The Plot Thickens

The end of a melody is not its goal; and yet:
if a melody has not reached its end,
it has not reached its goal.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow

Beginning fiction writers are often told to ask themselves whether something they want to put in will “advance the story” or “advance the plot.” Rand, for example, wrote that an author should “devise a logical structure of events, a sequence in which every major event is connected with, determined by and proceeds from the preceding events of the story – a sequence in which nothing is irrelevant, arbitrary or accidental, so that the logic of the events leads inevitably to a final resolution.”

On the face of it this seems like bad advice. After all, the point of a story is not to get to the end as quickly as possible; it’s to enjoy the journey along the way. It’s certainly true that all the elements one includes should hang together organically and contribute positively to the work as a whole, but to equate that with pushing the plot along is to reduce the work to its plot.

Admittedly one function a story element can serve is to advance the plot. Advancing the plot is one desideratum among others, but in each case it needs to be weighed against competing considerations; it’s not an iron rule that trumps everything else.

Key Largo Consider Key Largo (a Bogart-Bacall movie far inferior to, say, The Big Sleep or To Have and Have Not). The characters are holed up in an inn during a hurricane, and being held hostage by a gangster, an escaped con who is waiting for a boat that will take him out of the country. The gangster has been reunited with his former girlfriend, an aging ex-singer, and at one point he demands that she sing to the group.

At that point the filmmakers have a choice: should she sing well or badly? is she still in good form, or is she over the hill? They choose to have her sing badly, and doing so indeed serves to move the plot along: her poor singing leads the gangster to treat her cruelly, which allows Bogart’s character to express sympathy for her, which in turn lays the groundwork for her betraying the gangster to help Bogart later on. Having her sing well wouldn’t have moved the plot forward at all. But just imagine: in the middle of a Florida Keys hurricane – the winds howling outside, the lights flickering – a singer stands up and sings beautifully, hauntingly, defying the storm without and the terror within …. Wouldn’t it have made a better scene? It would have improved the movie for this viewer, at least; I’d happily trade away the more plot-integrated scene for the more beautiful scene.

Nevertheless, the advice I mentioned above isn’t necessarily bad advice. We may think of it as remedial advice; advice that describes, not the way an accomplished practitioner would do things, but rather something that may help an un accomplished practitioner become accomplished. Aristotle says the right thing to do is whatever the wise person would do; but since he recognises that an unwise person may have trouble identifying what the wise person would do, he also recommends erring on the side of the vice that is the opposite of one’s own vice. For example, the coward should err on the side of being too bold and the rash person should err on the side of being too cautious. In this case his advice is not to do what the wise person would do (the wise person would not err on either side), but to do what will make it easier for one to develop the habits that help one become a wise person.

Similarly, the requirement often taught in grade school composition, that each paragraph should have a “topic sentence,” can look utterly crazy if it’s thought of as a description of what good writers do – since good writers of course do no such thing. But it’s less crazy advice (I’m not actually convinced that it’s especially good advice, but anyway it’s less crazy) if thought of as on a par with training wheels, as a way of forcing writers to think about the unity of their paragraphs, and thus curbing the tendency to make breaks among paragraphs arbitrary.

On the same principle, telling writers to make sure that every element advances the plot no matter what can be good remedial advice, as a corrective to the tendency of inexperienced writers to let their stories become episodic and fragmented. But this shouldn’t be confused with a description of what accomplished writers actually do. And fortunately, writers (e.g., Rand) who give this sort of advice as though it were something more than remedial are usually too sensible to follow it religiously in their own works. (Rand is not fanatically averse to coincidence in her plots, for example.)

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3 Responses to The Plot Thickens

  1. John W. Payne November 5, 2007 at 3:44 pm #

    Are you saying that stories should never be episodic and fragmented, or just that the way in which bad writers’ stories tend to end up episodic and fragmented is bad?

  2. Administrator November 5, 2007 at 5:15 pm #

    The latter. There can be a specific purpose to a story’s being episodic/fragmented. But usually when it happens it’s not in the service of an artistic intention, it’s just sloppiness.

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