Literarily, the meaning of the word plot comes from the Old-French word: complot — which means to conspire.
But what actually is plot?
Plot is the method by which you present your story.
Plot is a vehicle.
Plot is a purposeful sequence of events — and in a well-plotted story, those events all connect logically and culminate in a specific goal, or climax.
“Life is an unceasing sequence of individual actions,” said Ludwig von Mises.
That is true. Plot is similar, but plot is among other things selective in the actions presented. The author is the selector.
Plot is purpose — and for this reason plot requires that the characters who engage the plot meet with difficulties, obstruction, adversity.
All plots grow from characters under adversity.
Plot in this way requires struggles and obstacles of some sort. Why does plot require this? Because it is only by means of such things that characters can be presented and developed.
Plot is drama.
Drama holds the reader’s interest.
As Kurt Vonnegut said:
“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.”
Plot is not action alone. It is not random events.
Neither is plot a series of conversations (even if those conversations are in and of themselves interesting), and it is not a catalog of day-to-day or minute-by-minute activities.
Stories are by definition about human (or human-like, in the case of fantasy) action. If, therefore, the subject of the story isn’t dramatized in terms of action, it is not a successful story.
Within this framework, there are degrees of plot and plotlessness. That’s important.
Thus, of a story that has a sequence of actions that aren’t motivated by purposeful action but rather by accidents, it is appropriate to call this a plotless story. But of a story that has a sequence of events which does progress purposely, or even semi-purposely, and yet which is resolved by pure chance — or if there are actions unrelated to the storyline — it is appropriate to call this a plotted but thinly plotted story.
To dismiss plot because it is invented, or to describe plot as an unnecessary contrivance, as many academics do, is like dismissing the rules of chess as an unnecessary contrivance and yet trying to play chess without those rules.
Plots are invented because humans need to see human life in compendiated, encapsulated, abbreviated form.
That, incidentally, is the function of art — all art — and that is why plots are the indispensable device of storytelling: because they encapsulate, via the writer’s selection of events, the human experience.