The true importance of plot
Last week, while assembling my list of my twenty favorite writing quotes, I was struck by a statement by Kurt Vonnegut, which I’d read countless times before without really thinking through its implications. The more I reflect on it, however, the more it seems to sum up much of how I feel about narrative plot and structure, to the extent that it deserves a post of its own. Here it is:
I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.
This may seem like an obvious point, but it’s also a profound insight that every author ought to keep in mind. Writers go into fiction for any number of reasons, but keeping the reader reading is as close to a universal objective as they come—and plot remains by far the best solution we’ve ever discovered to seizing and holding a reader’s attention. It isn’t about realism or accuracy, but about allowing a novel or story to reach its ultimate goal, which is to be read in its entirety. And if there’s any possible way for a writer to express his ideas and feelings within the constraints of plot, he’d be a fool to do otherwise, any more than he’d allow his book to be published in an unreadable font, littered with typographical errors, or in any other form that impedes the reader’s engagement with the work itself.
Life is full of stories, but it’s rarely full of plots—that is, of events that have a clear beginning, middle, and end, or any kind of structure at all. Phases in one’s life tend to blur and overlap, and the ending, when it comes, is never as tidy as it is in fiction. As a result, some writers reject plot as inherently unrealistic, and they work hard to develop essentially shapeless or unconventional fictions that more closely mirror the messiness of life. There’s nothing wrong with this, and some of my favorite authors, like Proust, have done remarkable things with minimal plots. (There is a plot in Proust, incidentally, but it’s one that could be adequately covered in a medium-sized novella, rather than spread over seven large volumes.) But to reject plot because it seems unrealistic is to miss the point. Plot, I’m convinced, isn’t so much a flawed simulation of real life as a narrative convention designed to guide the reader to the end of long, complicated fictions, by providing a series of wayposts or guides along the way. Like dialogue markers (“he said,” “she said”) or many of the conventions of realistic fiction, it’s less about realism than readability. And it’s dangerous to underestimate its importance.
In other words, plot—or more generally structure—is something like grammar. The rules of basic English usage are conventions intended to facilitate ease of communication. Some of these rules may seem arbitrary, and they are, but it’s still necessary to have a shared set of standards to maximize clarity, avoid ambiguity, and interpose as few obstacles as possible between the reader and the work itself. Grammar is the etiquette of language. Like etiquette, it’s designed to smooth out interactions and give us a set of guidelines to follow when we aren’t intuitively sure what the right course of action would be, and when in doubt, in absence of a good reason otherwise, it’s smartest to follow it. As John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, if a writer has attempted a distracting stylistic innovation—like replacing the periods in a story with commas—it’s best to read the passage over many times, asking constantly whether the benefits of the change are outweighed by its potential inaccessibility. And in the majority of cases, it’s often best to work within existing conventions, rather then casting them aside at the risk of seeming frigid or self-indulgent.
And the same thing applies to plot. Plot is a set of conventions designed to accomplish exactly one thing: to get the reader to the end of the novel. A novel that remains unread, or only partially finished, has failed at its only undeniable purpose, which is to present a single organized vision to the reader. Works of nonfiction or certain extraordinary novels may hold a reader’s attention through philosophy, argument, or exceptional writing, but for the most part, the basic tools of creating and preserving interest are as old as storytelling itself: an interesting protagonist, personality expressed through action, and a clear series of objectives and conflicts. (I should also point out that an argument is also a kind of plot, and that even the most abstruse major works of philosophy tend to be invisibly structured to sustain the reader’s curiosity.) And that’s why plot matters. It’s a useful armature or framework for what the writer wants to say, assuming that he’s really interested in keeping his readers to the end. It can, and should be, questioned, undermined, and sometimes rejected, but it can’t be ignored.