On Two Types of Plot
by Daniel Hartley
Of all the elements of tragedy, said Aristotle, plot is the most important:
[F]or tragedy is a representation, not of people, but of action and life, of happiness and unhappiness – and happiness and unhappiness are bound up with action. The purpose of living is an end which is a kind of activity, not a quality; it is their characters, indeed, that make people what they are, but it is by reason of their actions that they are happy or the reverse.
This is a very unmodern conception, both of fiction and of ethics, but my novel-writing experience to date has convinced me of its soundness. There are, I have discovered to my detriment, two types of ‘plot’: the first – my original understanding – is that of a series of events, one leading inexorably to the other until a point of closure. I’ve started several novels and short stories with that definition of plot in mind, attempting to ‘write blind’ and hoping that the subsequent events would magically spring out of the current one. Unsurprisingly, it would now seem (with hindsight), I never finished them. That includes the novel I began earlier this month. I’d written some pretty decent individual scenes, but I had no real feel for how the pieces would come together.
Then, on Friday 13th, just before midnight, the departing evil spirits whispered the secrets of a Young Adult novel into my disconsolate ear. It was my ‘crossroads’ moment. Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan sold their souls to the devil the better to play guitar; all I had to do was sit in my office chair looking diabolical. And for that I received the art of muthos. Like Athena from the head of Zeus, the story jumped out whole. I sat down and started writing. I didn’t stop until 4.30a.m. I had 2,000 words. And within those few hours, the outline of the entire story was clear in my mind
That’s when I really knew what plot was. A plot is not a series of events, it’s a field of forces. It consists of fundamental agents counteracting one another, battling for supremacy, but – and here is the key – these forces do not coincide with the characters. As Aristotle rightly claims, you could have a tragedy without characters but never a tragedy without plot. The characters are the organic outgrowths of the clash of forces. Their entire raison d’être is not contained within themselves, but only arises in the context of the clash of forces of which they are but one element.
What does that mean in practical terms? It means that when you sit down to write, the characters burn through your mind’s eye because they have the force of a whole action behind them. They overpower you with their longings, their vices, their idiosyncrasies – all because of the drama they’re caught up in. Their words and deeds flow from the pen much more readily because the plot decrees that what they say or do will have been necessary. Everything you write, everything they say, all of it builds up inexorably to that central event that holds the entire novel together.
Plot is the Aristotelian unity of action; it is the synoptic, nightmarish gaze of the Author. It is the reason I do not sleep at night.