The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Plot: The arrangement and interrelation of events in a narrative work, chosen and designed to engage the reader’s attention and interest (or even to arouse suspense or anxiety) while also providing a framework for the exposition of the author’s message, or theme, and for other elements such as characterization, symbol, and conflict.

Plot is distinguished from story, which refers to a narrative of events ordered chronologically, not selectively, and with an emphasis on establishing causality. Story is the raw material from which plot is constructed. Crafting a plot requires choosing not only which elements of a story to include — and what order to tell them in — but also relating the events of a story to one another so that causality may be established convincingly. As English writer E. M. Forster explained in Aspects of the Novel (1927), to say that “the king died and the queen died” is to tell a story. Adding three simple words — “The king died and then the queen died of grief” — transforms the story into a plot by including and emphasizing causality. Russian formalists made a similar distinction between plot and story, which they referred to as syuzhet and fabula, respectively, though they did not emphasize causality. Rather, they argued that the literary devices (such as rhythmic patterns, syntax, and imagery) an author uses convert a story into a plot. Other, more recent critics who have sought to explain the transformation of story line into plot by analyzing the “rules” that generate plot are called narratologists.

Plot, unlike story, frees authors from the constraints of chronology and enables them to present their chosen subjects in whatever way they see fit to elicit the desired emotional response from readers. Nevertheless, most critics agree with the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s argument in the Poetics (c. 330 B.C.) that effective plots must have three relative parts — a beginning, a middle, and an end — that are complete in themselves, though they need not correlate temporally with the story. For instance, many narratives begin in medias res (“in the middle of things,” not at the chronological beginning of the story) and make use of flashbacks. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992; adapted to film 1996) is an example. The novel begins in medias res with a nurse caring for a nameless, hideously burned man in a war-torn Italian villa; subsequently recounts, through interspersed flashbacks, the story of that man and his affair with a colleague’s wife; and also tells the present stories of the nurse, a drifter, and a bomb-disposal expert.

Aristotle also argued that a plot must have unity, such that if any of its parts, or incidents, are removed, something seems to be missing. If a part of a work can be removed without affecting the whole, then the work is episodic rather than plot-based (and, according to Aristotle, inferior). This is not to say that a work must only have one story line; a well-crafted subplot may serve as a foil that enhances the main plot and thus contributes to unity in the work rather than rendering it episodic.

While Aristotle’s tripartite conception of plot still sets the parameters of discussion today, his identification of plot as the primary dramatic element faced increasing challenge in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many critics have focused on characterization as the defining element of a literary work, viewing plot as a mere framework for showcasing character. Following this theory, the plot of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), composed of a carefully arranged story line, nonetheless serves primarily as a structure and spotlight for the development of Cathy Earnshaw and her volatile and brooding soul mate, Heathcliff.

Many critics and writers conceive of plot in the terms used by German writer Gustav Freytag in Die Technik des Dramas (The Technique of the Drama) (1863) to describe the structure of a typical five-act play, especially a tragedy. Freytag’s Pyramid, his enumerated sequence of events, includes the introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. Alternative and additional terms such as crisis, resolution, and dénouement have come into vogue, but Freytag’s terms and sequence are still often used to describe and analyze elements of plot.

Conflict plays a central, often defining, role in plot. Some critics even maintain that plot does not exist in the absence of conflict. As the confrontation or struggle between opposing characters or forces, conflict usually sets the plot in motion; it is the element from which the action emanates and around which it revolves. For instance, in the first scene of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1596), the swordfight between Benvolio, Tybalt, and their respective servants — staged in Baz Luhrman’s 1996 film version as a gas-station shootout — deepens the divide between the Montague and Capulet families that turns Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet into “star-crossed lovers.”

As an English literary term, the word intrigue — which comes from the French intrigue, meaning “plot” — refers to a type of plot in which the outcome of some scheme depends on the ignorance or credulity of its targets.