to have a question anticipated.

Spoiler alert

Before clicking on the article, it’s worth mentioning that it contains spoilers for the TV series, Line of Duty, The Killing and The Bridge and the film, The Usual Suspects. Not to mention Jane Austen’s Emma.

If you can bear the spoilers, a recurring theme is that the best plots hide their own structure in plain sight. He cites John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as having ‘one of the most brilliant plots in 20th-century British fiction’. Its brilliance lies not only in the complexity of the plot, but in that the resolution doesn’t so much explain the plot as it reveals it. Another example is Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, in which the protagonist puts the various clues together with the reader close to the end of the book, just before all the elements are tied up in the resolution.

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(Adrian Scottow [CC / Flickr])

While I disagree with some of Mullan’s criticisms of specific plots – for example, I do not think Le Carré’s The Night Manager required the suspension of disbelief Mullan described; Roper doesn’t trust Pine because he has missed the warning signs but because he’s misinterpreted them and believes he controls Pine – his description of what makes a good plot should be essential reading for anyone who thinks plot is not important.

As Mullan is writing as a commentator rather than an instructor, he doesn’t talk about how to construct a plot. Having read some of the huge volume of literature on how to write literature, I’ve noticed that plot gets scant attention compared to character, setting, dialogue, style and just about everything else. I’ve described my own process in a couple of my posts on story development, which involves first working out a chronology of what happens and then working out how to put that into the structure of a story.

As Mullan is writing as a commentator rather than an instructor, he doesn’t talk about how to construct a plot. Having read some of the huge volume of literature on how to write literature, I’ve noticed that plot gets scant attention compared to character, setting, dialogue, style and just about everything else. I’ve described my own process in a couple of my posts on story development, which involves first working out a chronology of what happens and then working out how to put that into the structure of a story.

That said, my plots come nowhere near the complexity of those of Le Carré. I’d love to know how he does it.

The middle child of story elements

I’ve pontificated elsewhere about the oft-repeated question of whether plot or character is more important, and my own view that the question is based on a false dichotomy. In some of the more pretentious circles of writing, there’s a tendency to deride plot in favour of character and style. Mullan points out that if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy didn’t make an appearance on the Booker Prize shortlist, it’s because plot is simply not valued as an element of high quality fiction:

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The literati consider plot (LaVladina [CC / Flickr])

Yet plot lovers who are also novel readers might think that these are guilty pleasures. In the contemporary novel, it sometimes seems that the delights of plot have been contracted out to genre fiction – to detective novels, thrillers, chick lit or spy stories.

In short, those genres that account for most fiction reading that takes place in the world. Plot, it seems, is valued more by people who read for pleasure than by critics and Mullan’s colleagues in academia. Whether that speaks for or against the importance of plot is for you to judge. Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Wednesday Pontification, Writing
5 comments on “Plot cannot be just one damned thing after another
  1. Like most writers, I nurse a certain scepticism of professors of English literature like Mullan, suspecting many of building careers out of tenured naval gazing – I had to laugh at that.

    As for plot verging on genre, I hadnt thought of that before. To me a good plot is so essential to story I take it as being a necessity.
    There is nothing worse than reading a story with no twist, no reason for being other than to tell us a snapshot. Very rarely I read a story without a plot that engages to the end, especially short stories. Why do some writers think some bs story without any conflict or payoff is interesting? Yet I see some quite high profile writers doing it (getting away with it!) and even winning literary prizes.
    For some characters are everything, and they can be enough to tell a story, but a good plot is the foundation on which great books are based.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      >>>Why do some writers think some bs story without any conflict or payoff is interesting?

      I think that’s a good question. My suspicion is that there’s a schism opening between ‘literary’ fiction, which is written for critics, academics and Booker judges, and ‘genre’ fiction that is written for the people who enjoy reading. Mullan touches on the point that plot is rather derided by critics, academics and Booker judges and left for us philistines among us who like to enjoy our reading.

      There’s was a recent article that touches on the phenomenon, reporting on a Library of Congress poll on America’s most influential books. The author seems rather horrified that Dune and The Stand made it in while Normal Mailer, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison didn’t make the cut: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/17/library-of-congress-american-books-public-poll.

      I think he’s exaggerating for effect as he did mention that The Colour Purple, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse Five and The Old Man and the Sea all made the cut, but buried it in the middle of the article. Looking at the comments, not many people read that far. Perhaps he needed a stronger plot.

      • I think you nailed it. Some seem satisfied with some pretty words connected together and theres an undoubted snobbery amongst some. Same with films.
        Interesting article – to me it is no surprised the books that made it in did. Thats the difference between what people choose to read and prescribed classics.
        On a slight aside, philosophy is bogged down in snobbishness maybe worse than any other field I have an interest in, centuries old text is law lol

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