Several types of literary works have a narrative structure involving a fictional story: novels, plays, short stories, and screenplays, to name a few. I’ve noticed that these narratives tend to fall into two strikingly different categories, which I’ll call a plot and the unfolding of the characters’ fates.
|Maggie Shipstead, author of Astonish Me|
A plot has the quality of an actual plot, as in a scheme to accomplish something, not always honest. I’m thinking of a plot to commit a crime, for instance. In a plot, there is a deliberate plan to accomplish a certain aim, with multiple steps that must take place in sequence. The element of suspense is crucial—will the intrigue work out as calculated or not? The goal is known, at least to the conspirators, but the outcome is in doubt. A plot in fiction is also vaguely dishonest, though not in a harmful way—it’s an attempt to deceive the reader, or at least to create an ending the reader can’t completely guess.
The types of fiction that most obviously have a plot of this sort are mystery novels and films that involve suspense. Will the bad guys triumph, or will the good guys win out? Will the events that the audience or readers have been clued to expect take place as anticipated, or will a different result transpire? The author carefully plants clues in the mind of the readers/audience so they eagerly anticipate certain possible outcomes. The motto of this sort of story might be Janet Burroway’s dictum in her book Writing Fiction that, “only trouble is interesting,” since getting into and out of trouble is the engine of the plot.
On the other hand, there is the type of story where there isn’t a strong element of suspense. Then how does the reader/audience get interested and stay engaged? From the involvement with the characters, for one thing. It’s not so much that you’re waiting to see if things turn out the way you expect. You just want to spend time with those characters and watch them develop and realize their fates. And you also want to spend time with the author, to hear that voice describe certain moments in the story. The little moments themselves flavor the narrative, and those little moments are crucial in a storyline of this sort.
To clarify, here are some examples of both types of stories.
In Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations the author prompts the reader to anticipate certain outcomes, or to guess certain outcomes. Will the escaped convict Abel Magwitch return to seek vengeance on Pip, the main character? Will Pip escape his sister’s tyrannical rule? Who is Pip’s benefactor and when will Pip find that out? Will making his fortune ruin Pip’s likeable character? Who will Pip marry—Estella, Biddy, or no one? Will Compeyson succeed in getting his revenge on Magwitch? There are so many ways in which Dickens successful whets the appetite of the reader to know what is going to happen next. To a great extent, that is what keeps the reader turning the pages of Great Expectations. Dickens is a classic example of plot-driven fiction.
On the other hand, think of a book like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Certainly, Mrs. Dalloway is no less great a novel than Great Expectations. For my taste, much greater. But there is very little plot to Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway is giving a party in London on a particular day in June 1923. Try reading a summary of the plot of this novel, such as this one, for instance. Not much happens. A character commits suicide, but it’s someone who is peripheral to the main action of the story, and the title character doesn’t really know the person who takes his life.
What we do want to know in Mrs. Dalloway is how the fates of the characters unfold. Will Peter Walsh find happiness in his love life, or will he be forever discontent and restless? Will Clarissa settle back into her married life? But these are not urgent, life-or-death questions. They are just puzzles that Clarissa Dalloway, and through her, the reader, muses on. It’s that extraordinary musing that makes the novel so engaging: “She [Mrs. Dalloway] sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”
What makes Mrs. Dalloway an engaging book is quite different from what makes a Dickens novel a good read. A Virginia Woolf novel is propelled by the reader’s interest in realistic characters, and the small moments that contain larger truths. Is that enough to sustain a reader through hundreds of pages? If the author is really good, yes. Look at Marcel Proust, who sustains this for a thousand pages.
I just listened to the audiobook of Maggie Shipstead’s terrific novel about ballet, Astonish Me. There is very little suspense in that book, though it does end up having a fairly intricate story. But there is much to think about and savor along the way. Maggie Shipstead uses metaphor in a way that most poets would envy, and she understands her characters' hearts.
Neither method of engaging a reader/audience in a story is easy to do well. To make a plot grab you right from the start and hold onto your anticipation takes a gifted and skilled literary writer. To continually deliver twists that are surprising but not so unpredictable they seem unlikely or impossible to guess, is even harder.
It’s equally difficult to create characters who are lifelike enough to make the reader want to know more about their fates, and how those fates resemble and throw light on our own destiny or the fate of those we know, and to enliven each turn of phrase so that it lifts the reader forward.
These two methods of storytelling are actually related. A good suspense novel lacks color if we are not engaged with the characters and how their fates unfold. A strong novel of character and style becomes a bore if there is no suspense, no unresolved question that we want to know the answer to. But it’s interesting to see where a story falls on the continuum where one side is suspense, and the other side is the pleasure of the small moments in the prose.
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