In previous installments, I covered character and setting. This time I focus on plot, another element that I have adopted from Nancy Pearl’s appeal characteristics. By ‘plot’, I mean the events described in the story, as well as the way in which they are assembled.
EventsThe events of a story usually form the answer to the question ‘what do these characters do?’ or at least, ‘what do these characters witness?’ if they do not participate in the events described.
I find some areas of human activity—real or imagined—far more interesting than other areas, and I suspect that most other people do too. Let’s call this the subject of the plot. So, to return to the idea of a storyteller offering a story to me, the storyteller who says:
‘These people are searching for a lost grimoire.’or
‘These people are hunting an enemy warship.’or
‘These people interpret barcodes on ordinary household items to uncover evidence of a vast conspiracy.’or
‘These people are building a spacecraft to put a crew on Mars.’
already has my attention. If the offer is:
‘These people solve homicides.’or
‘These people are setting up a small business.’or
‘These people are working hard to save their farm.’or
‘These people are having mid-life crises.’I’ll need something more to convince me that this is a tale I want to hear.
The degree to which the subject of the plot can profoundly affect my reception of a book was illustrated most vividly to me by Flashman’s Lady. This book is the sixth in a series by George Macdonald Fraser, depicting the various escapades of a Victorian-era cavalryman and anti-hero, Harry Flashman. Most of the books involve ‘Flashy’ participating (and seeking to avoid participating) in the various colonial wars of the era. As much as I adore the series, a lengthy first part of Flashman’s Lady relates to Flashman’s cricketing exploits: a game about which I know very little and care even less. Trudging through this was a truly miserable experience, even populated with characters in whom I was interested, located in a setting in which I was interested, and in the context of a series that I was already five books invested in. Fortunately for me, the novel progresses to Flashy fighting pirates in Borneo and becoming a pet slave to mad queen Ranavalona of Madagascar—and showed me just how large an effect subject matter can have on the appeal of a tale.
The subject matter of a tale is thrown into greater relief by contemplating what’s at stake in the story. Screenwriter Max Adams reduces the premise of any plot-driven film to:
‘(Title) is a (genre) about (protagonist) who must (objective) or else (dire thing that will happen if protagonist fails).
[...]If it happens that I don’t actually care about the thing that will happen if the protagonist fails, I’m unlikely to care whether the protagonist succeeds or not.
Apollo 13 is a drama about three astronauts who must repair their spacecraft or they will suffocate in space before reaching home.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action/adventure about Indiana Jones, a procurer of lost artifacts who must travel to Egypt and find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis unearth it and use it to take over the world.’
Most narrative does not simply recount events: it claims connections between these events. My favourite insight on narrative structure comes from screenwriter Lew Hunter:
‘In life, things happen one after the other. In structure one thing happens because of the other.’
A story that neglects that sequencing is a very strange tale indeed: the effect is surreal and disorienting. Eschewed deliberately and thoughtfully, an absence or ambiguity of causality between events can produce a masterpiece like 8½. When causality is ignored by a film-maker who shows no evidence of knowing what they’re doing, that same absence or ambiguity produces that hapless handbook on how not to make a movie, The Room.
Most stories relate events in a straightforward linear pattern and deviate from this only in their use of flashbacks, or perhaps a framing narrative. I enjoy complex structures, so any story that goes beyond these fundamentals already offers me something that I might enjoy. For example, I like the unreliable narrators of Rashōmon or The Usual Suspects or Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost. I like the multi-linear storytelling of Amores perros, the reverse storytelling of Irréversible, and the ‘what if?’ storytelling of Casomai.
EngagementQuite aside of any intrinsic interest I have in the subject matter of a story and of whether I think it’s told in an interesting way, I might still find a story engaging. I admit that I find it hard to define what characteristics might lead to this engagement, but I certainly know it when I experience it. I know that I’m engaged with a story when it passes the Scheherazade test—I feel that I have to know what happens next. Conversely, if after some time I realise that I have no interest in finding out what happens next in a story, I know I’m disengaged and will probably stop watching or reading at that point.
The Scheherazade effect can be a powerful one. I found the characters of The Da Vinci Code unlikeable and dull, the setting uninspiring, and the subject matter tired and ill-considered. Yet, for some reason that eludes me, I found it a compelling page-turner of a novel and I just had to finish it—I really needed to know what happened next. Having-to-know is also the factor that has me hooked on True Blood. Not caring about what happens next is ultimately why I abandoned such highly acclaimed series as The Wire and Breaking Bad.
The three characteristics that I’ve discussed so far—the characters, the setting, and the plot of a story—are all intrinsic to the world of the story itself (they are diegetic). Next week, I’ll begin to discuss three characteristics extrinsic to that world (extra-diegetic), the first of which will be craft. Before that, I might also write up a summary as an intermission.