I’m still listening to that 12-hour series of lectures on literature, and today’s talk was about plot. Practically the first thing the lecturer did was to quote the thing about there being only two plots: the hero takes a journey, and a stranger comes to town.
I’ve heard that before, but this time I got to thinking about how that fits with Heinlein’s three basic plots (Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and Man Learns Lesson), the five or six “man vs.” plots (vs. nature, man, society, etc.), and the various other lists of plots and plot patterns I’ve run across in writing books over the years. And the first thing I noticed is that most of the things on these lists aren’t actually plots, by my definition.
This was kind of a shock, as I’ve gone alone merrily for many years without particularly questioning the fundamental premise of most of these plot lists. But “The hero takes a journey” and “a stranger comes to town” are both precipitating incidents – they’re where the plot starts, but they’re not the plot. You can take any of the other lists of “types of plot” and map all of them to either opening – a stranger comes to town and meets a girl, faces a gigantic obstacle, or learns a lesson; the hero goes on a journey and ditto ditto ditto. “Man vs. nature/man/himself/society/etc.” is a list of types of conflict; again, not strictly plots. The hero can go on a journey and meet a girl whilst struggling against nature, another man, his own insecurities, social obstacles… Even in Heinlein’s three basic stories, the first two are technically the set-up for a plot, and the third is the ultimate resolution of the plot.
In other words, none of these lists of “the types of plot” match up the way they ought to if they were actually distillations of plots. Looking at it a little closer, I can see that many of these lists are in shorthand: for instance, “The Little Tailor” evokes the whole fairy tale reflected by the title, and “A stranger comes to town” implies that this arrival causes a whole lot of other things to happen. And if you start combining the lists, as I did above, you do get even closer to what I think of as plot. Even so, I find it kind of disturbing to realize that all these supposedly-helpful ways of looking at plot aren’t actually looking directly at plot.
The reason for this is fairly obvious, when I think about it. Plots – even plot skeletons that have been stripped down to the barest minimum – are tough to convey in only a few words. “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” is probably the most concise, and for listing purposes, this nearly always gets shortened still more, down to the first three words.
This can be very confusing and unhelpful, especially if one doesn’t have the sort of brain that automatically extends the shorthand description of conflict or situation or characters’ problems into the whole rest of the plot that the description is supposed to be shorthand for. If you think “A stranger comes to town” is all the plot there needs to be, then you will be very puzzled when people look at your description of someone arriving at the airport and say it has no plot.
Plots are about change – external or internal. It’s about the difficulties of the journey, not the starting or ending point.
The hero who takes a journey may be a Genghis Khan who drastically alters the world around him without apparently changing much himself, or she may be an ordinary person displaced by the sweeping armies who is profoundly altered by her trek to a new home without apparently having a large impact on the world, or he may be a Ghandi whose life-changing journeys to England and South Africa changed him into the man who could and did change India. The stranger who comes to town may change herself as a result, or call into question things that the town has taken for granted (causing them to change), or disrupt external things in ways ranging from opening a new store to murdering the mayor.
And change is a process, and what’s interesting about it is usually the how and why, not what. Change is also often difficult and uncomfortable, whether the characters are changing their opinions or trying to cope with massive disruptions in the world they’ve lived in until the start of the story. Change also generally involves causality – something that sets things moving, tipping over that first domino that knocks over the next, and the next.
All of this makes plot – the process of change – hard to sum up in a short, snappy entry on a list. This is, I think, part of why people always, always ask for sequels, even if the story ends “and they lived happily ever after” – because we know that change has consequences, and even good changes like winning one’s True Love or defeating the Evil Overlord are going to mean things work differently from now on, and we want to know what those new changes will be, and how and how the characters will cope with them.
I also think this is where my lecturer goes ever-so-slightly wrong, at least from the point of view of someone who is trying to write a story rather than read one. Because classifying plots according to any of these lists may be a useful way of looking at things from the reader’s perspective, but it’s the wrong focus for most writers, because it’s static. Classifying something assumes it’s going to stay classified, but you can’t ever guarantee that about a story until it’s finished. Writing is a dynamic process, not a static one.