Thicken Plot Soup
10 December 1999
This is an attempt to clear up a lot of confusion. I'll try and keep the theory relatively light, and the references minimal. But, for those of you who disagree with this model, be aware that I do have references (about twenty footnotes' worth).
One of the most popular assertions these days among those who do not have a thorough grounding in critical theoryand I'll mention why that matters belowis that there is only some limited number of plots. I've seen assertions from "one" to "thirty-six." These assertions are all wrong, because they are all calling something else "plot."
Well, then, what is "plot"? Turning to standard reference works doesn't help. (Just like I don't turn to Webster's for definitions in law, I won't turn to Webster's for definitions in criticism.) Unfortunately, most of the general reference works either completely ignore the issue, as does The Oxford Companion to English Literature (6th ed.), or define it in a manner to sell a "writer's guide." So, drawing on Booth, Watt, Frye, Graff, Brooks and Warren, Goodman, Barthes, Bradbury, Gass, and Rader, among others, and trying to create a synthesis that does not collapse of its own weight like contemporary French criticism, we have something like this:
Plot, n. The sequence of events in their context that defines the temporal or causal movement of a work of fiction.
The key herethe element usually ignored by the "writing gurus"is the second clause: "in their context." Here's an illustration, moving from the greatest level of abstraction downward:
The "limited number of plots" proponents are not talking about plot, but about a different level of abstractionusually mythic structure or archetype. That level is like claiming that all Americans are alike because we're Americans. (We won't discuss what that kind of thinking implies about the values of the people espousing itthis time.) The so-called "36 dramatic situations" are not plot. They are structures from which the plot hangs, and they can be mixed and matched much more than the proponents of the "limited number of plots" school of thought will admit.
Think of it from a cinematic point of view. The plot is the storyboarda complex sketch that brings together all of the significant elements in a series of individual frames. The "limited number of plots" is an attempt to tell the entire story with one, or perhaps two or three, frames. The frames selected for Hogan's Heroes, The Great Escape, and Stalag-Luft 17 would be quite similar if we were limited to only one. Does anyone really believe that they have the same plot?
There is a very simple explanation for this. Reading a typical article or book that purports to teach plotting reveals a "stone soup" approach. That is, once the stone ("dramatic situation") is in the pot, what matters is what is addedthe context. Of course, the writing gurus don't come right out and say that that's what they're doing. That would destroy the con.
I think I just gave away the secret. It is a con. It really doesn't matter whether the stone is granite or basalt, sandstone or pumice, as long as the other ingredients don't destroy the stone. In fact, some of the greatest works of literature, such as The Brothers Karamazov, have plots (with context) that are somewhat at odds with their respective archetypes or mythic structures. I will leave this problem as an exercise for the reader.
So thicken that plot soup with meat, vegetables, butter, grains, potatoes, character, humor, romance, . . . whatever you like. That's the plot. How you season it and cook it will create your fiction. Ignore the vendors of fancy stones, because any stone will do. But don't scorch it!
Ah, but what about the critical theory? That's how you determine which meats and vegetables "go together" without destroying the stone. It exposes the real weakness of almost all writing courses and books: They teach "why" by example. That's rather like predicting the melting point of a complex organic compound by just counting carbon atomsand just as likely to be successful.
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