Every working work of fiction, regardless of length or genre, is to some extent a kind of mystery offered to the reader; every work of fiction has its plot. Every work of fiction in some way troubles its reader, and tries to bring some form of solace, whether bitter or sweet. It is its own kind of question and its own kind of answer, taking the reader into itself as part of the fabric, part of the business that fiction has with the world.
This year is the sixty-fifth anniversary of Tove Jansson’s first Moomin book. One of the great treasures in my bookcase is a 1953 copy of a picture book called The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My. Moomintroll, in the course of carrying home a can of milk, helps Mymble to discover her lost sister, Little My. There is one episode per page, and the question is, will they find Little My and get the milk home to Mother? You are dealing with a page-turner, since each page ends with the question ‘What do you think happened then?’
Here is plot reduced to its simplest elements. Situation, character, danger, resolution. Not quite the regulation sometimes put forward: situation, complication, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement (which don’t have to happen in that order). But near enough. You get the question and the tension as the answer comes in steps, as new dangers are put in the way. In case you are wondering, they do get home safely, but unfortunately the milk has curdled. As a cute coda, Mother says they will have strawberry juice instead. Always, as it happens.
It is the repetition of the question ‘What do you think happened then?’ that often comes back to me when I am thinking about plot in fiction. Because I love the way the reader is involved in the business of it all. And in this particular story, the reader is constantly taken by surprise and thrown off balance by the trademark Jansson mixture of mild terrors and delicious, whimsical beauty.
I often find it difficult, analysing fiction in hindsight, to separate plot from other elements, such as character and situation. It is even more difficult when I am the creator of the story, on the other side of the business, to separate them during the process of writing the work. I sometimes talk to groups who are studying the art of writing fiction, and I find that frequently there is a deep-seated notion that fiction writers begin by writing an outline of the plot of their short story or novel. Perhaps some writers do this, and do it successfully, but I am inclined to agree with Stephen King who, in On Writing (2000), expresses a strong opposition to this view. And I think there is much for a student to lose by trying to begin with a plot outline. When the work is finished, it will be possible to look back on it and analyse the plot, if that is something required by teachers and supervisors. But not before.
Stephen King speaks of writing fiction as the act of digging out fossils, discovering part of an ‘undiscovered, pre-existing world’. He is vehement, saying that to make plot outlines is ‘clumsy, mechanical, anti-creative’. He points out that writing fiction is not a fully conscious and mechanical process, that much of what goes on is located in the writer’s unconscious.
But it is also useful and instructive for a reader (and a prospective writer) to analyse the plots of fiction when the fiction is complete. Hold up the fossil to the light. I mean, you can analyse the things you read, and I also think that in doing so you can gain insight and inspiration for your own Kingean excavations of the fossils from that pre-existing world.
An analysis of the psychological horror novel Misery, for example, is instructive in the light of what its author says about plotting. ‘Plotting and the spontaneity of real creation are not compatible.’ But of course there is a plot. He just didn’t put it there – he dug it up from the matrix of his own fertile imagination and let it loose.
EM Forster talks about plot in Aspects of the Novel (1927). He is, though, discussing the thing after the event, not what happens in the early stages of the writing process. He explains that there is a difference between ‘story’ and ‘plot’. He says that plot tells what happened and why, and gives meaning to it. But when speaking of ‘story’ his language grows ugly, and he says that story is ‘the chopped-off length of the tapeworm of time’, it is ‘mindless time-killing curiosity’. Ouch. Story, he says: ‘The king died and then the queen died.’ Plot, he says: ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief.’ All he has really done there is show how to make two facts interesting by making the second one consequential, something people do regularly when telling tales anyway.
I think Forster was splitting hairs by dividing up story and plot like that; however, his assertion that plot is a ‘writer’s arrangement of events’ that will express that writer’s ‘attitude to the human condition’ is fair enough, I suppose, if a bit grand.
Plot can often be boiled down to a very simple question like: Who killed Cock Robin? Who stole the tarts? Will Elizabeth Bennet marry Mr Darcy? This is not plot summary, but rather quick-fix plot essence. Some questions are more complicated than others, some answers more interesting than others. The how and why of the things that happened are what readers (and writers) love to know. Readers love the shocks and surprises, the twists and turns, the magical mystery tour of a well-managed plot as the writer’s ‘attitude to the human condition’ is gradually revealed. Main plots and sub-plots often have fun with each other too.
Just as the Moomin line ‘What do you think happened then?’ pleasantly rings in my mind when I think about plot, so does the title of an old song I used to love playing on the pianola when I was a child, ‘Who Put the Overalls in Mrs Murphy’s Chowder?’ See how the situation and the character are beautifully bound up in the question. You want to know, don’t you? You want the terrible mystery solved. The matter arose from the rather horrible fact that Mrs Murphy did her washing and her cooking in the same vessel. She left the overalls in the pot by mistake, and then made the soup, and when she dished it up the overalls were discovered. She had the decency to faint.
I speak here of mystery. Plot always, I think, involves mystery, however slightly, and therefore will invite suspense. Satisfaction comes with some form of resolution.