Periscope Depth

help me baby; I ain’t no stranger

Plot is a marketing conceit.

And I’m 90% serious.* Plot is a marketing conceit. It’s meant to give a stranger an easy grasp on a new product. It’s what the writer tells the agent, what the editor tells the publicists, what one friend murmurs to another over mimosas or imported beer. “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of that one. What’s it about again?” Any answer to that question that’s shorter than a Major League at-bat is marketing. It’s a tagline, a hook, an elevator pitch. I know whereof I speak.

By this I don’t mean that narrative is a marketing conceit, that the arrangement of events to reproduce causality** only exists to keep the publishers happy, that every novel that’s not an impenetrable postmodern slog is a hack job. Not that at all. But I see a difference between narrative (the sequence of events) and plot (the way that sequence is summed up and recounted). You have an interesting character in an interesting milieu, you throw circumstances at her that force her to change, and events will naturally unfold. And while no, it wouldn’t be hard to find the plot in that scenario, the 20th Century alone has proven that you can suspend one or all of those elements and still have something people will call a novel. You may not particularly like Ulysses, or Moby-Dick, or Tristram Shandy, and I don’t blame you, but the critics and readers and instructors of the Western literary tradition aren’t running a long con on you. Those are novels.

Put it this way: think of the great novels of the last four hundred years, however you care to define “great.” How much of that greatness can be reproduced by describing the plot? “Oh, it’s about a bootlegger who throws lavish parties to find this woman who loved him.” “It’s about a private investigator who’s hired to find an alcoholic writer.” “It’s about a lovable moron in his mid-twenties who runs away from his pregnant wife.” “It’s about a neurotic bombardier in World War II.” “It’s about a family taking over the agricultural operations on a planet in the future.” “It’s about a delusional landholder in Renaissance Spain.” yawn Yeah, and?

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* Six months from now, a friend opens an email in which I ask for feedback on an early draft of a novel. A vague sense of dread fills her, and she closes the email without replying.

** Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, ‘Causality is Just Word of Mouth’.

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