Rumors of Plot’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated


Lately I have been lobbying (well, lobbying from the deadline imposed isolation of my apartment, so mostly lobbying to my cat, but now to all of you fine folk) for more recognition for plot. Plot has a bad reputation. To call something “plot-driven” is to call it tawdry and anti-intellectual and unconcerned with things like language and beauty and higher truth. And it’s true,  plot can be clumsy and tipsy and belligerent, and it can thoughtlessly injure language and beauty and truth, and maybe you shouldn’t let it drive. But you shouldn’t leave it out of the car altogether– plot is the only one who has directions.

When I am talking about plot, I am not thinking in terms of “quiet” or “loud” stories, but in terms of causality– something happens because something else happens, whether it’s a relationship slowly ending because one person lies, or Martians coming to earth because their planet has been destroyed*.  In skilled hands, plot can be the failure of a character to act on possibilities, but the possibilities must become the plot, must present an opportunity for action or change that did not previously exist. If nobody cares enough to turn the pages, nobody gets to see all your pretty sentences and higher truths.

It’s possible I have less patience with the low tension snapshot story than do most readers. My first love as a reader was mystery. As a kid, I read all the Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew** that I could get my hands on, and then I moved on to Agatha Christie, Legal Thrillers, and a mystery series involving cats.  There were clear stakes, clear tensions, and clear resolutions. I have never completely outgrown this– as an adult,I’ve banned myself from the mystery section of the bookstore, because if I read the jacket summary of a mystery book, I am incapable of leaving it in the store– even if it is clear that the book is going to end badly, cause me suffering through clumsy sentences, and leave me wanting those hours of my life back, I have to know how it ends. This could be a character flaw, and also a concise summary of my romantic life, but it is also a sign of how powerful a pull plot can be, how much of reading is being drawn to what we don’t know yet and think a book can tell us. Much of human behavior is as mysterious as murder, and it has never hurt literary fiction to treat it that way, at least on the level of structure, to write work that keeps the reader guessing, that presents at various turns concrete possibility of change or action that we might call suspense.

Put briefly: Plot. You need one. Stop making me read stuff in which nothing happens.

*Joke’s on you, Martians. We already broke the ocean on this planet.

** Is it me, or was Nancy Drew the worst detective ever? She never solved a mystery until the culprit was about to kill her, and suddenly decided it was time for a long winded confession.

3 thoughts on “Rumors of Plot’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

  1. Hear, Hear! In a mystery means and motive are up front by necessity, all writing should be so lucky. I think I’m going to make a “Plot. You need one.” T-shirt. The snobbery has gone on for too long.

  2. You know, I’ve often thought that Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were great examples of how to fail up. The worse they got at being terrible detectives who just happen to meddle in the affairs of megalomaniacal criminals, the more people liked them. They’re like the Mystery Gang from Scooby Doo… but without the Globetrotters.

    Also, I’ll bet Encyclopedia Brown’s dad got more than a little sick of his s**t on more than one occassion…

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