Friday, June 25, 2010

Plot versus Story versus Godzilla

One of Aliya's posts on plot and literary fiction had me responding at enough length on her Comment Trail that I realized I ought to bring what I had to say over here, rather than inflicting it on unwary visitors to her blog. In other words, I plan to inflict it on you--but I'm assuming that by this point in our relationship, anyone arriving here is a wary visitor.

At the risk of getting off into abstractions, I'd like to distinguish between "story" and "plot."

I do tend to require that novel-length fiction has a story of some sort. For me, "story" boils down to either characters experiencing conflict (within some setting or parameters), or characters on some sort of journey. (Helps if the journey involves some conflict rather than just being a travelogue. But the entirely episodic, picaresque novel has a long and honorable history, and sometimes we're just along for the sightseeing. Hey, if it works, it works.)

Even some of the most purely "literary" fiction that manages to engage me has some sort of conflict. In much of Beckett, it's a matter of someone in conflict with himself, or in conflict with meaninglessness, but you can still say, "This is a story about..."

"Plot," for me, is another matter entirely--it's the mechanics of how the story unfolds. And the mechanics can be big and loud and obvious, or so extremely subtle and apparently minor that people might assert the story is "plotless." (In a successful stream-of-consciousness novel, the 'plot' is disguised as free association; but the mechanics are still put there by the author, who decides what thought will stir up what new association. Thinking about horses and then segueing into a childhood carousel ride flashback is just as plotted as having a man walk in with a gun.)

If you can still say, "This is a story about a man who can't muster up the motivation to get out of bed," then you have a story. Probably not much of an evident plot. Whether the writer can make such a story interesting to the reader is another matter, and I think has a good deal to do with whether the writer is actually engrossed in the story (including the character) to begin with.

I believe that plotless stories tend to become boring when the writer doesn't care about the story or the conflict, and is only writing to watch his or her own cleverness at laying down verbiage. When a good writer cares, it drags the reader right along. But in the worst forms of lit fic, the writer really doesn't give a damn about the story.

I will concede that Joyce probably didn't care all that much about the plot, such as it is, of Ulysses. But he cared powerfully about the characters and what they experienced during the course of that long journey through a day. (Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, doesn't seem to me to have a story anyone cares about; it really is a lot of self-referential cleverness. Some of which is incredibly clever and fun to read aloud, mind you, but it no longer feels like a story. I'm not even sure I consider it a novel: more like an alien artifact.)

It is quite possible to write genre fiction that commits the same sin of not caring about the story. In genre fiction, this usually happens when the writer cares primarily about the plot, but not about the characters except insofar as they serve the plot--which is another way of not really caring about the story.

There's all kinds of ways of breaking the rule that you have to care about the story, or have a story. Borges did it routinely; so did Donald Barthelme. And I adore much of their short fiction. But expand any of those didactic or satiric short pieces to novel length, and you'll find me dropping the book on the floor somewhere around page 20.

On the genre side, the same thing holds for puzzle mysteries--such as the 'locked-room' mysteries which were so popular in the early years of the 20th century: I can enjoy them (well, actually I don't, but I can imagine that someone might) for ten pages or so, but there isn't enough story for a book; it's all plot.

I guess what I'm saying is that I dislike reading hundreds of pages of fiction unless the author gives a damn about something other than his own precious self.

Of course, giving a damn isn't sufficient; there's a lot of heartfelt fiction out there that is just plain awful because of lousy execution. But I'd argue that caring about the story you're telling is a necessary prerequisite to any kind of success in reaching a reader.

Probably the reason that so many lit-fic writers fail in this regard is that they sat through too many classes where professors said things like, "What Shakespeare is teaching us here..." or "What Tolstoy is trying to tell us..." (Many teachers seem to have truly great works of literature confused with Aesop's Fables or Rudyard Kipling's Just-So stories.) Then these students move on to other classes where someone's prose experiments are praised, simply because they are experimental.

No wonder so many MFA students write such lousy novels.

And where does Godzilla fit into all this? Well, what Godzilla was trying to show us was...


Frances Garrood said...

A good post, David. I think you're so right about the writer needing to care; if he doesn't care about his plot, his story, his characters, then he can't expect anyone else to. I think this applies especially to characters. The writer has to like - even love - at least one of his characters. That'll be the one we're all rooting for; the one we want to succeed. If we as readers don't want love/success/happiness or whatever for the character, then the story is of no interest, however clever.

By the way, have you really read Finnegan's Wake? All of it? Wow!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances. I think you're right--loving at least one character is necessary. And I even find myself starting to enjoy or sympathize with characters who I originally designed to be despicable...

As to Finnegans Wake: Trad it? Yep. Understood it? Who knows? But I was young, and did things like that. Nowadays I'd probably stop at the first "taking a tree for grafted", chuckle, set it down, and just never get around to picking it up again.

I used to believe that simply because people said that something was "important" meant that I had to read it. Now I know better.

Tim Stretton said...

"And I even find myself starting to enjoy or sympathize with characters who I originally designed to be despicable..."

I think this is essential. The alternative, which we see all too often, is the cardboard villain. Shakespeare may be able to getting away with an Iago, but the rest of us can't.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

A good point. Though I think that if any of us could manage the full Elizabethan English with conviction, we could manage anything we like. Certain levels of diction are like a magical spell, and let you get away with murder.

Tim Stretton said...

"Certain levels of diction are like a magical spell, and let you get away with murder"

The secret of Vance's success...