The Necessity of Plot

by | Feb 9, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Creating Characters, Literature

If plot is such a troublesome creature, why don’t we just send it to the devil?  Well, because the existence of a story at all seems to imply that something happens.

There was a Frenchman who wrote a novel without verbs a year or two ago.  Static.  Without movement, action, progression.  Descriptions, yes.  I didn’t get the book, but did read the review, which included an excerpt as well as some pontification by the author about the need to ‘overthrow the tyranny of the verb.’  ‘Overthrow,’ of course, is a verb.

A novel without a plot would probably be even duller, possibly like that Andy Warhol ‘movie’ which consists of celuloid run through a camera aimed at a Manhattan street.

Plot, at the most basic level, gives the characters something to do.  It doesn’t have to be much, though.  Here’s a simple plot that informed I don’t know how many highly entertaining short films: A coyote tries and fails to catch a roadrunner.  Now there is a plot that doesn’t get in the way, and yet is rife with possibilities for character development and physical humor.

As an earnest and callow youth I used to take umbrage at the notion that there are only seven plots, or twenty, or three.  Whatever the number may be, there are enough of them.  Kurt Vonnegut talks about the sociology thesis he wrote, in which he graphed the fortunes of protagonists in a wide range of stories.  Turned out there were a few patterns that were repeated again and again.  Cinderella, for instance, plotted on a graph, is the same story as the life of Christ.  The thesis paper was rejected.

He was right.  There are only a handful of plots that we like.  The Cinderella plot, for example.  People like hearing stories of virtue rewarded; and the job of a story teller is to tell stories that people like.

So plot does matter, but it matters the way the laws of aeronautics matter.  Anything you build that takes them into account, as long as you have built it well, will fly.  What a relief that you don’t need to invent aerodynamics or lift every time you write a story.  The fun part, the creativity, is in the construction.