The plot of the story might be defined simply as what happens. But plot is much more than a mere listing of events. For instance, you might read someone’s daily planner, which record the following events:
6:30 Wake up, shower, breakfast (cereal, fruit, coffee)
8:30 Meeting with Peterson
9:00 Work on contracts with MJD
10:00 Telephone conference with New York Office and Chicago Office
11:00 Work on contracts with MJD
1:15 Lunch (sandwich and juice)
1:30 Meeting with Staff
2:00 Work Session Goals for next year
4:00 Meeting with HR re: Insurance/Contract Employees
5:00 Complete Contracts with MJD
7:00 Dinner/ Castle Hill/ w/ Pat (swordfish, pilaf, wine, a Semillon)
There is much that a reader can glean by looking the above schedule, much to learn and much to infer about the person who keeps such a calendar. But the list of events remains just that–a list of events. It does not become a plot to a story because a story is more than just a retelling of events. A plot is more than one thing happening after another. All of us lead lives, everyday, where one events follows the next, but many of our days lack drama, lack that essence that says that today we are living a story.
In telling stories, then, writers look for and highlight the emotional, dramatic connection between the events. It is this drama that turns events, individual episodes, into a plot. One thing the list lacks that prevents it from becoming a plot is the character’s motivation, his or her needs, desires, fears, hopes. Another thing that is missing is conflict, the forces that prevent the character from being happy or successful, the forces want the character to fail.
To turn the list of events into a plot, all we have to do is imagine that the meeting with Peterson is a meeting with the character’s boss, and Peterson says that if the contract with MJD is not finished by tomorrow morning then the character will be fired. However, Pat, with whom the character has dinner planned that night, is the character’s estranged spouse, who has said this night is the last chance to discuss reconciliation. Now the day’s series of events begins to look different. In a story each of these events will contribute or detract from the completion of that contract and the possible reconciliation.
Traditionally, stories have been described as following a regular structure. As time passed and the form of the short story developed, writers learned to change this basic outline, drawing out certain aspects of the story, shortening others. Still many stories are developed in this basic way. The writer begins the story providing basic information about the story’s characters and setting. The writer establishes the point of view and tone of the story. These early paragraphs are called the exposition.
Look at the first paragraph from Isabel Allende’s story “And of Clay Are We Created.”
They discovered the girl’s head protruding from the mudpit, eyes wide open, calling soundlessly (1) . She had a First Communion name, Azucena, Lily. In that vast cemetery where the odor of death was already attracting vultures from far away, and where the weeping of orphans and wails of the injured filled the air, the little girl obstinately clinging to life became the symbol of the tragedy (2). The television cameras transmitted so often the unbearable image of the head budding like a black squash from the clay where there was no one who did not recognize her and know her name (3). And every time we saw her on the screen, right behind her was Rolf Carle, who had gone there on assignment, never suspecting that he would find a fragment of his past, lost thirty years before (4).
(1). The story begins with a startling image.
(2). Basic information, like names, is provided. The setting and an atmosphere is established.
(3). Background establishes how the television news made girl familiar to viewers throughout the country.
(4). Second character introduced. Last sentence hints at, foreshadows events that will follow.
After this basic information is communicated, the writer then sets the plot in action by establishing a conflict. Then the bulk of the story follows as the conflict propels various actions to occur. The characters will react to those actions, and more conflict develops in other ways. This section of the story called the development or complication is described as having rising action, meaning that the tension in the story is heightened.
In “And of Clay We Are Created,” the plot develops, first, when we read in the second paragraph of the great disaster that strikes a small mountain town.
The towns in the valley went about their daily life, deaf to the moaning of the earth until that fateful Wednesday night in November when a prolonged roar announced the end of the world, and walls of snow broke loose, rolling an avalanche of clay, stones, and water that descended on the villages and buried them beneath unfathomable meters of telluric vomit.
Then the character Rolf Carle, hearing of the avalanche, “stuffed his gear in the green canvas backpack he always carried.” In less than two paragraphs, Carle is by Azucena’s side, trying to help her. For the next several pages, the plot progresses for three days with Carle trying to help Azucena, but experiencing frustration as he tries to pull her out, find pumps, and appeal to the president of the country.
As the complication of the plot increases, writers sometimes increase the tension in the story by including events that occurred before the story begins. One way of accomplishing this is by relating events in an order that is not strictly chronological. One technique, called flashback, introduces a character’s memories of events that may have occurred long before the rest of the events of the stories. Flashback is used in “And of Clay Are We Created.”
Wandering in the mist of his memories he found his sister Katharina, a sweet retarded child who spent her life hiding, with the hope that her father would forget the disgrace of her having been born. With Katharina, Rolf crawled beneath the dining room table, with he hid under the long white tablecloth, two children forever embraced, alert to footsteps and voices. . . .He under stood then that all his exploits as a reporter, the feats that had won him such recognition and fame, were merely an attempt to keep his most ancient fears at bay. . .
Another technique some writers use is to abandon chronological order completely. In films, Pulp Fiction and Annie Hall employ this technique and force the viewer to reconstruct the chronological order after having seen the story. William Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” is a famous for its plot presentation.
After a certain amount of complication, the tension will reach it highest level and then begin to release. This section, called the turning point or climax, is the moment toward which the story has been building. Decisions are made or not made, actions taken or not taken in a final major confrontation. The last portion of the story, called the resolution or denouement, pulls together whatever loose strands of the story that may still need to be completed or wrapped up. I won’t include the climax of “And of Clay Are we Created” here, but the resolution of the plot–the story of a man trying to save a young girl from danger–is seen in these last sentences addressed to Rolf,
Your cameras lie forgotten in a closet; you do not write or sing; you sit long hours before the window, staring at the mountains. Beside you, I wait for you to complete the voyage into yourself, for the old wounds to heal. I know that when you return from your nightmares, we shall again walk hand in hand, as before.
As noted above, the movement of a story from exposition to complication to climax to resolution is the arrangement of the traditional plot. Yet many stories complicate or modify that general structure. Some stories open with a clear conflict and dive immediately into the complication. Others may end at the turning point on the last sentence. Others may postpone the conflict to relatively late in the story. Some stories, usually those longer ones, develop a series of conflicts; other very brief tales may have only one major event that peaks very quickly.
Two factors that are part of our enjoyment of a plot are surprise and suspense. Surprise is a plot device that was very popular with late nineteenth century writers such as Guy de Maupasant, O’Henry, and Kate Chopin, though, of course writers still employ it. Surprise is a sudden shift in the direction of the plot, usually at the very end of the story. At its worst, it is merely a trick where the narrator withholds vital information from the reader. At its best, surprise in a story can be very enjoyable and enhance the theme, as in Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever.”
Suspense is a plot device used to create in the reader an anticipation of the outcome of events. In some stories, suspense is created by forcing the reader to ask the questions who, what, or how. Mysteries, such as those by Arthur Conan Doyle, use this type of suspense. In other stories, the reader, knowing who, what and how, is made to ask the question when. Much of the power of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” derives from this kind of suspense.
Another way to think about plot is to think about the relationship of the events to one another. Visuals can help. For instance, the events may begin in one place, then develop in a variety of places, and finally return to the beginning point. Or the story may be structured on two sides of an imaginary line. Some of the events take place in one emotional room or with one character and then events begin to occur in another emotional room or with another character. The plot may move back and forth several times before the climax occurs. Many stories are structured like stair steps, one event growing in tension and rising to the next event which rises in tension until the climax is reached and things even out. Sometimes stories are developed in a seemingly random, fragmentary manner like a jigsaw puzzle in which pieces are placed down haphazardly but slowly are brought together in the reader’s mind. Other stories may develop like expanding waves on a lake after the first event, like a pebble, has been dropped.
Some writers speak of the structure of their stories as if they were musical compositions. They build their stories from visual or verbal themes, as a song is built from recurring musical passages. Sometimes the melody is played with strings, sometimes with horns. In a story, a discussion of revenge may focus on anger; in another place in the story revenge, may be explored as a form of impotence. The comparison of a story’s plot to the development of a musical composition can also include such features as rhythm–slow passages, fast passages–solos and ensemble work.
The most important point when looking at plot is to identify a way to understand how one event, how one section, leads to the next. The connections can be causal and/or structural.
From Short Fiction: Classic and Contemporary, 5th ed. by Lyman Grant (Prentice Hall, 2002)