Plot: What is It and Why Should Readers Care?

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

Plot is a literary term. On that much we can all agree. What does it really mean, though, to a reader? With the word plot I always think of a story’s beginning, middle, and end. These component parts arranged together in such a way that, if the writer has her intended effect, the reader feels what the writer wanted them to feel and maybe even what the writer felt when writing.

When I think plot, I think story. I think of an old man at the hardware store taking too much of the cashier’s time as he recounts how he met his wife for the hundredth time. The cashier knows the story means the world to the old man. It’s important to the old man not only that the story is told but also how the story is told. He wants you to see his wife as he saw her for the first time. He has practiced the story every day since he met his wife.

Plot draws our attention to the connections between events, but the author gets to pick what connections are important. Plot is developed as much by events ignored as events discussed. The author makes the decisions she does for a reason. As a reader you want to know why those decisions were made. In fiction, the author could tell any story she wanted. Your job as reader is to think about why she told this story and why she told it this way.

Plot Through the Eyes of Aristotle

The Greek word for plot is “Mythos.” It is no coincidence that the word is so closely related to Myth. At the heart of any myth is a story, a plot. While Greek myths have interesting characters, the stories are ultimately driven by the events or actions, the plot.

To Aristotle, plot is “is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy.” Poetics, Aristotle.  Aristotle identified good plots and bad plots. Good ones flow continuously. This keeps the reader thoroughly involved in the story.

Bad plots are episodic. For example, on Monday I went to work and handled office tasks before heading to my high school to give a presentation for Career Day. I gave a speech and answered questions. Part of the way through the second session the fire alarm went off. By the time I got home it was time for dinner. On Tuesday…. This is not a good plot, this is a recitation of my weekly calendar. Episodic plots prevent the reader from becoming fully involved in the story.

Aristotle liked a complicated or complex plot. One that had the characters moving up and down the ladder of fortune. Aristotle liked plots that made sense, logically. If they contained surprise or coincidence even better, but the incident should fit within the rest of the story. Aristotle, even a couple thousand years ago, was already saying what many say today. All the stories have already been told. He believed, there are a limited number of plots in the world and once you know how to recognize them you see the books for what they are.  The same plots dressed up in new clothes.

Plot Through the Eyes of the Reader

Great, but does all this talk about Aristotle and the Greek Tragedy have anything to do with my reading? I think it does. What you read today will have a plot. You can expect to find a beginning, middle, and end in the fiction you read. Surprise or coincidence is still in the writer’s toolbox. An author writes in patterns taken from what they read.  What they read likely had a plot. Plot also helps us recognize patterns or similarities in what we read. When we see the same basic story appear repeatedly we can start to recognize that story and look for ways the author chose to deviate from the commonly accepted plot. Plot recognition will let you take your reading deeper. So, as you read think about plot in this way:

  • Does the story have a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end?
  • Does the story surprise me or use coincidence to usher in a particular emotion or feeling?
  • How complex is the plot? Do the fates of the characters shift up and down often?
  • Does the plot flow smoothly from one event to another?
  • What is the overall emotion or feeling invoked by the plot? Does this change depending on where I am in the story?
  • Have I seen this story before? Is it a plot I am familiar with?
  • I have seen this plot before, but somehow it feels different this time. Why does it feel different?
  • Is the author trying to convey a message by making this plot different from other similar stories I have experienced?
  • Do you think the plot is driven by the characters in the story or the action in the story, predominantly.
  • Does the author hold back from revealing the end of the plot in order to create mystery?
  • Are there any particular plot devices used by the author to move the action forward?
  • Can you easily write a plot summary or outline from what you’ve read?

We Are a Part of the Great Living Plot

You can’t tell the plot of a baseball game from the scorecard. There’s more to it than just recounting what happened and when it happened. As a reader you should want to know how the events effected people. The plot of a dog’s life as told by the dog would be simple: I eat, I sleep, I play, I am loved. The plot of “man’s” life is complicated by our ability to perceive and understand much more about the world around us. In this way, understanding an author’s plot can make our lives more meaningful because we start to see the stories in our own lives unfold. We might even start to see how the universal stories that have been alive for years are still being lived out today and by us.

Suggested Resources:
The “Basic” Plots in Literature
Poetics, Aristotle.

Study the plot of what you read to see how it’s like what you have read before, but don’t be afraid to make special note of how it is different. That may be the author’s way of trying to make his point.

Photo: Some rights reserved by snigl3t

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