A Story About Plot

By Matthew Cheney

In a recent interview, bestselling novelist John Grisham said:

For me, the essential component of fiction is plot. My objective is to get the reader to feel impelled to turn the pages as quickly as possible. If I want to achieve that, I can't allow myself the luxury of distracting him. I have to keep him hanging on and the only way to do it is by using the weapons of suspense. There is no other way.

If I try to understand the complexities of the human soul, people's character defects and those types of things, the reader gets distracted.

Grisham 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:

Poets do not . . . create action in order to imitate character; but character is included on account of the action. Thus the end of tragedy is the presentation of the individual incidents and of the plot; and the end is, of course, the most significant thing of all. Furthermore, without action tragedy would be impossible, but without character it would still be possible. (translation by Leon Golden)

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. Shklovsky distinguishes story (fabula) and plot (syuzhet) from each other by saying that story is a sequence of narrated events linked by time and causation, while plot is what happens when the story is told—there are almost infinite ways of telling a story, and the vast majority of them move the story farther from a natural or realistic sequence. Plot refers to the way a writer creates and sustains a structure, the way a narrative is arranged, the choices that are made, the style that is applied. In Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (translated by Shushan Avagyan), Shklovsky states that "Great literature tries to move away from storyline to plot."

Aristotle claimed that the greatest tragedies, the most worthwhile literary art, achieved greatness through complexity—tragedy as a form developed, he maintains, from less complex (and less dignified) forms. This complexity is partly a complexity of incidents, but not in a loosely episodic way—the plot has a wholeness to it, a unity that gives incidents a relationship to each other, and this unity leads ultimately to the most important effect: the creation of a sense of pity and fear within the audience.

If we were to bring a vaguely Shklovskian interpretation to Aristotle, we might say that the complexity that leads the audience to a full and meaningful response is a complexity not of storyline, but of plot. The complexity lies in how the writer shapes the material, not the complexity of the raw material itself.

The sorts of books John Grisham apparently dislikes and disdains are not books that lack plot, but books that offer a complex approach to plot. There are, certainly, novels that don't emphasize story, that aren't as interested in change and conflict as they are interested in, for instance, the description of inanimate objects. Such novels are rare, though, and most of what anybody talks about when they talk about "literature" is not novels that don't emphasize story, but novels with significant development in the gap between story and plot.

Grisham writes novels where the storylines tend to be relatively complex but the plot tends to be not much more complex. Even if we don't use Shklovsky's definition of plot, a similar idea remains true: Grisham writes complex incidents, but the causal relationships are, in the end, simple enough to be, on the whole, unambiguous. (If the causal relationships were ambiguous, most readers would not find his books satisfying. A mystery novel that, by the end, only increases its story's mysteries does not usually find a spot on bestseller lists.)

Grisham is right—his novels are not, by any standard I can think of, literature. But he's wrong that literature is the opposite of a plot-driven novel, or even a novel with an interesting storyline.

I keep falling back on Shklovksy's idea that "Great literature tries to move away from storyline to plot," because I find it a useful distinction, a productive way to think about fiction. Readers will disagree about the degree to which specific texts are "great" or "literature" and the width of the gap between storyline and plot (and what value that width ultimately offers), but considering how the formula applies to certain works can lead to interesting insights.

For instance, I've been reading some of Peter Straub's novels over the past few months, and one of the things that makes Straub interesting to me is the marked difference between his stories and plots. Ghost Story (a bestselling novel, by the way) is an obvious example: the storyline is not particularly complex, and could be summarized in five or ten sentences, but the plot—the way the story is given to us—is so complex as to be, I'm sure, often bewildering for many people. (There are, in fact, multiple levels to the plot, because we could also speak of a plot-within-the-plot where the characters attempt to turn fragments of information into a narrative that represents the storyline. Thus, there's the story as it is ultimately revealed, there is the plot the characters construct together as they try to figure out the story, and there is the plot that is the structure and style Straub used to convey all this to us. Just trying to put words to all this gives a sense of the complexity . . .)

In a review of The Hellfire Club for Entertainment Weekly, Tom De Haven cites another aspect of the gap between story and plot in Straub's fiction:

Peter Straub's novels . . . feel terrifyingly plausible till they're over; then they seem preposterous. Nobody else working the horror-and-suspense field—not even Stephen King—concocts anything remotely resembling the audacious, labyrinthine plots that Straub serves up year after year. He's a puzzle maker as much as he is a storyteller, and if his narratives are often as unwieldy, baroque, and zany as a Rube Goldberg contraption, they're also unique.

It's true that in comparison to the novels of many writers, even many popular writers, Straub's stories are complex, but his plots are even more complex—and in that complexity lies not only the fun, but the ultimate meaning: the end of the plot reveals the ends of the novel.

After reading The Hellfire Club a few weeks ago, I struggled to come up with a way to express why I found it to be a less satisfying novel than some of Straub's others. Part of my problem had to do with the characters: they felt flat, their details adding up in my mind not so much to vivid portraits as cardboard cut-outs. But the real problem for me, the element that kept me from being able to see the book as much more than an interesting entertainment, was more inchoate. Until I began considering the differences I've been discussing here, I couldn't put my finger on it. But then I knew: I couldn't perceive much elegance in the gap between the novel's story and its plot. The plot was clever, certainly, but cleverness appears where elegance fails.

For elegance, we have to look to a novel like Ghost Story, where the plot is not only complex, but complex in a way that strengthens every other element of the book. The complex plot of The Hellfire Club is entertaining, but the novel is not as fulfilling as ones where the gap between story and plot is developed for purposes that resonate through the text's other elements. Elegance appears not only when complex feats are performed with ease and grace, but when complex structures communicate meanings that are even more complex than the structures that contain or evoke them. In The Hellfire Club, the plot seems preposterous because it weighs more than other elements, and our attention can't escape that gravitational force. The ends of the novel turn out to be not much richer than the end of the plot. Where Ghost Story uses the distance between its story and its plot to explore ideas about how such distances shape life and distort perception, The Hellfire Club is more about how plots happen to us, how our susceptibility to their enchantments can harm us, maim us, kill us. It's a fine theme, but the structure that encases it is more baroque than it needs to be (for an example of an elegant approach to the same idea, see M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart).

Much more could be said about Grisham's perception of his novels and what they do, about the relationship between suspense and attention and narrative, about the relationship between plot and character, about academic literature and popular literature, about reading habits and prejudices, about personal taste and false dichotomies and what those tastes and dichotomies hide or reveal. That will all have to wait for another time. I have emphasized plot here because Grisham did, and because other recent commentators have done so as well, but at the end of the day I'm not entirely convinced that plot, or any other single element, is the distinguishing factor between the books that are simply entertaining and the books that hold our attention because they speak elegantly to our sense of life, the universe, and everything. I'll end, then, with a few words from an essay, "Rhyming Action," by the unabashedly literary writer Charles Baxter:

Technique must follow a vision, a view of experience. No technique can ever take precedence over vision. It must be its servant. It is not the unexpected that is beautiful, but the inevitability of certain literary choices that surprise us with sudden correctness.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and the anthologies Logorrhea, and Interfictions. He is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books, and he writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.