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Why Plot Isn't Everything

I tend to use the words "plot" and "story" interchangeably, especially when I'm talking about how to compose an interesting narrative, but there is a difference between them. As Wikipedia puts it: "Plot is a literary term defined as the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern, in a sequence, through cause and effect, how the reader views the story, or simply by coincidence."

In other words, plot is the bare bones of a story. It's "the stuff that happens."

To the majority of readers, plot is the most important component of a story. People in the book industry evaluate the quality of a novel by the voice, character arcs, and so forth, but most readers judge it by the plot. They keep turning pages to find out what happens to the characters, not to bask in the radiant beauty of the prose.

Now here's the problem: because readers care so much about plot, many writers fall into the trap of thinking it's the only narrative element that matters. If you spend any time in online writers' communities, you'll see this message over and over: "Readers want plot. Just write likeable protagonists and a tight plot and don't waste time fussing over anything else, because readers don't care. Plot plot plot plot plot!"

But just because readers don't consciously notice or talk about the other aspects of a narrative doesn't mean they don't absorb them. A good plot is an essential requirement for a good story, but it's not the only requirement for a good story. Point of view, setting, and so forth are like the mood music, lighting, and scenery of a movie—you might not notice them because you're focused on the dialogue and pretty actors, but they sneakily shape the entire viewing experience.

Plot, in and of itself, is boring.

Readers love books because they're exciting, romantic, terrifying, or funny. A plot, by itself, is not exciting, romantic, terrifying, or funny. It's just a bunch of stuff that happens.

Think of a beloved book with a terrific plot. Find or write a no-frills summary of it. I guarantee you that this summary will make the book sound incredibly boring.

Here's an example for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone from SparkNotes.

Mr. Dursley, a well-off Englishman, notices strange happenings on his way to work one day. That night, Albus Dumbledore, the head of a wizardry academy called Hogwarts, meets Professor McGonagall, who also teaches at Hogwarts, and a giant named Hagrid outside the Dursley home. Dumbledore tells McGonagall that someone named Voldemort has killed a Mr. and Mrs. Potter and tried unsuccessfully to kill their baby son, Harry. Dumbledore leaves Harry with an explanatory note in a basket in front of the Dursley home.

Ten years later, the Dursley household is dominated by the Dursleys' son, Dudley, who torments and bullies Harry. Dudley is spoiled, while Harry is forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. At the zoo on Dudley's birthday, the glass in front of a boa constrictor exhibit disappears, frightening everyone. Harry is later punished for this incident.

Mysterious letters begin arriving for Harry. They worry Mr. Dursley, who tries to keep them from Harry, but the letters keep arriving through every crack in the house. Finally, he flees with his family to a secluded island shack on the eve of Harry's eleventh birthday. At midnight, they hear a large bang on the door and Hagrid enters. Hagrid hands Harry an admissions letter to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry learns that the Dursleys have tried to deny Harry's wizardry all these years.

We're barely off the starting line, and I'm already asleep. It feels like it takes longer to read the first three paragraphs of this dry synopsis than it does to read the first three chapters of the book itself. Plot plot plot plot plot my Aunt Fanny.

The stuff that mercenary-type writers insist nobody cares about is the very stuff that makes books worth reading. What's the difference between reading Jane Eyre and reading the sentences, "A feisty Victorian governess falls for her Byronic employer, but he's married to a psychopath. The psycho sets the house on fire and Jane gets her man. The End."? The plot of a novel gives it structure and direction, but the magic is in the way it's told.

In sum, bones with no meat on them are useless. Plot is very important to readers, but artful storytelling is also very important to readers. To write a good novel, you can't skimp on either one.

Focusing too much on plot can distract you from writing well.

Recently I've read some books in which the authors seemed to prioritize plot above all else. As I was reading, I could envision these writers ticking off boxes on a mental checklist.

"Inject conflict into every scene: check. End every chapter with a cliffhanger: check. Turn the tables just when the good guys are about to win: check. Awesome, I've written a page-turner."

I suspect these writers had it drilled into their heads that they must move the plot forward in every chapter, every scene, every sentence, or readers might put the book down to eat a snack and immediately forget about the story and its author forever. The writers were so busy chanting, "Keep the story moving! Keep the story moving!" that they forgot to make the book interesting to read. They didn't develop the characters, flesh out the settings, put spirit into the prose, or do anything else that might have transformed their novels from mediocre to great.

Delivering story event after story event can make your book formulaic.

When I read books or see movies that follow all the "rules" of plotting, I start to detect patterns and detach.

If you watch enough episodes of any detective show, you'll start to (a) correctly identify the culprit as soon as all of the key players have been introduced and (b) predict exactly what will happen at any point in the show, depending on how many minutes have passed. In minute two, some random people will discover a corpse. Around minute five, after the first commercial break, the detectives will exchange witty dialogue while examining the crime scene. In minute forty-eight, the detectives will arrest someone they're certain is the killer, but he won't be, because in minute fifty-two he'll reveal some crucial information that throws everything in a different light. By minute fifty-six the real culprit will break down and confess. Then in minutes fifty-seven through sixty the detectives will deal with their humanizing personal problems and finally deliver a pithy one-liner to close the show.

The result: you don't invest yourself in the investigation, because you know the detectives will be on the wrong track until minute fifty-two. You don't care about the characters, because you know they're all created to fill specific, narrowly defined roles.

Books aren't usually that formulaic, but they can come close. Instead of getting caught up in a novel rife with cliffhangers, I'm likely to sense the approaching end of a chapter and think, "Okay, time for a shocking twist. Wonder what it will be?" Or I'll sense that things are going too well for the protagonists and think, "Where's the sudden and disastrous reversal of fortunes? Aha, there you are!"

Combining plot-driven storytelling with quality writing is difficult, but possible.

Literary tomes with elegant prose and complex characters, but no plot, are boring. Pulp novels with bombs exploding and people copulating on every page, but no personality, are equally boring.

The best novels have it all: an intriguing voice, well-rounded characters, food for thought, and enough action to keep you turning the pages. It's a tall order, but it's possible.

Funny Bits 11-09-14: Georgette Heyer

Excerpt from Georgette Heyer's Cotillion (1953).

Freddy is the most truly chivalrous person imaginable!...Yes, and a great deal more to the purpose than all the people one was taught to revere, like Sir Lancelot, and Sir Galahad, and Young Lochinvar, and—and that kind of man! I daresay Freddy might not be a great hand at slaying dragons, but you may depend upon it none of those knight-errants would be able to rescue one from a social fix, and you must own, Meg, that one has not the smallest need of a man who can kill dragons!

Balancing Humor and Pathos

One of the reasons comedy is so difficult to write and sell is that most modern readers want to identify with the characters of novels. They don't like to watch and judge from the outside; they like to be in the protagonists' skin. They like heroes and heroines to feel the way they feel and think the way they think.

But humor, by its very nature, prevents and destroys that connection.

Humor requires distance.

I've written before that unexpected truth is the essence of humor. The problem is, telling the unvarnished truth establishes a distance between the characters and readers.

It's hard to illustrate this point through a blog post, so I'll leave it up to the experts. Leaf through a book by P. G. Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, or anyone else famed for light, witty writing. Or watch a movie by the Marx Brothers, Leslie Nielsen, Woody Allen, etc.

What will the characters in these stories all have in common? They'll be very flawed. You'll see them from a distance, as they really are: irrational, cowardly, vain, and foolish. You might feel sorry for them, but you won't fully identify with them because, naturally, you don't see yourself as someone foolish and pathetic.

This distance and objectivity is necessary to make a story funny. You can laugh at a hero's foolishness, his panic, and even his pain only because he's someone different, someone other than you. If you identify with the character too acutely—if you feel pain and anger along with him—you can't laugh when he suffers. And, of course, the number two ingredient for comedy, after truth, is suffering.

Humor creates distance.

The purpose of humor is to destroy darkness and seriousness. Humor releases an audience from fear, sorrow, and other distressing emotions. You can't be on the edge of your seat, worrying about the main character, if you're laughing at him at the same time.

Take two films that parody horror movies: Shaun of the Dead and The Cabin in the Woods. I was wary of seeing both of these because I dislike horror movies. I hate blood, I hate grotesque monsters, and I hate being scared. But while these movies are full of blood and monsters, neither of them are scary at all.

In The Cabin in the Woods, the world will end unless a shadowy organization sacrifices people to ancient gods in terrifying, gory ways. But the dialogue is so cheeky and self-aware that you can't suspend disbelief and fully invest yourself in the characters' fates. You're always conscious that these people are caricatures played by actors, and that the movie makers are poking fun at genre tropes, torture-loving audiences, and our casual acceptance of excessive violence as entertainment.

The result: you don't care much when someone gets beheaded by a zombie, impaled by a unicorn, or eaten by a merman. You see tidal waves of blood and piles of mutilated corpses and you giggle, because it's so deliberately over-the-top. Humor creates a safe buffer zone that lets you detach from any unpleasant emotion and laugh at it.

That's the point, and it's what people enjoy, but it means that the tug of war between pathos and humor is a zero sum game. Jokes don't work if people care too much, and the very act of telling one destroys any care they might have built up. A joke tells the audience, "Stop taking this so seriously! Bad stuff is going to happen in this story. Don't worry about it. Enjoy it. It's all make believe."

***

So what if you do if you want to write a story that has both humor and pathos?

Create a heroic main character and leave the comedy to the rest.

In Kagemusha I make fun of everybody, including the heroine. I tell it in the third person so readers will see her somewhat objectively. She's impulsive and a wee bit cracked. She does stupid things. Hopefully, readers will laugh because she's a clown; they won't get frustrated because they expect her to act like a Reasonable Person.

But if you want to put a nugget of earnestness at the heart of your story, it's dangerous to alienate readers from the protagonist (especially if you're telling it in the first person). You'll do better to make the main character heroic, with noble intentions and feelings and whatnot. Then you can add in the "funny" through secondary characters, who can be as crazy as you'd like.

The most popular of Jane Austen's books, judging by the frequency with which the stories are adapted for film, are Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. These books have relateable heroines. Readers admire Elizabeth Bennet and aspire to be like her. They don't laugh at her, even though she's obviously flawed. You can't laugh at Eleanor Dashwood, Fanny Price, or Anne Elliot, either. They're too good and pitiful.

The least popular of Jane Austen's novels, in my experience, are Emma and Northanger Abbey. Critics love them best, but readers generally dislike them. Why? Because you can't identify with the main character. Emma's an arrogant fool and Catherine Morland is a silly airhead who's read too many Gothic romances. They're not meant to be loved; they're meant to be laughed at.

Before you write your story, you have to make a decision: do you want to write an Emma or a Pride and Prejudice? Do you want to maximize laughs by making your protagonist comic, or do you want to pull readers in by making your protagonist heroic? It's very difficult to do both.

For each scene, choose one or the other.

Humor and pathos are opposing forces. If you apply one, you weaken the other. So when you plan a comedic book, you need to strategize: when can you afford to be humorous, and when do you need to buckle down and be serious?

My natural impulse is to make fun of everything all the time. I like to inject levity into every sentence and put laughs on every page. So if I want to write a scene that's thrilling, touching, or otherwise serious in tone, I have to resist the urge to crack wise.

Imagine your intrepid heroine has discovered that the mayor has dealings with the mafia. As she's rushing to the police station to give her detective boyfriend some critical evidence, a van pulls up beside her. Muscular men in black suits jump out. She runs. They run faster. She screams and fights, but they grab her and toss her into the van.

While the kidnappers are distracted, the heroine manages to pull out her cell phone and call her detective boyfriend. The menacing man beside her turns his head, and she quickly hides the phone behind her back.

"Who are you guys?" she asks loudly. "You work for the mayor, don't you! Where are you taking me?"

"Shut up!" the man sneers.

The heroine hopes her boyfriend understood the call for help, and that he can track her by the GPS in her phone. Nothing she can do now but wait.

So she settles back, looks at the man beside her, and says, "So...how 'bout those Mets?"

NO NO NO NO NO! You have just taken a nail-biter of a scene and turned it into a farce.

Telling a joke is like pressing a reset button. Any tension you've slowly built up, any emotional investment you've gently coaxed out of readers, is now gone. If you want readers to care about what happens next, you have to start all over.

If you're writing a comedic scene, I say go all in and make it hilarious—don't drag it down by turning it serious. But if you intend to write a serious scene, be careful not to destroy it with comedy. You can leave the jokes for later, after the climax of the action.

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