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