Alphabet Blogging Challenge Day 16

It’s day 16 of my September blogging challenge (and like the middle of a school term, the beginning seems a long time ago, and the end, barely in sight!)

The letter is P

and the subject is PLOT

The craft of writing is heavy with ‘p’ words – a positive plethora of them! Place, point of view, pacing, but I’ve decided to go for plot as I believe it’s an essential part of successful fiction – although definitely not at the expense of character.

I think human beings crave narratives. Once upon a time is somehow entwined with our psyche. We look for narratives in our own lives, search for connections and patterns, talk of coincidence in terms of fate. And when life fails to deliver a neatly-structured plot, we can always turn to fiction and drama for rationalisation of the random events that happen to us. Our lives are random, but we impose structures on them; fiction is structured, but the art is to make it seem random.

The nineteenth-century was the heyday of the traditional narrative: a linear structure; a beginning, middle and end;  birth, life and death. The writers many of us studied at school and grew to love: Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Charles Dickens. They wrote the ‘big’ novels, which spanned whole lives, generations of families, of communities. But the modernists of the early twentieth-century changed all that. Books such as ‘Mrs Dalloway’ explored one day in the life of a character. One day, but a day that doesn’t progress steadily forward – dawn, morning, midday and so on. But circles back and forth in time and geography, memory and reflection, until the dichotomy that haunts human beings – the solidity of days, months, years, set against the ephemeral nature of human experience – becomes painfully present for the reader. Virginia Woolf sought a circular narrative – ‘I want to dig out caves behind my characters’ – and she and her anti-narrative collaborators rejected ‘plot’ and the linear structures previously used in novels.

The goals of early twentieth-century writers  are understandable when seen in their historical context. Woolf wrote ‘About the year 1910, the world changed’, and change it did. It signalled the advent of photography, mass media, advertising, psychoanalysis, mechanized warfare. The rise of electric light and internal combustion engine overturned the noisy, smelly, gas-lit, horse-drawn world those writers grew up in. The orderly, complacent, optimistic Victorian novel had nothing to say to them. Worse than nothing: it felt like a lie. The novel was a mirror the modernists needed to break, in order to reflect their broken world. (Wiki)

One of the things they broke was plot. To the modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don’t tie up neatly. Events don’t line up in a tidy sequence and mean the same things to everybody they happen to. The writers of the time broke the clear straight lines of causality and chronological sequence, to make them look more like life as it’s actually lived.

I’m sure that was necessary at the time to break the hold those earlier narratives had on readers’ imaginations. For many years, I adored the big nineteenth-century novel, until I experienced its limitations for twentieth and now twenty first-century’s psyches. But now, I want a mixture. I want plot; I want a sense that things happen for a reason; I want to see cause and effect in a novel – the consequences of a character’s behaviour – but I also like the writer to play with time and space.

Modern sensibilities (partly thanks to cinema) can more than cope with time shifts, flashbacks and flashforwards, diversions, circular narratives. We want to experience Woolf’s ‘caves’ behind the characters. But I think we are also driven to read on by ‘plot’, by the structure of cause and effect which is the backbone of a novel.

Character and plot are inextricably intertwined. Sometimes, as in thrillers, plot will take precedence; sometimes novels will be character-driven. But I’ll finish with a quote from the American writer, Kurt Vonnegut: ‘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. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.’

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4 Comments

  1. Derek Taylor says:

    Excellent Lindsay. Much enjoyed this. And like all good plots it made me want more. More on another P. Plot in the post-modern age. Perhaps you could pick it up today in Q for quirky, questioning, quite open-ended or even quietly open-ended.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Love the comment, Derek! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. ‘Q’ today – mm!

  3. Christine says:

    Thought provoking, interesting and instructive. Well done. Whilst I understand the desire for novels to more accurately reflect reality, I find it hard to imagine a novel without plot of some kind. I must try to read one!

  4. Lindsay says:

    I like plots! But I do enjoy it when they’re not completely traditional, but play around with time, narrator, or something that keeps you – as a reader – on your toes.

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