A Wild and Overflowing Thing – How Important Is a Plot to a Novel?

A Wild and Overflowing Thing – How Important Is a Plot to a Novel?

Hey, I’m not disparaging the helpfulness of a good plot. It may be the skeleton of a novel; it connects each piece to the next.

(Sing along: “The shin-bone’s connected to the knee-bone, the knee-bone’s connected to the thigh-bone . . .”)

But one of the reasons I wrote How To Write Your Best Story was a strong feeling that plot isn’t why we read a novel.

Plot is generally not the basis of why I, as an editor, decide to acquire a novel for publication. And it’s not why readers buy a novel. For one thing, the plot isn’t something that we understand until later in the work, as things begin to connect. It’s like the skeleton of a person . . . it’s good it’s there (and its absence would be a problem!), but it’s not what attracts us to the person.

A number of influential writers have pointed out that plot isn’t as important as story. One was the late Carol Shields, author of The Stone Diaries (1993). The Stone Diaries won both the Pulitzer Prize in the U.S. and the Governor General’s Award in Canada, and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. She won many other honors, and has been called one of the “most distinguished and honoured of all writers in the Canadian literary tradition.” (Not surprisingly, Shields was also an avid reader of Jane Austen, and eventually wrote a biography of Austen.)

Shields wrote an article, “Framing the Structure of a Novel,” published in The Writer magazine (July 1998). In it, she talks about her ideas for the structure of a novel, which she describes as “a wild and overflowing thing.” But . . . “yet its chaotic offerings are, when I look closely, attached to a finely stretched wire of authorly intention that reaches from the first page to the last.”

But she wasn’t convinced that the “wire of authorly intention” needed to be the conflict/solution kind of plot.

As she matured as an author, she came to believe that a good novel needed more of daily life, and more of the storytelling that real people do.

The old conflict/solution set-up feels too easy for me, too manipulative, and too often leading to what seems no more than a photo opportunity for people in crisis.

The structure of these kinds of novels could be diagrammed on a blackboard, a gently inclined line representing the rising action, then a sudden escalatory peak, followed by a steep plunge which demonstrated the denouement and then the resolution. I remember feeling quite worshipful in the presence of that ascending line. The novel as boxed kit, as scientific demonstration, and furthermore it was teachable.

It wasn’t until I had been teaching literature for several years and passing on these inscribed truths to others that I started to lose faith. The diagram, which I had by then drawn on the blackboard perhaps fifty or sixty times, began one day to look like nothing so much as a bent spatula, and yet my students, hunched over the seminar table, were dutifully copying this absurd image into their notes.

Suddenly, I wasn’t interested in the problem-solution story I had grown up with.  (. . .) None of this seemed applicable to the lives of women, nor to most of the men I knew, whose stories had more to do with the texture of daily life and the spirit of community than with personal battles, goals, mountaintops, and prizes.

About that time, I had started to pay attention to the way women, sitting around a table, for instance, tell each other stories. I noticed that women tended to deal in the episodic, to suppress what was smoothly linear, to set up digressions, little side stories which were not really digressions at all but integral parts of the story.

She goes on to question Chekhov’s dictum:

I wanted wallpaper in my novels, cereal bowls, cupboards, cousins, buses, local elections, head colds, cramps, newspapers, and I abandoned Chekhov’s dictum that if there is a rifle hanging over the fireplace, it must go off before the story ends. A rifle could hang over a fireplace for countless other reasons. For atmosphere, to give texture, to comment on the owner of the house, to ignite a scene with its presence, not its ammunition.
. . .
In short, I want to write novels that were both tighter and looser.

Shields also was an accomplished poet, with the poet’s skill in observing the world. But much of her insight, she said, came from being a mother:

I couldn’t have been a novelist without being a mother. It gives you a unique witness point of the growth of a personality. It was a kind of biological component for me that had to come first. My children gave this other window on the world.”
[A Reader’s Guide to The Stone Diaries by BookClubs Canada, 2008]

Authors like Shields help us see that a good novel is like a good person. As a richly told and complex story, it has a personality and inner nature that is far more meaningful than the plot that has created it . . . just as we are more than the series of events we’ve lived through.

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