Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The joys of plot

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The joy is in the surprise. It can be as small as a felicitous coupling of noun and adjective. Or a whole new scene, or the sudden emergence of an unplanned character who simply grows out of a phrase. Literary criticism, which is bound to pursue meaning, can never really encompass the fact that some things are on the page because they gave the writer pleasure.

Ian McEwan, to The Paris Review

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about plot—what it is, how to construct it, and why it matters. I’ve spoken to other aspiring writers about this, and have been dealing with it constantly while assembling an outline for the sequel to Kamera (which, now that the proposal has been officially accepted, I can finally say will be called Midrash). Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at plot from various angles, both in fiction and in film. Today, however, I want to talk about something more fundamental: the joy of plot from the perspective of the writer, who gets to play the greatest game in the world.

First, though, I want to address a major misconception. There’s a common assumption, reinforced by many critics and writing instructors, that plot is somehow inferior to other aspects of fiction, notably character and theme. (I’m not going to talk about language here, if only because language should, ideally, arise organically from those other three aspects.) And it’s true that a novel driven solely by plot can feel thin or unsatisfying. But here’s the important point: in nine cases out of ten, a novel driven solely by character and theme will, in the end, prove unsatisfying as well, if it’s published at all. A good novel needs all three legs of the tripod. And a strong plot, more than anything else, is what draws the reader along to the final page.

So why do so many critics—James Wood, for instance—tend to dismiss plot? It’s rather mysterious, but my sense is that those who undervalue plot are often those with the least experience of writing a novel themselves. Personally, I don’t think that any major novelist can dismiss plot. Or would want to. Because the construction of plot is one of the great joys and compensations of the writer’s life. Part instinct, part luck, part planning and preparation, it’s the most challenging thing that an artist can do: a process of intellectual engagement, drawing on all sides of the brain and personality, that can span months or years. It’s a game, but also deadly serious. And when it works, it’s something that no writer would willingly relinquish. As McEwan says:

A writer whose morning is going well, whose sentences are forming well, is experiencing a calm and private joy. This joy itself then liberates a richness of thought that can prompt new surprises. Writers crave these moments, these sessions….Nothing else—cheerful launch party, packed readings, positive reviews—will come near it for satisfaction.

And why is plot so satisfying for the writer? My guess is that it’s the aspect of writing that comes closest to capturing the deepest pleasures of craft. The writer begins with a handful of isolated pieces—a character, a location, an incident—and gradually moves outward. He thinks, dreams, and does research, casting his net as wide as possible, hoping that a chance conversation or a stray sentence in another book will set him off in another promising direction. Once he has amassed enough material, he looks for patterns, connections, affinities. He orders the pieces one way, thinks it over, and reorders them again. This process continues, in various forms, long after the actual writing has begun. And any writer who has really experienced it, even once, would never give it up, much less disallow it to others.

Here’s the big secret: writers value plot because it’s one of the few things that make their lives bearable. Writing is hard work. The simple act of putting words on the page can be torture. And, indeed, if a plot isn’t working—if it refuses to harmonize with the characters or become logically coherent—it can be torture as well. But when the pieces do finally fit, it can feel like magic. At best, there’s something mysterious about the result, as if the universe and the writer were conspiring in secret. Such moments may occur only two or three times in the course of a given novel, and not until after the hard work of research and preparation has been done, but once they fall into place, the writer would rather die than leave them unrealized. Plot, in short, serves the same purpose for writers as for readers: it reassures them that something good is around the corner. And it’s what carries them along to the end.

But none of this would matter if the writer’s joy weren’t also contagious. Reading a novel with a perfect plot—the first half of McEwan’s Atonement, for instance, before the story deliberately blows itself up—gives me, as a reader, an intense kind of pleasure, one that exists on two levels. The first is a shared pleasure at the skill of the author, who has created a vivid, interesting, elegant structure, a narrative house that can stand on its own. The second is rather simpler: it’s the primal, almost childlike satisfaction at seeing the promises of a story kept. Such satisfaction, as I see it, deserves to be ranked at the very height of the reasons we read, or write, fiction in the first place. Without it, and without plot, I don’t think we’d have novels at all.

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2011 at 10:21 am

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