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 theory—and I'll mention why that matters below—is 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 here—the 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:
Description Term
Protagonist struggles to overcome an obstacle to his desires. Fiction
Protagonist undertakes a Quest which results in a confrontation with Evil. The confrontation changes both the protagonist and his/her world. Mythic
Structure
Protagonist undertakes a Quest to deny Evil the possession of a Token of Power. The protagonist is assisted by a small group of allied characters, at least one of whom dies. Eventually, the protagonist must face the Evil alone, and can conquer the Evil only through self-knowledge. The confrontation changes the protagonist, the Token of Power, and his/her world. Archetype
Frodo Baggins, an otherwise inoffensive Hobbit, comes into possession of the One Ring. On the advice of the wizard Gandalf, who refuses the Ring when it is offered to him, Frodo agrees to bear the ring to the Crack of Doom and destroy it to prevent Sauron from returning to power. Frodo gathers nine companions and sets out across wilderness toward the Crack of Doom, all the while impeded by Sauron's avatars. Gandalf is killed in a confrontation with another, independent Evil. One of Frodo's companions attempts to seize the Ring, but is killed himself. Frodo and Sam separate from the others and trudge toward the Crack of Doom alone. Gollum, a previous (corrupted) bearer of the Ring, finds them, and unwillingly guides them toward the Crack of Doom. Meanwhile, the remainder of Frodo's companions rally the West against Sauron and his allies, including a traitorous advisor to Gandalf (who has been resurrected with greater power than before). They fight several battles, winning each time. Finally, in an attempt to distract Sauron from what they hope and believe Frodo is doing, they attack Sauron at horrible odds. At the climax of the battle, Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom. He is unable to complete his Quest by himself, but Gollum, in his attempts to regain the Ring, accidentally does so. Sauron's power is destroyed, and not everyone lives happily ever after. Plot

The "limited number of plots" proponents are not talking about plot, but about a different level of abstraction—usually 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 it—this 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 storyboard—a 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 added—the 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.

Oops.

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 atoms—and just as likely to be successful.

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