Friday, December 4, 2009

Cheney on "A Story About Plot"

Writing for Strange Horizons, Matthew Cheney, former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies, considers the distinction between story and plot in both popular and literary fiction. Excerpts:

Grisham [has] posed his idea of plot-driven fiction as a distinction from "literature," but he might be surprised to learn that his idea has precedents among the highest of brows: in what is generally considered the first work of literary criticism, The Poetics, Aristotle argued that plot (mythos) is superior to every other element of tragedy, which he considered the highest form of literary art. To Aristotle, action is most important, and the writer's arrangement of incidents leads to the most vital effects of tragedy ...

Plenty of critics and philosophers have disagreed with Aristotle about plot trumping character (Hegel, among others, preferred the opposite formulation), and there are bestselling novelists who disagree with John Grisham. Indeed, among those who disagree is one of the few novelists who outsells Grisham: Nora Roberts, who in a New Yorker profile said, "For the kinds of books I write, character is key. Character is plot."

Grisham wants to use an emphasis on plot to distinguish his work from novels he scorns, novels he calls "literature," but he's not talking about plot in general so much as an approach to plot. To show this, we can consider Aristotle via some terminology stolen from the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky.
Read the whole thing. If you’re not used to literary theory, Cheney’s exposition of Shklovsky can be pretty tough going. But it’s worth persevering through, because it addresses how writers move from ideas in theirs heads to the words on paper. We’ve all experienced the dichotomy between a mental sketch of characters and events (what Shklovsky would call "story") and the final brush strokes meant to connect the various pieces, lend a particular depth and color ("plot"). There are thousands of ways to incarnate the former though the latter, and Cheney argues not only that complexity of plot rather than story that determines literary quality, but that such complexity can work against certain sorts of stories. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, one that will have you thinking twice about what you read -- and what you write.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


B. Nagel said...

Nice article! I think Shklovsky's distinction between story (events) and plot (how story is presented) is a pretty interesting construct and the following discussion of complexities enlightening.

While I still hold to my litfic highbrow snobbery pedigree, I believe that complex characters in a flat plot are not worth reading for any purpose other than learning. That's a character study, nice practice for developing your cast but not something I'd expect folks to shell out their simoleons for.

Unless you're already famous from being Oprah's besty or starring on a television show. Then you're set.

Loren Eaton said...

I'd agree with you regarding the character study. Something needs to happen. It needn't be an atom war or alien invasion or horrible pandemic (although my genre-loving heart adores such awful things). But it needs to be something.

Scattercat said...

I prefer character studies, really. I'm far more interested in a character and the decisions they make than I am in what happens to them as a result. (Unless that, in turn, sparks more decisions of an even more interesting nature.)

Frankly, I'm not surprised John Grisham disagrees with me. I'd regard being trapped on a long bus ride with only a Grisham novel as something close to perdition.

Basically, I'm quite happy with a plot as minimal as "the protagonist makes a choice" as long as the character is well-drawn and interesting. I'd happily pay simoleons for such a story, in fact.

B. Nagel said...

Ah yes, scattercat: "the protagonist makes a choice". Some people (who may or may not be writing this comment) have been known to forget that critical element.

I think the example that gets closest is the brilliant and phenomenal absurdist Waiting for Godot. I love Godot, but hardly anything happens. And yet, change happens.

Loren Eaton said...

Cheney gets more into the Grisham / Aristotle distinction (what a continuum!) in parts of the article I didn't quote. Basically, he says that Grisham's emphasis on uncomplicated plots serves his genre well -- easily digestable, mainstream books. Which is not everyone's proverbial cup o' tea, natch.

I probably should nuance my earlier comments to say that "something" can be as subtle as internal mental change. And that fits well with character-driven plots (in Shklovsky's terms). Think of My Fair Lady. While the "story" is as simple as can be (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back), the "plot" is quite involved. But it's almost all driven by internal action rather than external circumstance, and it works beautifully.

Scattercat said...

Godot is definitely in one of my personal top ten lists, somewhere. One of my favorite mood/tone settings is "Mostly bleak with a tiny rivulet of hope."

Loren Eaton said...

I'm somewhat ashamed to say that I've never read Waiting for Godot. It's on my must-read-before-I-die list. But I did see Beckett's Endgame in Chicago. Fascinating little play. There's so much going on around its edges, like a setting that may or may not be post-nuclear.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

This article is interesting coming from the perspective of a recent reread of Robin McKinley's Sunshine.

I know this opinion may be controversial here, but I adore the book. The more I think of it, the more I think my enjoyment is based in a similar difference between "plot" and "story." For McKinley, both are quite convoluted. The story involves a sunshine-sourceress baker stuck in the middle of a vampire gang-war while worrying about her suspect genetic heritage and the overbearing and untrustworthy government organization that kills vampires. If Grisham wrote mock-gothic thrillers, this is the complexity he would want. But it is the gaps and weirdness in the plot--the explication of the story--that makes the story (like Sunshine's cinnamon rolls) so deliciously lumpy and textured.

I don't think I'll ever forget:

the superlatively awkward but hillarious romantic non-event between Sunshine and Con, arbitrarily interrupting the plot for character building.

the semi-parenthetical descriptions of Mel's unexplained tattoos and criminal-turned-soldier-turned-chef past.

the three-day break in preparations for the final battle, where off-kilter final meetings with friends are narrated almost dispassionately.

the ending, which absolutely refuses the typical plot resolutions and ends at a moment of surprising acceptance. (who does she "end up with"? Does her family ever learn the truth? Will the SOF ever discover the truth about her powers?)

Or dozens of other interruptions and hickups of the story, which collectively end up being much more important to the reader than any news about the Other Threat or the SOF's desperate defense of humanity, or even Sunshine's survival.

But if those interruptions make Sunshine seem literary (i.e. textured and lumpy), it is the times where the plot and story line up unironically that make it the sweet and gooey confection that I love. For instance, it is a cliche of fantasy stories that the protagonist at some point has to recognize his or her position as a representative of life fighting against evil. McKinley delivers a montage of Sunshine's "reasons for living" followed shortly by a four-page realization that Sunshine is/has fought Evil, and must do so. Gooier and sweeter yet, the two pieces are delivered with a straight face; one hears authorial insistence that yes life is good and yes one ought to struggle to maintain its goodness.

In most literary work such cliched defenses of life are met with a knowing smile at best, and fear and derision at worst. (Though in many cases the fear is justified--not to sound like a blogger, but Nazis and Crusaders did love straightforward narratives.) They offer a direct connection between plot and story; you seem to be getting what you paid for, in the pure distilled form you'd expect.

By daring (at times) to be non-literary, McKinley actually gives her reader the goodness that is the only reason many readers picked up books in the first place. And by daring (at times) to divide plot from story, she makes her work textured and interesting. So I guess for one author, at least, trying to be "literary" or "un-literary" by focusing on the distance between plot and story is a losing proposition.

Loren Eaton said...

Despite my preference for having everything neat and in order, I liked Sunshine. Those tantalizing hints that you mentioned did drive me fairly batty, though. I kept thinking, "Darn it, woman, you can't leave it hanging like that. Give me more development!" Of course, she could and did. But the way it ended completely paved the way for a sequel if McKinley's ever so inclined.