The Plot Against Plotting

What's so wrong with making the reader want to turn the page?

Many of the common critiques of the MFA world and literary fiction are either nonsense, ill-informed, or out of date. But some are true. One of those is that “plot” is too often a dirty word. “Literary fiction” writers—always a fraught term—frequently define their work as “character-driven” as opposed to the “plot-driven” works of mere genre fiction. More than once, I’ve seen the following Grace Paley quote paraded about as an aesthetic manifesto—and pasted here, for some reason, over yarn:

(It should be noted that this quote is not from a non-fiction manifesto, but said by one of Paley’s characters in an [excellent] metafictional short story in which said character is using narrative techniques to avoid facing their father’s impending death. So reading it as Paley’s official stance on plot might not be right…)

This is of course not universal. But in my experience, when plot is brought up in the literary world it’s often either something to avoid or else described in such a vague way it doesn’t mean anything. E.g., “There are only two plots: a stranger comes to town or a man goes on a journey. And they’re two sides of the same plot!”

Recently, someone asked me if I could think of literary authors without a genre bent who were as adept at plot at they are other elements of fiction. I pretty much drew a blank. The authors who came mind—Victor LaValle, Kelly Link, Brian Evenson, etc.—are all “genre bending” authors whose writing overlaps with classic “plotty” genres like horror, science fiction, and noir. I threw the question to Twitter and was, well, let’s say confused by the replies. Many of the authors listed are celebrated exactly for avoiding or minimizing plot. Or else they’re authors who have many strengths, but the plots themselves feel tacked on and cliché. (One author friend slid in my DMs to marvel at how everyone was just listing favorite writers with “nary a plot in sight.”)

It isn’t rare to read a celebrated novel that has beautiful language, cutting insights, and stunning characters… and then some formulaic TV show plot tacked onto the last 50 pages. This “sudden outburst of plot”—as I’ve heard it called—sometimes seems to be there merely so that critics will have something to summarize in their reviews. Or perhaps it’s there to make the adaptation rights easier to sell. But it typically doesn’t inform or drive the preceding pages in any meaningful way.

I want to take a step back and say that I love many plotless works. One of the first novels that made me want to be a writer is Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, which is mostly a series of poetic descriptions of invented cities without even characters or events much less plot. I adore Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which consists of a “plot” of a man going up an escalator in an office building yet grips you with the narrator’s strange mind, weird digressions, and funny anecdotes. And the last book I finished was Rachel Cusk’s Outline, a stunning work—I thought—but one in which virtually nothing happens.

I know that someone is going to read that paragraph and declare that “all of those books have plots!” That nothing can ever be truly plotless just as Invisible Cities isn’t technically character free. Okay. Sure. Whatever. But you know what I mean. The plot—the chain of connected events and their attendant mysteries and conflicts—is not what is driving the reader to flip the page in those books. Indeed, you could cut or completely rearrange whole swaths of them and come away with a similar experience.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! Other things make you flip the page, if the author is great. Beautiful language or interesting concepts or funny asides. All of those are just as valid. One might even argue that too much plot would ruin the pleasures of those, or similar, books. And I’d agree. The best books tend to be the ones that embrace their strengths.

But what I’d like to push back against is the idea that plot itself is inherently uninteresting or unartful. That getting a reader to flip a page to find out what happens next is inherently an unworthy thing. The realm of hacks, pulp writers, and by-committee movies.

The fact is that good plotting is hard! It takes as much thought and effort as any other element. The reason that we roll our eyes at formulaic superhero movies or repetitive TV shows isn’t because “plot” is bad, but because those plots are poorly done. They’re received, unoriginal, and dull. They typically have boring characters and corny dialogue too. Plot isn’t the issue.

As I was writing my soon-to-be published science fiction novel, I had to grapple with the fact that I really didn’t know how to plot. I learned quite a lot at my MFA program, but one of the most enlightening things I did post-MFA was to read screenplay craft books. In the film and TV world, plot (and also structure) are not dirty words but fundamental craft aspects that need to be honed if you want to succeed. Pretty words come later, interesting plot first. Studying plotting, even in a rigid way, is a wonderful counterbalance to the more vague handwaving advice of the literary world. Yes, sure, “write what you know” and “kill your darlings.” But also study the complex plots and classic structures of great “plot-driven works” even if—perhaps especially if—you want to jettison that all way to write your experimental postmodern masterpiece.

My general aesthetic philosophy is that no narrative element is essential, but all of them can be done well. There are great stories and novels that have functionally no characters or spend no time on setting or have merely pedestrian style. But on the other hand, any narrative element can be artful and even be the driving force of the work. Great plotting is just as hard to achieve as memorable characters, clever formal play, or anything else. Plot, voice, character, setting, etc. These are all tools that writers can deploy for different effects. At the end of the day, the best carpenter tends to have every tool in the workbox. Then they decide which ones are needed for the specific job.