For us fiction writers, plot, sadly, is not enough.
Perhaps you feel like that you already have a good handle on plot. You know about the three-act structures and Freytag’s triangle. You aim to write novels where lots of interesting things happen. Yet, despite this, readers often seem to find your stories not as gripping as you would like. Or when they get to the end, they seem confused about what you wanted them to feel. They even seem unsure if you wanted them to feel anything at all. (I’ve certainly had this problem with my own fiction.)
My belief is that in prose fiction, plot can’t be separated from narration: a good plot, unclearly told, is no good at all.
I don’t say this to be a downer, or to make storytelling seem like a mysterious thing. Personally, I find it a great relief. There are techniques to good telling, discernable in the works of many great authors, and using these techniques well makes a huge difference to how people respond to your work.
The Aristotle Problem
If you care about the craft of fiction, you have to read Aristotle’s Poetics. It’s the founding document of the genre.
Not only is The Poetics the first work (at least the first that we know of) that tries to unpack what is going on in a successful story, to describe the techniques of narrative and the effects that those techniques can have, it also remains, in many ways, eerily up to date. As others have pointed out before me, you can read Aristotle and get a large percentage of the craft lessons that screenwriting teachers like Robert McKee are trying to impart: McKee may teach in more depth, but the premises mostly seem to be Aristotle’s.
The troubling thing about this, however, is that it often seems like the areas where Aristotle was weak remain areas that the craft of fiction, as a field of knowledge, remains weak. What Aristotle was not good at talking about, or did not seem to consider, we contemporary craft-of-fiction people often struggle to discuss. If so, it’s a real problem. Aristotle, I humbly argue, seriously downplays the importance of narration — of telling — in narrative fiction.
Here’s what I mean: one of the most brilliant aspects of The Poetics is the ease with which Aristotle points out the difference between watching a play and living real life. We expect to find in fiction different things than those we find in our actual lives, says Aristotle. Or, maybe we simply expect fiction to be satisfying, which is a demand we cannot ask of life. This expectation of ours limits what fiction can do, because the need for satisfaction curtails the options available to writers. In the case of tragedy, Aristotle says, people respond best to the story of an admirable man who makes a terrible mistake and who suffers as a result. To see such a person fall from greatness because of an error or unlucky coincidence produces a satisfying story.
For any would-be writer of tragedy, therefore, that premise should be the starting point. Start with a great man suffering because of something unfortunate, and you’ll be on the right path. Other premises are simply not as effective. To watch a villain prosper is merely revolting, and no one wants to see that; to watch a bad, base person be punished and suffer, on the other hand, is merely expected, and thus not a good tragedy.
You could write this as an equation:
Heroic figure + terrible mistake = the audience feels pity and fear, leading to catharsis.
Only the right kind of event happening to the right kind of protagonist produces a satisfying experience for the audience. If we can’t relate to the action in the right way, says Aristotle, we won’t have the desired emotion: we will feel revulsion, say, rather than pity and fear. In other words, satisfaction is a function of plot. If you, the writer, choose your plot-protagonist combination poorly, then everything else — clever dialogue, spectacular scenes — will be hamstrung. This shows why, according to Aristotle, out of all of the challenges to get right in a drama, plot is number one, character is second, and what Aristotle called “thought” and “diction” are a distant third and fourth (while “song” and “spectacle” are an unimportant fifth and a dubious sixth).
He leaves no room for confusion:
Again, if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents… The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place.
Now, Aristotle was speaking only about stage tragedies. However, if we use The Poetics as it is generally used today, as the founding document of our understanding of the principles of narrative fiction, clearly something is not right. When we turn to the great protagonists of modern literature, Aristotle’s rule about protagonists really doesn’t hold up. In Native Son, we see the impoverished and inarticulate Bigger Thomas bully his family members, contemplate the robbery of a shopowner — yet we still like him. He’s still a great protagonist. Readers have felt empathy for a child-molesting murderer, in Lolita; for an office-worker who is turned into a helpless insect, in The Metamorphosis; and for Madame Bovary, for Benjy, for Leopold Bloom.
It’s hard to fit these characters and plots into Aristotle’s model.
This might simply mean that there are more successful fictional premises out there than Aristotle ever dreamed of. He described how to make a good dramatic tragedy because that was his chosen topic in The Poetics, and had he been able to read Madame Bovary or Wolf Hall, he would have just as easily explained how the plots of those novels produce satisfying results.
I don’t believe this, however. I think there’s something else going on in a novel like Native Son, a dimension above and beyond the combination of plot and protagonist, to keep us hooked.
Richard Wright has access to a technique, or set of techniques, that allows him to control the reader’s relationship to the plot of Native Son. There’s something that Wright is doing that keeps us tied to Bigger, keeps us on the character’s side even as he does nasty, cruel, and, at last, terrible things. This “something” is narration. At key moments throughout the novel, and particularly in the tragic and terrible first 100 pages, Wright’s narrator simply tells the reader what to feel about Bigger.
Here is Wright’s narrator, in the book’s very first scene. Up to this point, we have seen Bigger argue with his mother and deride his siblings, scorning their demands that he get a job and help out. He seems like a cruel, mindless “tough” guy, and hardly the sort of protagonist capable of sustaining our interest over a long novel. But then the narrator steps in:
Vera went behind the curtain and Bigger heard her trying to comfort his mother. He shut their voices out of his mind. He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough.
Because this narration is persuasive, well-written, and congruent with the world that Wright is depicting, the reader is persuaded. Bigger is still the same figure he was before the narrator’s intervention, but the reader’s relationship to him has changed. We see him in a new light. Wright’s ability to narrate, therefore, allows him to do something Aristotle warned might be impossible. Good narration expands what fiction is capable of.
This “telling” is easy to see in Native Son, because Wright deploys a very talkative, interventionist narrator, an omniscient voice willing to explain to the reader what each scene means — but Wright is only unusual, for a 20th century author, because his “telling” is so unabashed. The same level of “telling” is going on just as persuasively in most successful novels and stories. I can show examples of it in literary short stories like Joyce’s “The Dead” and Murakami’s “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day,” in mystery novels like Flynn’s Gone Girl and Slaughter’s Pretty Girls, in a postmodern satire like White Noise, and in O’Brian’s sea-buckling novels about Aubrey and Maturin. I believe that a technical expertise at “telling” is what separates Top Chef from all the spinoffs that Top Chef has tried to create, and that this expertise also helps to explain why it’s so gripping to watch a bunch of people discuss food you yourself will never taste.