Saturday, October 17, 2009

Some Notes on Fiction

What is a story?

Let me start with a famous distinction made by the writer E. M. Forster in his classic work, Aspects of the Novel. Story is like this: “The King died, and then the Queen died.” Plot is more like this: “The King died, and then the Queen died of grief.”

What’s the difference? Story, in Forster’s definition, is a series of events; plot is a series of events that indicate causation. When we hear story, Forster, observes, we think “and then what next?” but when we experience plot, we ask, “and why?”

This is what I call operational definition: a definition to suit a particular situation, need, or argument. “Plot” and “story” can mean more or less the same thing, but even if you don’t like Forster’s distinction, consider the problem of causation: how, in a story, can you get at meaning; at the possibilities of “why”?

Here is another point about how “story” and “plot” differ – and this, really, was more what Forster was concerned with: “story” is the basic chronology of events: how things unfold in time. “Plot” is any meaningful (or, I suppose, meaningless) arrangement of those events. So, when you tell a story, you can go forward in time, first to second to third to last; or, you can choose another arrangement – one that suits some thematic purpose, or any purpose at all. Stories (as in the movie “Memento”) can be told backwards; or (like the movie “Pulp Fiction”) they can be told both forwards and backwards, leaving us somewhere in the middle. Often, a story starts “in medias res” (“in the middle of things,” a Latin phrase I’ve used in posts), because that is where our attention can be most successfully engaged; often, then, a story will back up, or otherwise fill in information, or provide some exposition, to give the reader sufficient background and context for the story and its characters, and their situations.

But there are many possibilities. Time can be directed, replayed, skipped, and multi-layered. Think of the Akutagawa story (the basis for “Rashomon,” one of our first exercises): the same story is told several different ways, according to the different characters’ points of view, and their differing motivations/limitations. Many stories, especially films and novels, will present a scene in one place, according to one character’s point of view; and then jump to a different character/location to show us simultaneous or coterminous events, often linking the two plot lines later in the story.

Also, plot elements can be nested: we can go back in time, or forward, and then, within that secondary chronology, we might be pushed further back or forward. A good example of this is in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”

This story begins with the narrating character learning of his younger brother’s arrest for drug possession; from this point, we go a little forward, partly to gain some further understanding of our narrator’s perspective; then we go back, to learn of the brothers’ shared past, and within a dramatic framework, we go further still, through a story told by the mother (long dead in the story’s present) of their father’s childhood, and a dark event that shaped his destiny – his, and his own brother’s (creating a parallel, of course, with the narrator and his brother’s destinies). We also have the narrator’s memory-scenes that present us with an idyllic past, when both mother and father were alive, and the family was in equilibrium (but with a threatening darkness not far off).

So, we have story within story, and in a sense, our questions “why?” – why does Sonny, the younger brother, have a drug problem; why should we care about him; why does the narrator, the older brother, feel regret – are suspended, amplified, and (perhaps) internalized: the characters’ investments in one another become our own, in part, I feel, because we enter their story (their plot, really) as if it were a labyrinth of meaning, leading not out but toward a center as the point of liberation.

Consider, then: when you have a story to tell, how should you construct the plot? Is chronological order the best way? Even if so, will foreshadowing or flashbacks enhance your purposes? Is there a point in the midst of events from which you can work back, then forward, to catch the reader’s attention? Are there simultaneous perspectives to alternate between?

The most important thing, I believe, is to think in terms of scenes: how can you help the reader “see” what is happening? Create a series of self-contained, extended moments: what action, what realization, what gesture, what knowledge will give that moment its purpose within the story? What mode of storytelling will predominate: dialogue, narrative, description, interior monologue?

My preference, even in essays and poems, is to think “cinematically,” at least at some stage of the composition: to imagine where the cameras would be placed; to design the tracking, the series of angles, to try out medium vs. close-up vs. long-shot distances; to imagine the montage of shots, considering both what is shown and what is omitted, and how the gaps communicate meaning; and to consider “mise en scene” (what is placed within the frame), also thinking of the relation between presence and absence, and how best to use what I expect a reader to know of what I don’t reveal.


  1. Through this article, we can see the basic differences between plot and story. Store is a chain of events which occur in an order of times, meanwhile plot is also a chain of events but they occur in an order that reveals the dramatic, cinematic, and emotional significance.

  2. What I got the most from this was from the story of Sonny's blues. Sonny's playing of the piano is like a writer's writing. Its a vast and terrible thing and then you write it, you let it out and set it free. But then you have to start all over again. Its hard to explain to anyone who doesn't write and I felt Sonny's insistence at trying to describe it to his brother.

  3. I often spend my time writing in what Forster would describe as "plot" sense. But I also believe that it's entirely possible to write in an interestingly vague way that will capture the attention of the reader. You can tell the reader why certain things happen and grasp the attention of your audience by not telling them why. I also believe that the work isn't always up to the writer. The reader has a task also. A reader's mental involvement in the story presented and what they contribute to that story themselves is part of what makes a work interesting. You can read anything and absorb it and not ask questions or expect answers, but maybe if you do ask questions and look forward to answers, things will take a turn for the better. Memorable works are as much part of the reader as they are the writer.

  4. I agree, for the most part, with b.segundo. I think, though, that omitting the 'why' is tricky when writing for entertainment. Logistically speaking, if you remove the 'why', you end up with the 'See Jack run. See Jack sit. See Jack eat lunch.' books you learn to read with as a child. Plot is what compels a reader to turn the page. Story is just the skeleton of it.

  5. This blog brings to my mind the F Scott Fitzgerald novel "As I Lay Dieing". I read this book in 8th grade. This is truly an adult read because of how Fitzgerald has navigated the story flow around the characters states of mind. I didn't realize until half way through the book that the author was speaking from the points of view of the characters in each chapter. I was expecting a simple chronological order of things. With the story told from the perspective of some wild characters, the story took on a whole new meaning, especially considering one of the characters was a mentally challenged individual. This was the first time I realized you can write outside the box of story telling. Tarantino was the writer to do this best in his movies, in my opinion.

  6. I totally agree with Foresters thought process, When we hear story, we think “and then what next?” but when we experience plot, we ask, “and why?” There is no correct order a story has to be told in as long as the questions are answered. When you spark a readers interest, you have their attention, just give them the 411 that will keep them reading.

  7. After reading this post I think I write mostly by how you describe a story. I lack plot. I don't usually explain the why. I never thought of it like that before. Maybe I don't even know the why. I write without thinking. I need to work on that.

  8. My thought on this was that it helped to see that there is a difference in the details. How she died told a story in the words "of grief". Nothing else had to have been added to see her story.

  9. I like stories that aren't told in chronological order. It makes the story more interesting as well as suspensful. I believe that you can start writing a story without a plot and as the story developes so does the plot.

  10. I agree with Nakia. I think you can start a staory without really knowing the plot, and I too, like stories that are not told in chroncological order. I like it when the author may have something in the story that he/she has not explained to later learn the true meaning and it had something to do with the past.

  11. I agree with both B.Segundo and Jerusha. depending on what the writer is trying to say and how they want the story to play out will determine which route to go. i love stories that jump from future, past, present, future, ect, type of deal. it keeps me interested, but there are times when stories are better played from past to future.