Why "Plot" Should Not Be A Four-Letter Word Among Novelists

Illustration for article titled Why "Plot" Should Not Be A Four-Letter Word Among Novelists

It's easy to find people in the book world who regard "plot" as sort of a dirty necessity at best. Lots of literary books try to avoid any overt "plot," in favor of autobiographical details. In science fiction, there's a dichotomy between "plot" and "character." But in the New Yorker, Adelle Waldman offers a stirring defense of plot.

Top image: Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, 1943 edition.

Waldman writes:

All too often, plot is a drag. Far too many books use it as a substitute for subtle characterization or interesting ideas. After a stab at something suggesting ambition in the early chapters—some atmospherics, a good thought or two—very little compels the reader forward except an interest in what happens next. Plot decorates—and attempts to distract us from—a vacuum....

There are altogether so many ways to abuse plot that we tend to forget what plot is at bottom—and what is lost when it is dispensed with entirely. Plot dramatizes incident and moves characters through time. In good novels, these functions combine to approximate not only the reality of life, which is of course linear and time-bound, but also, crucially, life's tendency to defy abstraction and deflate our pretentions—to make fools of us....

A non-manipulative plot, one that doesn't distort reality for the sake of neat narrative, exerts a beneficial pressure on the novelist, demanding that he or she consider a situation from multiple vantage points, see it more fully, and also weeds out much triviality by requiring the writer to choose situations that can sustain such considered analysis.

Another component of plot is dramatization, which also cuts deeper than we might think. To dramatize requires deeper knowledge of characters than exposition or summary: for one thing, the author has to have listened closely enough to the way people talk to approximate it. Scenes also have the tendency to expose what might easily get a pass in other types of writing—that is to say, dramatization is naturally antagonistic to ideology. If fiction is a discipline, it is one that demands a high degree of reliance on empirical observation. This is why fiction so often represents something better, more just, than an author's theoretical beliefs.


The whole thing is well worth reading, including all the stuff about how a well-plotted novel resists turning its characters into mouthpieces for the author. And a lot of really interesting stuff about the movement to avoid the traditional novel altogether in favor of a kind of meta-memoir — which seems to have coincided, probably not coincidentally, with the huge boom in literary authors writing genre books. [The New Yorker, h/t K.M. Soehnlein]

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I'm a professional reader (I read self-published books for a publishing company looking for material worth taking further) and look, plot is no substitute for good characterization, but by the same token, no plot makes for a dull, dull book. I read (and write reports on) about three books a week, and usually at least one of them isn't so much a story as a collection of events that happen. I read one this week that had characters with cancer, drug addictions, and paraplegia, but none of that had anything to do with the main plot, which was about a woman who wanted to do something, set about a plan to do it, and was successful in her first attempt of this plan. That's a plot, I guess, but it's not an interesting one. I'll grant you that some great novelists can pull off the "plotless" character novel—but it's not for the amateur, that's for sure.