In narrative, plot is a literary technique; it is the rendering and ordering of the events and actions of a story, particularly towards the achievement of some particular artistic or emotional effect. Plot is generally distinguished from the actions of the story. That actions that are narrated take place in a certain sequential order. The plot may follow that sequential, or chronological order, or, for artistic effect, it may relate the actions in a different order. For example, one of the most common ways in which plot alters the sequence of narrated events is know as in media res, from the Latin meaning "in the middle of the action." This is a technique that is common in detective fiction, the goal of which is to grab the reader or viewers attention quickly and immerse them into the narrative.
Narratives in which the action of the story is primary, such as an Ian Fleming James Bond novel, are often referred to as plot-driven. This is opposed to a novel like Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov, in which the first sixty or so pages narrates the character getting out of bed. Such works are said to be character-driven, in which the inner state of the character is the main focus.
Plot can be found in any sequential ordering of events to convey ideas. It does not exist in spatial art, "… which presents its materials simultaneously, or in a random order…." However, "… a succession of of similar pictures which can be arranged in a meaningful order (like Hogarth's "Rake's Progress") begins to have a plot because it begins to have a dynamic sequential existence."
Plot is often schematically represented as an arc reflecting the rising action described in the following phases:
- Initial situation—the beginning. It is the first incident that makes the story move.
- Conflict or Problem—goal which the main character of the story has to achieve.
- Complication or Rising action—obstacles which the main character has to overcome.
- Climax—highest point of interest of the story.
- Dénouement or Resolution—what happens to the character after overcoming all obstacles and reaching his goal, or failing to achieve the desired result and not reaching his goal.
- Conclusion—the end result
This schema owes some to Aristotle's instruction that plot should be composed of "a beginning, a middle, and an end" in his famous work on Greed tragedy, the Poetics. As with all such generalizations, the schemata has some merit but fails to account for the totality of different plot possibilities.
Aristotle discussed plot in his classic work on tragedy, Poetics. According to Aristotle's Poetics, Tragedy contains 6 parts: Plot, character, diction, reasoning, spectacular, and lyric poetry. “Plot (mythos) is the source and soul of tragedy followed in decreasing order of importance by the character (ethe), thought (dianonia), language (lexis), and music and stagecraft.” “Of the six parts of tragedy, plot, characters, diction (speech), thought, spectacle, song (cf. VI, 1449b 31–1450b 21) the plot is not only the "most important part" but even "the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; the characters come only in second place." “The plot must be 'complete' and 'whole' in that it must have a clearly recognizable beginning, middle, and end. That is why good plots should neither begin nor end haphazardly," but be linked by causal necessity or probability; one criterion for the "completeness" of a plot is "that the whole plot will be disjointed and disturbed if any one of its parts is displaced or removed." For Aristotle, the purpose of tragedy was catharsis of emotion. Thus, the goal of the plot was to produce affect in the viewer. “The emotional effect peculiar to the tragic action is therefore that of promoting the experience of feelings such as pity and terror, which constitutes the ultimate end at which the representation of the mythos aims.”
While Aristotle recognized the importance of plot, his own injunction about a "beginning, middle, and end" has often been interpreted, or misinterpreted as preferring chronological ordering to narrative. However, even in Greek tragedy, such as Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the order of the events narrated is far different from the sequence in which they are related. The murder of Oedipus' father and the marriage to his mother all took place well before the story begins. Sophocles uses the relating of those events to create his dramatic irony, as the audience is already well aware of what Oedipus is finding out—that he is the man for whom he searches.
Fabula and sjuzhet
To address this difference between the sequence of events and the sequence of their narration, the Russian Formalists, especially Viktor Shklovsky and Boris Eichenbaum, introduced the distinction between fabula and sjezhet. Previously, plot was considered to be a part of the content. However, the formalists argued convincingly that the plot was part of the formal property of the text.
The fabula, or fable was the basic material from which the story was constructed—what the Formalists referred to as the literary быть (byt), or the given. In one famous example, the быть (byt), or fabula of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was described as the story of an adultress who meets an unhappy end. However, the sjuzhet, or plot of the story is the twists and turns of the narrative based on the author's deployment of the literary devices used to tell the story. The fabula refers to what is narrated, the sjuzhet, or plot, refers to the sequence in which it is told.
In order to construct the plot, the author uses a variety of plot techniques, or devices. Plot devices are the literary techniques that the author uses to advance the plot. The author's narrative style is based on the types of narrative techniques or plot device that the author employs. Plot devices are employed by the author as part of the artistic strategy. It is part of the storytelling technique, not part of the events that are narrated.
There are numerous stock plot devices which authors employ. The author's uniqueness will depend on which devices he/she employs and in what manner. These literary techniques are not limited to plotting, but include language, character, point of view among others. An example of some plot devices include:
- Flashback, general term for altering time sequences, taking characters back to the beginning of the tale, for instance.
- Foreshadowing, hinting at events to occur later.
- Frame story, or a story within a story, where a main story is used to organize a series of shorter stories. Early examples include Panchatantra, Arabian Nights, and The Decameron. A more modern example is Brian Jacques' The Legend of Luke.
- Framing device, the usage of a single action, scene, event, setting, or any element of significance at the beginning and end of a work.
- Chekhov's gun, the insertion of an object of apparent irrelevance early on in a narrative, the purpose of which is only revealed later on in the story. (Chekhov's gun is a specific example of foreshadowing.)
- Defamiliarization, technique of using unusual or unexpected way to conveying information in order to force the reader to recognize common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar.
- Deus ex machina (God out of the Machine), a plot device dating back to ancient Greek theater, where the primary conflict is resolved through a means that seems unrelated to the story (that is, a God comes down out of nowhere and solves everything, saving the character from peril). In modern times, the Deus ex machina is often considered a clumsy method, to be avoided in order not to frustrate readers or viewers.
- In medias res, Latin for "in the middle of the action." It is a common plot device, especially in action narratives, when the story begins in the middle of an intense action sequence. The goal is to immediate engage the reader in the story.
In addition to the main plot, a story may have one or more subplots. The subplot is a secondary plot strand that is auxiliary to the main plot. The main plot is sometimes called the A-Plot while a subplot may be referred to as the B-Plot or even C-Plot. Subplots may connect to main plots, in either time and place or in thematic significance. Subplots often involve supporting characters, those besides the protagonist or antagonist.
- In William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II, the main plot concerns Henry's growth from "Hal" the prince to "Henry" the king and the reconquest of French territory. A subplot, however, concerns Falstaff's participation in the battles. Falstaff and Henry meet at several points, and Falstaff is a familiar of Henry's, but his plot and Henry's do not mix. Even though they may be thematically connected, they are not connected in action.
- In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the main plot consists of Gatsby’s attempt to gather the admiration of his old love, Daisy, but a subplot develops concerning the romance of their friends, Nick Caraway and Jordan Baker.
- In Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, the main plot consists of U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Yossarian's attempt to avoid dying in World War II, but a subplot develops around mess hall officer Milo Minderbinder's rise as a king of a black market food trafficking.
- In Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth, the main plot consists of the romance between Neil, a twenty-something slacker, and Brenda, a suburban princess, but a subplot develops around an African-American child who loves art books and whom Neil observes at his job in the public library.
Subplots are distinguished from the main plot by taking up less of the action, having less significant events occur, with less impact on the 'world' of the work, and occurring to less important characters. When, as in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, about a group of patients at that ward, no one character's story clearly predominates, the plots will not be distinguished into the main plot and subplots. Because of their brevity, short stories and to a large extent, novellas, mostly contain no subplot.
Plot in writing history
While plot is an element of fiction, there are element of plot in any form of storytelling. A number of historians in the late twentieth century addressed the issue of plot as it pertained to history writing. Epistemological historian Paul Veyne (1971: 46-47; English trans. by Min Moore-Rinvolucri 1984: 32-33) applies the concept to real-life events, defining plot as “the fabric of history,” a system of interconnected historical facts:
Facts do not exist in isolation, in the sense that the fabric of history is what we shall call a plot, a very human and not very ‘scientific’ mixture of material causes, aims, and chances—a slice of life, in short, that the historian cuts as he [sic] wills and in which facts have their objective connections and relative importance… the word plot has the advantage of reminding us that what the historian studies is as human as a play or a novel… then what are the facts worthy of rousing the interest of the historian? All depends on the plot chosen; a fact is interesting or uninteresting… in history as in the theater, to show everything is impossible—not because it would require too many pages, but because there is no elementary historical fact, no event worthy atom. If one ceases to see events in their plots, one is sucked into the abyss of the infinitesimal.
- Dramatic structure
- Plot device
- Plot hole
- Vladimir Propp
- Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (Oxford University Press, 1966, ISBN 0-19-500773-5).
- Renato Rizzoli,Representation and Ideology in Jacobean Drama; The Politics of the Coup De Theatre (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999).
- Aristotle, W. Rhys Roberts, and Ingram Bywater, The Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle (New York: The Modern Library, 1984).
- 1450a 15 and 38–39.
- 1450b 33–34.
- 1451a 32–33.
- Rizzoli, 11.
- Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History—Doctrine, p. 240.
- Donald Rayfield, Anton Chekhov: A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997, ISBN 0-8050-5747-1), 203.
- Aristotle, W. Rhys Roberts, and Ingram Bywater. The Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle. New York: The Modern Library, 1984. OCLC 237166.
- Bickham, Jack M. Scene & Sequel: How to Construct Fiction with Scene-by-scene Flow, Logic, and Readability Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books, 1993. ISBN 9780898795516
- Eggs, Ekkehard. "Doxa in Poetry: a Study of Aristotle's Poetics." Poetics Today 23 (2002): 395-426. ISSN 0333-5372.
- Rizzoli, Renato. Representation and Ideology in Jacobean Drama; The Politics of the Coup De Theatre. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999. ISBN 9780773441620.
- Scholes, Robert and Kellogg, Robert. The Nature of Narrative. Oxford University Press, 1966. ISBN 0-19-500773-5.
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