What Plot Is And What Plot Is Not

  • Plot is not memoir.

    Plot is not diary.

    Plot is not journal.

    Plot is not history.

    Plot is not erotica.

    Plot is not dialogue.

    Plot is not essay.

    Plot is not philosophy.

    Plot is not chronicle.

    Plot is not action alone.

    Plot is something very specific: it is the method by which you present your story. It 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.

    Plot is selective in the actions presented. The author is the selector.

    Plot is purpose.

    For this reason, plot requires adversity. It requires obstruction, struggles, obstacles, conflict. Conflict is clash. But a clash of what?

    A clash of desires.

    Plot is a clash of desires.

    Clash is drama. And drama is what 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 neither random events, nor is it a series of conversations — even if those conversations are in and of themselves interesting. It is not a catalog of day-to-day, minute-by-minute activities.

    Novels are by definition about human action. If, therefore, the subject of the story isn’t dramatized in terms of action, it won’t be a successful story.

    Plotting, however, does happen along a spectrum, and for this reason there are degrees of plot-versus-plotlessness. Thus, of a story that has a sequence of actions which aren’t motivated by purposeful action but rather by accidents, it’s perfectly appropriate to call this a plotless story.

    A story that has a sequence of events which does progress purposefully, or even semi-purposefully, and yet which is ultimately resolved by pure chance, it’s appropriate to call a poorly or thinly plotted story. (The Godfather is an example of a thinly plotted story.)

    To dismiss plot, as many do, because it’s invented, or to describe plot as an unnecessary contrivance, is like dismissing chess because it has rules you must follow.

    Plots are invented because humans need to see human life in an encapsulated form. That’s what plots do: they encapsulate, via the writer’s selection of events, the human experience, and they turn what in life might happen over the course of years into a condensed piece that can be experienced quickly.

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

4 Responses and Counting...

  • Averil Dean 03.14.2012

    Al Watt explains plot as the characters’ attempt to solve an unsolvable dilemma. Every time they try to attain something unattainable or right an unrightable wrong, they cause themselves another problem. The problems are the plot, but the dilemma is at its heart.

  • Although I think unsolvable is a little extreme, I like that definition of plot, Al Watt.

    You know what I mean, Averil Dean?

  • Bravo, bravo. Encore!

    P.S: It was great seeing you the other night. We’ll be back again soon–without an entourage.

  • Thank you so much. It was great seeing you as well.

Leave a Reply

* Name, Email, and Comment are Required