Tag Archives: criticism

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?

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The World is Round – People Are Flat

Description, or Contemplating Your Navel

Description, or Contemplating Your Navel

Description is a two-edged sword.  Either you are plucked from your comfortable chair and set smack into the heart of a story, or you realize you should have saved those chopsticks from last night’s dinner so you could gouge out your own eyes.  It all depends on the writer.

Particularly with the Classics, battle-scarred high school graduates remember their Survey of Literature classes with a full-body shudder.  (Two words: Moby Dick.  There, I just shivered again.)  As a result of the unforgettable slog through fifty pages on the whiteness of a whale, many of us skip description altogether.  (It’s amazing how quickly you can get through books this way.)

  But, is there an alternative to skipping the description?

  It helps to look at passages of description with a critical eye.  Why did the author include it at all?  In good writing, the description doesn’t just lend itself to setting a scene, it reflects key issues in the story.  It may actually be a projection of a character’s thoughts and world view.  Often, by the end of the book we have realized that a particularly detailed passage foreshadowed the close of the conflict.

  So, it’s okay to skip the description if it is formulaic and drags the story down.  BUT, pay attention if details are presented from a character’s point of view, as they may lead to larger insights to the story.

  I’m willing to give description a little slack, but I still think Herman should have stuck a sock in it.  Call me Exasperated.

  What do you think?  Do you enjoy reading description?  Writing description?  How are details a propelling force in your favorite pieces of fiction?

  For a closer look at meaningful description, take a look at the works of John Updike and Flannery O’Connor.

Related Articles:

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The World is Round – People Are Flat

The World Is Round – People Are Flat

E. M. Forster described characters in literature as either “round” or “flat”.  He says, “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.”  Round characters are those that are dynamic, complex, and unpredictable.  They have a reckoning to come to – either with their situation or themselves.

Flat characters are, well, just that.  Flat.  Boring, static, unchanging, and a dime a dozen.  Stereotypes are often projected onto the flat character, as if it were a vehicle for the author’s prejudice.

I’m always interested in the reader’s attraction to the “bad boys” and girls of literature.  We love to hate (or love) the rebel/outcast/villain – which is evident in film, too.  Are you drawn to any unsavory characters?  And is there someone you’d rather not read about, for any reason?

Of course, real life “characters” can be described the same way.  How often have we met a person that is so predictable, so mind-numbingly dull, that we wonder how they stand to wake up to themselves every day?  And do these people tend to collect within certain areas, careers, or locations?  Do you think it is the occupation or environment that effectively “flattens” people, or are they already flat, and naturally drawn to that place?

Related Articles:

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