Originally posted in 2008.
Angela Benedetti’s post on plot is prompting me to write a little bit about it myself. (Tremble with fear when I get on my soapbox. Though, disclaimer: I don’t know everything, and I know I don’t know everything.)
There are a lot of theories about how many different kinds of plots there are and how they break down (I have a book called Twenty Master Plots, for example, which I think is as much as you can refine them), but I think they’re all basically elaborations on these two plots: man vs. internal and man vs. external. And the best written stories combine the two, so there’s an A plot and a B plot.
Like, Heroine is fighting both city hall and her own fear of intimacy, or Hero has to reconcile needs both a better job and the lover he deserves. Just off the top of my head. (Or, like right now I’m watching “Red Dragon”, one of my favorite thrillers. External change: catching a vicious serial killer. Internal change: keeping from descending into a very dark place where the protagonist understands serial killers a little too well. And on it goes.)
Literature is the portrait of change. The story starts when everything’s about to be different.
I’ve been reading a lot of stories lately that are little more than scenes, and mostly just character studies. There’s no change, no crisis. It’s a bit frustrating: I can almost see where some drama could enter into it, but the writer just doesn’t go far enough. Even the smallest story should hinge on something: look at the six-word stories that Wired published last year. These ultra-shorts imply rather than spell out:
It cost too much, staying human.
- Bruce Sterling
Heaven falls. Details at eleven.
- Robert Jordan
Please, this is everything, I swear.
- Orson Scott Card
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
- Ernest Hemingway
but oh, the things they imply.
There are, of course, stories where the characters learn nothing and their lives go on just as before, but these tend to be post-modern exercises in irony, pretending to defy conventional storytelling in the name of being avant-garde, but who’d want to read that? Static characters and the proclamation that life is hell no matter what you do? No, thanks. (I have a lot of frustrations with much of modern literature. Yet another reason why I studied the Romantics.)
Maybe there’s really only one plot: Things change.
And then comes the fun part: how and why and to whom.