Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Two Threads - Plot and Story

Stories have to be told as two threads.

On the surface, stories seem to consist of just one thread. Words follow each other to form sentences, which follow each other to describe events. That's the obvious thread, the first thread, one event following another from beginning to end to create the plot.

That first thread, though, cannot stand alone. We've all read or watched or heard too many plots that tried to make do on their own, and the results are always bland and empty. No matter how clever a plot may be, it cannot satisfy us on its own. The characters won't interest us. The events won't matter to us. Soon after reading, we forget such plots because they aren't memorable; they don't seem to matter.

A subtle, invisible thread must be woven into the plot to make it come alive for us and stay with us. The author needs to choose the characters and events well to weave that second thread, so that hidden under the surface events of the plot will be a sequence of emotional and philosophical charges set off by those events.

This thread acts as a hidden harmony within the story. It is where we come to care about the characters, come to have expectations about what will happen to them. Those expectations make the events of the plot matter to us; they alternately reward and frustrate us as they occur so that we are emotionally and philosophically involved with the story until the end, and they're what make the ending matter to us.

It is the interplay between these two threads, the plot and its hidden harmony, that create a story. When a story fails to satisfy us, it's almost always because too much of the author's effort has gone into the plot and not enough into the story. When they're properly woven, though, there's something about stories that captures us heart and soul. We crave them as though our need for them were stamped into our blood and bone or written in our genes.

Maybe it is.

1 comment:

Rick Saling said...

This sounds about right. Articles in Writers Digest talk about characterization, and the need to involve the actors in conflict, and to see the evolution of their characters.

It would be interesting to see you apply this framework to various works (Shakespeare, Cervantes, Tony Hillerman etc), since many times that is how you can evaluate a theory, or modify and deepen it.

Likewise it would be interesting to see you situate your theory within the wider field of literary criticism. Typically any field of knowledge has a number of contending schools of thought, and it is often significant where ones own ideas fit into that (or don't).

I am reading a multi-volume sci-fi thriller series, with all sorts of exotic creatures (fireballs, water elementals, hydrogues, people, etc) mixed in with telepathy, mystical religion, etc. The author's main focus seems to be on developing a highly complex and exciting plot. Some of the humanoids undergo some degree of change (not the same as character development), but there doesn't seem to be much depth here. Unfortunately the main human characters don't interest me. For example: I don't really care about salty self-reliant traders and their confrontations with bureaucrats and the military, especially since this is a conservative stereotype and the characters in this series are hardly unique or especially revealing.

I'll probably finish it just to see what happens, just like I'll finish watching some TV shows. But maybe I should exercise some self-discipline and just STOP.