Every writer has one thing about writing they have a more or less scripted diatribe against, and mine is against plot. With the upcoming release of my first chapbook, I figured it might be time to get my diatribe down on paper. That really easily referenced kind of paper that isn’t paper at all.
How can you hate plot!? My AP English teacher told me plot was really important and stuff, and books that don’t have plots are just naval-gazing masturbation. I HEARD A SMART PERSON SAY THAT.
To quickly summarize why I hate plot, I present this lolcat:
Plot is meaningless.
There, I said it.
You don’t read books for plot. If you read books for plot, all you would really need is the back cover. And while we might evolve to a point where blurbs are the new book, I tend to doubt it. And here’s why: you don’t read for plot.
Everything with a discernible plot can be distilled to a more or less absurd summary of that plot. To demonstrate, these are the plots of some of my favorite things. (I picked my favorite things to be fair.)
Woman has affair. Woman is judged. Health spa. Woman throws self under train. Secret main character spends rest of book making fun of other people’s religions. (Anna Karenina)
A briefcase with undisclosed but apparently incandescent contents must change hands. There are obstacles. (Pulp Fiction)
Man treats lady badly. Lady discovers man is caricature of Byronic heroes. Man murders best friend and now treats lady well. (Evgeniy Onegin)
Russia predictably won the Napoleonic Wars. (War and Peace)
Hey, that room wasn’t here a minute ago! (House of Leaves)
Woman has cat. Woman has neighbor. Woman has party. Woman has guitar and creepy relationship with own father, er, no wait, husband. Woman doesn’t have cat anymore. Oh wait, yes she does. (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)
You get the point.
Look, I’ll be the first one to admit that things happen. Moreover, those things can be a convenient impetus to get your characters up and moving. But all having a plot proves is that you’ve read and digested other books.
Ninety percent of books – even and especially the great ones – have some variation of the plot “boy meets girl, there are obstacles, obstacles may or may not but probably don’t ultimately impede them from loving each other.”
If plot were the criterion by which literature should seriously be judged, even the original readers and even writers of the Bible would have found themselves yawning. Certainly “There is nothing new under the sun” was already a cliche by the time the writer of Ecclesiastes committed it to his scroll, as were stories of love, abuse, war, death, damnation and redemption.
Now, it can be easily and even understandably argued that plot points are so familiar because there are a relatively small number of different human experiences, and that these experiences in some way cut across the bulk of the wider Human Experience.
Which leads me back to my assertion: then who gives a fuck about a plot?
I don’t want to know that your wife just left you for a chicken merchant. I want to know how it made you feel. I want to know what you remembered. I want to know if you swore off chicken. I want to know if you were sitting on a comfortable couch when you heard the news. I want to know if, lo these years later, you would become ill if you had to touch that fabric again, or if you sit on that couch every day and scrape the backs of your legs against the protruding upholstery nails.
If plot is the bones, I’d rather have the meat. Oh sure, you can make stock with bones, but that’s just what it is: stock.
In this writer’s humble opinion, plot is an unfortunate byproduct of the necessity of telling other people our stories. We put things in full sentences and report everything chronologically because that seems like a good way to make other people understand.
But it totally effaces the way we tell ourselves stories. When you tell yourself a story, you get to start anywhere. You can follow your memory triggers down all their little rabbit holes, and they can build all the tunnels they want back to the light of the narrative. Or not. The story of the day you signed your divorce papers might really be the noxious bit of celery leaf jammed in your molar. It might be the way that one pair of socks always flops over. And then your dead childhood pet basset hound. And they way your mother kicked his water dish that one time she was fighting with her sister.
After all, you have to spend your whole life in your own head. And you can get high or read the newspaper or listen to Mahler’s 9th, but marijuana and the newspaper and your gramophone aren’t having those experiences – you are. If you give yourself permission to knock out the ribs or teeth of your story, your reader just might find a comfortable place to settle in.
It was in high school I first made the assertion that, if written well, the world’s best story could be about a potato, and I stand by that assertion. You can bring that potato to life for your reader, and it needn’t ever even be moved. The challenge I set myself at my keyboard is tell other people stories the way I tell them to myself. I hope you like this chicken. I gave the bones away.