When discussing how important plot is in a piece of fiction, I think it’s important to think about what happens when you ask a person what they’re reading. Take a second and imagine it. You pose the question. They reply with a title. Now stop, and think about what your next question is? More likely than not, it’s: “Oh what’s that about?”
In writing, plot equals structure, and structure happens to be crucial. Plot is not the only means of providing structure, but it’s certainly the most common, and arguably the most reliable. This is because plot provides the roadmap of where you’re going as a writer, and where you’re taking the reader. It’s point A and B and everything in between. Yet its importance as a structural element is largely contextual, depending on the kind of work you’re producing, and how much you can comfortably ask of your reader in terms of their time and attention.
The importance of plot in your narrative depends on a series of decisions you have to make for yourself as a writer, choices about the kind of story you’re telling and how to put it into effect. But a rule I generally find useful is: the longer a work, the more structure it needs.
The notion of “plot” implies a concrete sequence of events. There are other ways to structure a text, but the reason plot is the most useful is that it parallels our own way of thinking and organizing the world. Our inherent understanding of linear time and causality largely align with the concept of “plot” as employed in most pieces of writing. Events occur, those events have consequences, those consequences have consequences, on and on until you see “The End.” There are plenty of writers that eschew this more straightforward approach. Many of literature’s greatest works do so, but in almost every case they exchange this one structural system for another.
Ultimately it depends on what you’re writing. Maybe you work in genre, or something packed with action and suspense. In cases where a lot is “happening” in your narrative in terms of overt external events, plot is generally your friend. At the same time, there are a litany of “psychological” novels, in which there can be very little overtly happening outside the narrator’s subjective consciousness, the twisting and turning of their thoughts. Such novels will often throw plot out the window entirely, but they do so in favor of other structural methods, often a subtle rhythm created by an arrangement of the text’s motifs and themes, a balancing act that is—generally speaking—much more difficult to do well.
In the case of short stories, the importance of plot is variable, and again it depends on the kind of story you’ve set out to tell. Some are short enough that they can afford to be relatively plotless, such stories usually skew more in the direction of flash fiction or poetry, generating narrative momentum through the language used rather than the events that occur. At the same time, much of why we celebrate someone like Poe comes from his ability to create a dense, complicated domino effect of events in just a handful of pages.
Trying to answer questions about the importance of plot is really about understanding what kind of story you want to write, what it is you want your reader to experience as they wander through your text. As long as they are given something to hold onto, and don’t lose their way completely in a self-indulgent soup of words, that’s all that matters.
Plot is just one more tool resting within that toolbox, one of the oldest and most reliable.
Here are some prompts to help you find your way:
Prompt 1: You are at a bar waiting to meet a friend. They’re over an hour late. Just as you stand up to leave, they burst through the door. Breathing heavily. Hair disheveled. Dirt on their face. Their clothes are torn. There’s a faint smell of smoke. “You’ll never believe what just happened to me,” they say, as they slump into the chair beside you, motioning to the bartender for a drink. Find a way to structure what happened to what is relevant to the now, and to what will happen later.
Prompt 2: A clockmaker has just finished his masterpiece: a cuckoo clock of the most dazzling complexity, full of impossibly small automatons that move and swirl and interact like they were living. It is a fine, pristine mechanism. The clock tells a story, each piece clicking into the next, on and on, until the clock ceases chiming. The hour changes, and the stillness is pierced. Clacking. A small door swings open. The first piece of this clockwork puzzle springs to life, and you are amazed at what you see. Let your imagination soar, but remember, you want to ground it in “plot”.
Bob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent. He currently lives in the Netherlands. He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June, Man Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts. He likes what words and pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.