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The Importance of Plot

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, July 18, 2020

I have this gig where I make summaries for new books that come out- a shortcut, if you like, for those who want to appear bookish without actually reading the damn thing. Or perhaps they are just looking to see if the actual book is worth their time.

This book I'm currently writing the summary for is absolutely dreadful. It isn't worth anyone's time. For the sake of protecting the Duck from any flak caught by sour creators or their army of editors, I won't say which one it is. What I will say, is that it is by a New York Times bestselling author.

And it's eye-wateringly terrible. It reads worse than a Twilight fanfiction. There is no basic rule of writing that isn't trampled on with the excitement of a three-year old on a trampoline.

I was so shocked reading through it that I went to the Amazon reviews after, and saw that apparently, this book was the worst for me to get to know the particular author. Many of her fans were complaining that it was dreadful and not like her previous ones. (Ok enough hints. You get no more! Ok except maybe the plot. And stuff. But no more.)

On the other hand, this book is a gem- it's a perfect storm of everything a writer should not do wrapped up in one ‘story’. And it demonstrates perfectly why every story NEEDS A PLOT.

Supposedly, the particular book's premise is a passionate romance that spans more than twenty years between a very weird woman and a very stupid man- they only meet once a year for a weekend, and then separate and go about their lives in parallel.

The entire book is this yearly meeting, as they ‘grow old together apart’ doing this ritual and pining for each other, passionately in love, only to also have other parallel lives: she sleeps with every male in sight that gives her even the slightest attention, and when they get too serious, she breaks up with them. He is married to a workaholic anorexic woman he ‘never wanted to marry’ and which he totally did because reasons.

In the end, after several years pass in this situation, the woman dies.

That's the book. You get to watch the exact same ‘idyllic weekend’ with slight variations in dialogue, over and over, and then she dies. She doesn't learn anthing; she doesn't change in any way; she's exactly the same person she was in her twenties, as she is in her fifties when she dies. No character changes in any way. The situation they have with the ‘true love’ is one they both want, and don't try to change or develop in any way.

The entire thing is more static than a puddle in a country road pot hole.

As a result, many readers reported that for the first time they counted how many chapters they had left until the end, or just gave up on the book and didn't finish it. (I did because I'm getting paid, or I wouldn't have gone past chapter 3)

The thing is, the author totally thinks she has a plot going. You can tell from how she talks about ‘the story’ in her author's note.

But she doesn't.

Because a plot needs to have these elements in order to exist:

1. The main characters must need or really want something that they don't have.

2. The main characters must encounter obstacles to obtaining what they need.

3. The main characters must actively engage in actions that are aimed to overcoming those obstacles.

4. The main characters must eventually fail or succeed in overcoming the obstacles, hopefully also learning something that develops them so they are not exactly the same people they were when they started.

A plot also needs to have a beginning, middle and end- no matter how these are arranged in the telling of the story, they do need to exist as stages. Growing old living in the exact same situation that you like, maintain, and don't develop is NOT A PLOT. Even if you pretend not to like something that is in your power to change, but you don't change it even when opportunities to do it literally fall on your lap.

So; remember people. Write a plot. A story without a plot is a body without bones: just a shapeless mass of flesh.

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ChipperChartreuse at 9:01AM, July 21, 2020

I may be a pantser when it comes to my writing style, but everything still hinges upon key plot points and the impact of the actions of the protagonist and cast of MCs, not to mention other characters which led to 'xyz'. I can't even imagine a read that doesn't naturally have something happening as a result of character trajectory??

bravo1102 at 12:38PM, July 19, 2020

Paul, I'm sure you're familiar with the history of the French New Wave cinema. It's all happened as you said before. It's the nature of creators and critics, auteur theory and all that.

Tantz_Aerine at 11:55AM, July 19, 2020

That's exactly the point, Paul! Thanks. Also, well said.

PaulEberhardt at 8:21AM, July 19, 2020

I think the point is not that you need a singular all-encompassing plot, just that you need a plot. In episodical storytelling as in newspaper cartoons like Garfield or the Peanuts, the plots play out in three or four panels or a couple of strips, but they're still there and need just the same amount of careful planning, especially if the characters are to be consistent between episodes. Sure, there are some postmodernist literary experiments that try to do without a plot or a minimal plot (253 by Geoff Ryman comes to mind), but even they invariably end up either with lots of disconnected small plots or being positively unreadable - or both, which sadly is the usual outcome. The really dismal part, however, starts when academics start to shower this kind of stuff with praise a) just to show off they can justify anything they want and b) because the author is one of their pals.

Tantz_Aerine at 3:37AM, July 19, 2020

Hushicho: Healing genre and slice-of-life are full of all four requirements for a plot. Same for Garfield and Peanuts.

bluecuts34 at 3:11AM, July 19, 2020

Agreed - while you can theoretically have a story where there's no conflict, or no *meaningful* conflict it's not very fun to me (slice of life stuff I guess? but it's not my cup of tea so i can't speak to it). The other important thing is stakes, and it doesn't sound like this book has them. The characters must desire something they don't have and there has to be consequences for their failure. Otherwise, why do we care? "Story" is a great book for this. It talks a lot about what a character wants and needs are different things, and that the climax of the story should revolve around what they need - using this means the characters are always in conflict, even when themselves.

hushicho at 4:23PM, July 18, 2020

I can't agree. The four points are not universal, and a singular plot isn't essential for a good story. Sometimes, just looking into someone else's life is enough for an interesting thing to read, such as many "iyashi-kei" or healing genre stories. Slice-of-life is a perfectly valid thing to write, and very popular series such as Garfield and Peanuts don't really have a singular driving plot, so much as they have a unifying premise. It just depends largely on what you're writing and what you want to write.

Banes at 1:01PM, July 18, 2020

Yes indeed! There's many ways to go wrong, but not having those foundational things is a surefire way to the #1 thing to avoid: the story being boring! I didn't know you had that side gig. cool stuff. great article!

bravo1102 at 6:18AM, July 18, 2020

People do stuff and things change over time. There's conflict everywhere. Just getting out of bed can be an intense struggle. But to write about nothing with flat characters for thousands of words takes real self delusion. Maybe a lot more happened in the story with the characters and story in the author's head, but none of it made it onto the pages.

usedbooks at 3:25AM, July 18, 2020

This makes me remember a conversation I had with my sister. I was talking about my story plans, and she complained that I was always "mean" to the characters, and couldn't I just write about them being happy. I said, "It's a story. It needs conflict. That's sorta how stories work."

marcorossi at 3:23AM, July 18, 2020

It is difficult to define "plot" without speaking of carachters, because the plot is not just a sequence of events but a sequence of important events, and these events are important for someone. For the same reason you can't have carachters without at least a minimum plot, because it means that nothing that happens is important to anyone, so there are no carachters; the dicotomy between carachters and plot is a false one IMHO.

Gunwallace at 3:10AM, July 18, 2020

I'd watch it if it was made into a movie with Keanu Reeves. But then, he's dreamy in anything. (Bill and Ted 3 for the win!)

Tantz_Aerine at 2:00AM, July 18, 2020

Morgan: you're absolutely right, she did. She even has the characters openly do it.

MOrgan at 1:40AM, July 18, 2020

Sounds like she swiped the premise of the play turned movie Same Time, Next Year as well.

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