The Plot Thickens…or Does It?

Teachers, writers, critics – everyone is obsessed with plot.  Or story.  Or is it the same thing?

  Most people use the two words interchangeably, but it’s an interesting exercise to look at their actual definitions (and I’m paraphrasing here):

Plot: a list of events as they are presented to the reader

Story: the same events listed in chronological order, as they happened within the timeline of the characters

What does that mean for the artful reader?  It means that if you are aware of how the author chose to present events and particular scenes, then you can appreciate how the story would be changed if the order of those events were rearranged.

A sure-fire way to tell if a plot is really GOOD, is to map out the events, then remove just one of them.  If the entire sequence collapses with the deletion of one element, then that is the sign of a carefully-crafted plot.  And it’s no accident.  Great authors work hard to keep their plots moving and essential to the reader.

Authors can withhold information to give us a surprise at the end, or smack us right between the eyes with it in the first sentence, influencing the rest of our reading.  A recent example that comes to mind is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.  Her incredible use of chopping up the characters’ chronological timeline (the story) keep the reader guessing at every turn, revealing bits of information at a time, and leaving us breathless for the final scene – both the end of the plot, and the end of their story.

Of course, a number of writers and critics have asserted the idea that there are really only two master plots in the whole history of the world - The Hero Goes On A Journey and A Stranger Comes To Town.  Almost every book that comes to my mind features a journey by the hero – either mentally or physically.  From Bilbo Baggins to Hamlet, I love my characters to wind up at a completely different place than they started from.  Although, I have to admit that some of the most moving plots have been those where the changes happen within a small sphere, all because a stranger (or detective, or long-lost relative) shows up out of the blue.

Think about some of your favorite novels.  Which plot pattern do they follow?  Do you have a favorite?

Related Articles:

The Art of Reading

A Word About Authors

Narrators & Characters, or Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

The World is Round – People Are Flat

Description, or Contemplating Your Navel

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5 thoughts on “The Plot Thickens…or Does It?

  1. Great advice! I loved THE TIME TRAVERLER’S WIFE. Unique in so many ways. I can only hope to write a story with such cohesiveness. Although several members of my book club disliked the way the story skips around in time (“I never knew where I was at”), I thought that was part of the construct. It helped me commiserate with the time traveler.

  2. I also liked the disorientation of skipping through time – although I expected it from the title! I know some people who didn’t care for that at all, but I think it must be more a matter of trust that the author will put everything right in the end. (Incidentally, these same people don’t read a lot of mysteries because they don’t know what’s going on, so maybe that explains it a little…)

    1. My regular reading fare is anything but mystery. I often figure things out in the first chapter, then talk myself out of it, only to find I was right all along. TRAVELER is more of a love story to me. I have the same feeling about SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW, it’s more about the relationships than the mystery.

  3. I love stories with the Hero theme. Hero on a quest to save the girl, save the world, etc. The Time Traveler’s Wife was awesome and I’m looking forward to reading it again. I love to be able to read the story and be surprised. If it keeps me guessing until the very end, I’m a happy camper!

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