I suppose the basic idea of a plot is broadly linear. A narrative starts at A with an intention to end up at at, shall we say D with diversions at B & C and there it does end at D. Fine, because so much can happen in between those four points of juncture. If however I were to continue along this thread and assert this is basically what all writers should strive for if they want to be succesful in their art then I might as well suggest we have a National Let’s Be Mean To Children day for the amount of rage and controversery resulting.
Basically ‘What is a Plot?’ is a question no one is ever going to answer successfully. If someone not a writer were to ask that question in a room of say six writers, the said person would end up (A) Having to break up at least one fist fight (B) Pick up the chair when one writer stormed out asserting everyone else was a twit before slamming an innocent door (C) Make a cup of tea or coffee to soothe the one who was having existential crisis because they couldn’t answer the question (D) having listened to the remaining two come away with the idea there were at least ten different answers (E) Wished they’d never asked the stupid question in the first place and (F) Wondering if they will ever be able to read fiction again without twitching.
And that’s before we reached that most volatile and dangerous of statements
‘It is the melding of words which matters. Who needs a plot?‘ (NB. An Innocent to the world of writers should never ask this question. It’s like starting a discussion on Religion, Politics or Sport; it never ends well., Even if the said Innocent does try keep the assemblage supplied with tea, coffee, biscuits and cookies)
Basically I would suggest one answer (out of an infinite number of answers and permutations of answers with or without qualifiers; ipso facto, quid pro quo-one should always try and throw some Latin into a debate it looks good) is:
The plot is what the reader discerns it is.
Any quick sift through books, articles, reviews, criticisms etc about other books, articles, reviews, criticism etc will reveal that there are inventive folk out there having tremendous fun (and making a living) out of telling you what the author of aforementioned books, articles, reviews, criticism etc was actually saying in the first place AND are not they (ie the inventive folk) very clever was discerning this. Such a statement will be followed by other inventive folk saying in books, articles, reviews, criticisms etc how wrong the first inventive folk was/were and actually the message/theme etc of the orginally cited books, articles, reviews, criticisms etc was….
This unsettles some folk who just wanted to sit down and read a book, etc and not have their worlds upset by strident assertions. This is why you should never read any review on any books, articles, reviews, criticisms etc, without your ‘Oh Yeah. Says You,’ monitors and response metres tuned to full strength. I proclaim this in advance of the next part of this post which I, (only me, that is) look at some works from the perspective of plots, or not as it were….
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Now it could be excusable on a first brief glance to think ‘A day in the life British upper class woman organising a party for that night. So? Is it going to be a comedy like P G Wodehouse with things going wrong. It’s not? Huh! That’s going to be dull’ Where in actual fact the party is but a backdrop to varied interactions between people, none of whom do run off with each, even if there is a subtext some want to. At this stage it can be argued there is no particular linear plot. However it is what it is; which as I see it is a view of the complexity of people’s lives, the appeal lying in the use of language and juxtapositions of past and present. You will have another view. We could discuss…hopefully not argue on the subject. Anyway just bear with me, I’m not done yet.
Moby Dick (or The Whale) by Herman Melville
Entire literary or academic careers have probably been built around this novel. ‘Ahab a sea-captain has had his leg bitten off by a whale, Moby Dick and wants to seek revenge on the said whale. But consumed by this obsession ends up being bested by said whale’. ‘Is that the plot then?’ Well not really because, Melville fills up the book with all sorts of information about whales and the history of whaling, it’s told from the point of view of Ishmael the only survivor, Ahab the captain doesn’t turn up for quite a while and Moby Dick in terms of wordage nearly at the end. So who or what is the book about? And does it have a plot or is it a commentary about things deeper? Personally I don’t know, it overwhelms me, like a huge whale rising out of the deep. One thing is certain the whole work has and will continue to intrigue and captivate. No doubt there are legion of opinions are to what the actual plot is (or not as the case may be)
Having thus skirted around the dangerous area of whether one may or may not need a plot, or part of a plot I will comment on safer ground for me anyway….. Fantasy novels. Most of the best selling having plots. In these following examples Plots are strong factors, but the telling of how they work out are the most important features.
Now this one needs no introduction or detailed explanation does it? Very simple outline- throw the evil ring down the volcano, good defeats evil. Tolkien doesn’t just go from A to D via B & C though, he goes through the entire alphabet upper and lower case for good measure. Small wonder many folk say ‘This year I shall I read Lord of the Rings, properly and in depth’, because it will need that length of time to appreciate all the histories, nuances and colours. Simple premise while allowing whole swathes of detail, proving you don’t need a complex plot.
Best Served Cold by Joe Ambercrombie
Joe Ambercrombie does not write subtle, nor simple, nor good over coming evil. But he does write plots. This book set in a world familiar to his readers is one of basic revenge. Monza Murcatto a ruthless mercenary is betrayed and left for dead, she gets up and seeks revenge; there is a conclusion. On the way though there are many characters some of whom people other books in the series. Monza is not nice at all, in fact you might think considering her background she had this coming and you might also feel sorry for some of the folk tagging along with her. In fact it is very hard not to get engaged, if bloody, unsentimental, colourful alternate worlds (approx. 15/16th Century Italy) are to your taste. One with twists to the plot which are not of Monza’s plan or even foresight. Plot figures strongly, fleshed out though with strong characters. No particular moral other than in this one Survival is Everything.
The preceding four books were taken as random examples of just a few of the facets encountered when talking about The Plot (or not). You will have your own examples and permutations. I tried to steer clear of the issue of Complex, Tangled or Obscure plots as these tend to be a matter of perception and some folk get quite upset, nay even insulted if you suggest one is, or isn’t when they have an opposite view and we are back in the world of heated arguments.
Basically to underline the issue it would seem we must always consider this.
It is how the piece is written which counts.