Jay Thinks About Plot

It will come as no surprise, I hope, to learn that I am a huge fan of E.M. Forster. His writing is excellent, his understanding of motive is divine, and he's a sappy romantic - what's not to like? So when I came across plot problems in my reading of late, I immediately thought of Forster's simple parable of plot. It goes something like this:

The King died and then the Queen died. This is not a plot; it is a story, a mere recitation of events over time.

The King died and then the Queen died of grief. This is a plot. The key is causality - one event caused the other.

Lately, in my reading, I've come across two different plot problems that have been bothering me. These are those:

1. All story, no plot. I recently read a book that, when I started, I was totally psyched about. "Finally!" I thought to myself, "I will get to talk about a book in my blog, because I love this book! It's so insightful and well-written and fresh and I heart it!" Except by the end I totally didn't heart the book. I hated it. How could I like a book as insightful and well-written and fresh?"

No plot.

Nothing happened. Or, well, TONS of things happened, actually. Tons of kings died and queens died. But none of them were related to one another at all. It's like talking to my four year old niece and asking her what happened at school that day. I get an endless recitation of events, but none connect to any of the others at all and by the last five minutes I'm sort of bored and want her to be quiet. (Hey, there are reasons why I don't have kids, and my desire for them to stop talking is one of them. :) )

So there were a bunch of individual well-written episodes that all ended up signifying nothing, and by the end of the book I was bored and annoyed.

2. All guns, no shots. This problem is derived from Chekov's playwriting advice - if a gun appears in first act it had better go off by the third. What I've been seeing lately are a lot of guns lying around, and no shooting. In a couple of books I've read lately, the events are rife with setup. A happens, which could lead to conflicts with B, C, D and E. Oh, and G happens, which could lead to setups with J, K, L and M! Oh, and T happens, which clearly suggests S, Q, and R!!! Except what actually ends up happening is dues ex X, which comes out of nowhere, and makes no sense, and actually doesn't resolve the situations with A, G, or T, and then the book ends. Um...what? I'm sorry, but when the first chapter of a book begins with our protagonist wanting something desperately and the book ends with the protagonist wanting the same thing and still not having an answer as to whether or not she will get it? Well, then, I've just wasted 300 pages and several hours of my life, because nothing HAPPENED!

I know this seems like I am a hoary old traditionalist, with Aristotle's narrative diagram on a bulletin board above my desk. And, well ... yes, I sort of am. (I don't have the diagram up, but I might, if I had a bulletin board above my desk. Or if I wrote at a desk instead of on my laptop on my couch while watching movies on TBS and eating Doritos.) I'm not completely rigid - I like some more avant garde stuff (modernism, for example, and David Foster Wallace, and Italo Calvino). Every book doesn't have to conform to Jay's Idea of Great Literature in order to be good reading. But that's the thing - these books that I'm talking about but cannot name are traditional novels. They aren't avant garde experimentations with language. They aren't astructural postmodern dissections of form. They aren't even Bret Easton Ellis, for Pete's sake. They're straightforward traditional narratives, and they don't work!

And plot is the reason why.


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