Oddly enough, I’ve found discussions over plot to be some of the most heated discussions I’ve had with other writers. Should writers focus on plot? Does plot matter? Norman Mailer, for one, finds plots “rudimentary.”
“Whatever I’ve accomplished,” he said, “certainly does not depend on my virtuosity with plot. Generally I don’t even have a plot. What happens is that my characters engage in an action, and out of that action bits of plot sometimes adhere to the narrative.”
On the opposite end, John Irving advocates for
Plot, plot, and more plot.
During his Keynote address at NY’s AWP Conference a few years back, he event went so far as to claim that he believed so much in plot that he wrote backwards. Yes, that’s right BACKWARDS. As in, “I do not start a novel until I know the last line, and then I write the second to the last line, and then the third to last line until I have written the entire novel that way.”
While the definitions of “story” and “plot” seem to differ in every craft essay/book that I pick up, I think the easiest way to think about plot is to quote Aristotle who defines plot as “the arrangement of the incidents.” Take, for example, the way the same “incidents” can create two different stories:
Story Version #1:
You come to a building.
And you wait….
You keep glancing down the path. Where is she?
And you wait some more…
Until finally, there she is! She has arrived! And you are so happy to see her that you forgive her lateness instantly.
Story Version #2
You have to understand, you say, I know she is always late, but she is very much worth waiting for.
Sometimes, you even try to arrive late yourself, but it never fails:
Although the path is long, there is no sign of her.
…and time passes…
And though the waiting can be taxing, when you finally see her, time stops.
Sometimes you wonder if waiting for her is the best part of your day.
Okay, so I went a bit overboard, but the point here is simple: the order of the incidents changes the emphasis of the story. In these two differing versions, you are getting the same details, but the “story” has changed drastically. In the first version, the narrative is linear. It is driven by a need to know what will happen next. You arrive. You wait. What are you waiting for? Oh, the girl! The second version, however, is not linear. By beginning with the end, the voice has become more retrospective. Rather than being about waiting, the story focuses on the girl worth waiting for.
Today, writers, let yourself play with the order of events in your work. Rather than focusing on a linear series of events, what happens if you begin with the ending? How does that change meaning? How does it shift emphasis?
Our work does not have to be set in stone. Let your world shift around, and see what transpires.