Starting with Aristotle, there’s been a great deal of controversy about what “plot” means. Aristotle called plot “the arrangement of incidents,” incorporating a beginning, middle, and an end. My dictionary defines plot as “the scheme of events or situations in a story.” The novelist E. M. Forster distinguished between story and plot, saying that a story was “a narrative of events in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.” Later critics suggested that the purpose of a plot was to show the interplay of events and character, with those events requiring conflict.

Yet I’m finding that there is a certain small subset of readers who equate “plot” with “action,” especially physical action with lots of violence, threats of death, and a high body count. That is, for these readers, if there is not a cascade of continuing action, the story or novel has no plot or point.

I fully understand that some readers read primarily, if not solely, for excitement and physical action, and there are more than enough books that provide such action. Many of them, I would contend, actually are without any vestige of a plot, in the sense that those books contain minimal character development, and no emotional or intellectual conflict, aspects of a novel that most readers and scholars would consider as necessary elements of plot. I certainly do.

A series of high energy actions isn’t necessarily a plot. The big-bang creation of the universe was violent and high energy, but it has no plot. For that matter, the Biblical take on creation is only a series of events, with neither character nor conflict [after the serpent and Cain and Abel, things change].

This also brings up a subsidiary but vital point. The lack of violent action doesn’t necessarily mean the lack of conflict, or for that matter, the lack of tension. Hitchcock’s acclaimed picture Vertigo contains no actual scenes of violence, only one apparent suicide, and an accidental death, yet the tension builds throughout, and it can hardly be called plotless.

In the end action doesn’t equal plot, and a well-plotted and tense story may contain little physical action or violence.

8 thoughts on “Plot?”

  1. JakeB says:

    I believe Aristotle would classify explosions, gratuitous violence and the like, under “spectacle”, the 6th and least of the characteristics of drama . . . I was reminded of this the last couple of years with the Puppy controversy at the Hugos. A lot of their complaints seemed to boil down to “More spectacle! Less character!”

  2. Tim says:

    I met a similar attitude back in the 80s. A UK TV serialisation of John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was slow-paced and had an intricate plot.

    My then work colleagues hated it and praised Kojak.

    Our culture seems to be increasingly about being entertained rather than having to work at understanding.

    And all examinations will become multiple choice.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      To quote a line from a rather violent and pointless movie:

      “Now all restaurants are Taco Bell.”

  3. gacebo says:

    Plot with a beginning, a middle, and a end, plus time sequences reminded me of Henry Kuttner’s short story “Happy Ending”. It is a gem of a story read in reverse the end followed by the the middle which is followed by the beginning. Well worth reading for its cleverness, craftsmanship, and the end I mean the beginning.

    While enjoyable does “The Slow Regard of Silent Things” by Patrick Rothfuss have a plot?

  4. Daze says:

    Most short stories don’t have time or space to to have a plot in the sense LEM uses it, though they may be illuminations of a larger plot or world-building – the latter being very different again from ‘plot’.

    OTOH the ever-extending sequence of Transformer (and other Michael Bay) movies are a useful illumination of where action with no plot goes.

  5. TheGoods says:

    My own interpretation, wrong as it may be, is that the plot is just the general path of the story. The sequence of events that could be easily summed up by a reader or watcher. The story is how the creator chooses to flesh out the details, with all the embellishments. This is how you can have multiple movies or books all with the same plot, for example romantic comedies. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy makes mistake, girl leaves boy, boy makes grand gesture, reconciliation. Very, very basic plot and sequence of events and everyone probably thought of a different movie initially that fits. But how the storyteller chooses to fill in spaces in between, all the character details and choices, those are what makes it into a story.

    1. TheGoods says:

      Also, rom coms are an example of where people wouldn’t necessarily expect much or any action, however they still have a plot and the lack of action doesn’t affect their enjoyment of the genre. I think people have become accustomed to a certain amount of action when watching or reading certain genres, and so when they find it missing, they notice it, even if the story is better off without.

  6. Lydia C says:

    The BBC have created a series called Shetland which has surprised me. It’s slow going with plots centered around the human condition. For its genre – crime / whodunnit – there is not much action – we spend a lot of time watching the main character having tea and talking to people. The reason it surprises me is that it is actually popular. There is demand out there for creative output with a plot. It does help its beautifully filmed.

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