Some literary authorities cite seven basic
plot types, but I propose an eighth
And now for something... completely different
It behooves the ambitious analyst to categorize, organize, and otherwise provide structure to the examination of literature. Those who desire to leave a mark upon the world of literature wrack their brains to produce a new system. For example, according to Wikipedia, British literary figure Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch described all plots as development of one of seven types of fictional conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man against God, Man vs. Society, Man in the Middle, Man & Woman, Man vs. Himself. As my own humble yet valuable contribution to the literary theory of the Western World, I propose recognition of another type of plot. It may be summed up as “Wait…you mean it’s HIM?”
The “Wait… you mean it’s HIM?” (W...YMIH) plot is found in a multitude of books. It transcends genre, delivering climaxes in tales as divergent as detective stories and romance novels. Let us take two wildly different pieces of writing as our example, and compare the plot of the typical Hardy Boys tale with that of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Ridiculous, disrespectful, sacrilegious (this for the Janeites), you say? Ah, but I do not claim that Miss Austen and the legion of Franklin W. Dixon ghostwriters handled their plot with equal humanity and dexterity. I only point out that each used the same one.
Like other plots, the W...YMIH begins by establishing a problem, in this case a problem centered on the question: “Whom?” Elizabeth Bennet (and her mother) wonders whom she will marry. The Hardy Boys wonder whom they will turn in to the police for the crime in question. Both parties are in search of their man. Immediately the story proceeds to the introduction of the “Rude Gent.” This fellow, lavishly well-off in Miss Austen’s story, is also wealthy in the Hardy world. He catches the protagonists’ attention through his uncalled for ill-temper. To a discerning reader, the “Rude Gent’s” behavior is enough to mark him at once as the character upon whom we ought to fix our eye, but the protagonists, unaware of literature's tropes, fail to grasp his significance even when he moves beyond “Rude Gent” and slides into the role of “Rude Gent Who Keeps Showing Up.” In the case of the Hardy brothers, he generally bashes them on the head once or twice when they are not looking. In the case of Mr. Darcy, he proffers insults .
The “Rude Gent Who Keeps Showing Up” (RGWKSU) is clearly qualified to answer to the great question “Whom?” Mr. Darcy is suitably rich and single. The Hardy Boys’ villain is suitably possessed of means, motive and opportunity. However, the plot is not so simple and uninteresting as to allow an epiphany in the first few chapters: no, a “Distracting Gent” must first appear. In the case of the Dixon ghostwriters, some deserving and put-upon person (a friend’s father, a young clerk seeking to rise in the world, an old man protecting his nearest and dearest) behaves in a suspicious manner and must be investigated. While the brothers are chasing their Red Herring, Elizabeth Bennett finds herself fond of a Red Lobsterback: Wickham, in his dashing scarlet coat, appears to be a better “Whom” than Darcy.
The truth about the RGWKSU is finally revealed through climactic action. Mr. Darcy gallops to London and, through his timely intervention into Wickham’s marital schemes, preserves the Bennett family. What is the feeling of Elizabeth Bennett when she realizes not only that he is a far worthier sort of man than her Lobsterback, but also that she loves him dearly? “Wait… you mean it’s HIM?” The Hardy boys’ villain also behaves decisively. Generally, he does something along the lines of knocking our heroes unconscious, trussing them like turkeys, confronting them in a scene in which he reveal their own guilt, and then unaccountably allowing the brothers to escape. The brothers are left in no doubt “whom” to denounce to the police.
Thus it may be seen that the W...YMIH plot provides delight, excitement, and drama to readers across the genres. It’s variability and universality are its strength. I defy even Sir William Lucas to produce such a son-in-law—I mean, such a literary theory.
I issue this question to my readers : is it true that plots are universal, or can you cite any authors that you consider truly original in their plot development?
Joining up with Amongst Lovely Things for a hunt through the archives.
Head over there for "funniest posts."
Different books might sound alike when you put them into a short summary, but they can still catch readers by surprise. They can still shock. I guess it's how the story is told that makes it original.ReplyDelete
Absolutely! Just like almost every human being experiences approximately the same milestones, yet they are different and exciting for each of us, fiction can show is the same things in beautifully different ways.
I remember reading a book recently, and just simply characterizing it as, "Oh, its Harry Potter but with Vampires." Fact is, its true, there was a ton of Harry Potter similarities, but it was also different because of the point of view. In all honesty, I liked the Vampire spin on it far better than the wizard take on it, and luckily it diverges enough to be its own story.ReplyDelete
Doesn't this make it interesting to think about how people a hundred years from now will view today's books? Probably only a few of the current fantasy titles will still be on the shelves by then (not necessarily the ones that WE like best), and people will read them without having read all of the similar, less-enduring tales that gave them context. Kind of like the way we read Jane Eyre but haven't heard of most other Victorian Gothic romances. I wonder how much that will change the feel of the stories?
I don't believe in plots -life rarely works like a Jeffrey Archer novel. Have you read The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway? Or the The Snows of Kilimanjaro by the same author?ReplyDelete
I haven't read either, although I'm sure I should! I agree that there are beautiful books written without plot.Delete
Yet even the non-plot books are "artificial" in the sense that all of the words and scenes are chosen to communicate a specific feeling, idea, or message. Plot-driven books just do this more obviously. Unedited real life would make a terrible book-- all that facebook-checking, teeth-brushing, and endless talking. Books must distill life into a condensed picture that is real without being realistic. The threads of our lives are stories, and sometimes we tell them to each other, so why shouldn't an author tell the tale of a specific thread (a plot), arranged so that it makes a clearer book? That is one way of exploring whether the story of our life has a meaning instead.
Of course, some plots are more real than others! I have nothing to say in defense of plots like Twilight.
For those who are interested in the concept of "story" vs "plot," this discussion of the way the E.M. Forster distinguished them is very interesting.ReplyDelete
I must admit that labeling Mr.Darcy as the RGWKSU has me grinning from ear to ear... I will have to keep thinking about whether any authors are truly original in their plot. I should say that I was very surprised to attend poetry reading once where another poet read a poem with the same "plot" as one of mine. I should not have been surprised; however, I was very attached to the originality of my poem and disappointed to learn that it was not so original after all...ReplyDelete
I suppose what makes a real artist is the ability to say something true about humanity (something that many others have undoubtedly already pointed out) in a way that makes it feel new, and thereby helping us understand it. At least, that's my theory!Delete