notes and comments on books for readers and teachers
Jan 7, 2011
The Craft of Short Fiction: Plot
When we observe the effect of a short story, we can also observe the ways a writer has practiced a craft that somehow manages to achieve that effect. What are some of the elements of a short story writer’s craft, and how do your criteria observe them? A few of the elements you noticed were plot, character, theme, and style.
This is the element of the story that seems to be “keeping our attention,” although there could be other forces at work as well. You might say a story’s plot is well paced or poorly paced; it might seem to move too fast or too slow, or just right. Or you might say a story’s plot is suspenseful in some way. The action might be external or internal—things might be happening around the character or within the character. You might apply an analytical eye to the plot and break it down, observing plot elements like exposition and foreshadowing, the conflict, the complications that arise, the dilemma, the crisis, the epiphany, the resolution, the falling action.
What’s a definition of plot? Plot is the artistic arrangement of events in a story; it’s the causal sequence of events that unfold.
Plot is a lot like the Buddhist law of karma; it operates on the premise that everything occurs as a result of cause and effect. Things in a story seem to happen for a reason, and figuring out these reasons is satisfying. It gives us a sense of meaningfulness, of order that is different from real life. Real life is not a plot. Things are happening all the time, but we don’t always see the reasons why they are happening. We may even feel there’s no reason. That may leave us with a sense of meaninglessness. But art is all about meaning, about supplying meaning. Plot contributes to the meaningfulness of a story by helping us answer one of our all-time favorite questions: “Why?”
Many critical criteria are related to plot: a story should have a good beginning and ending; it shouldn’t be confusing; it should be suspenseful; it should show a conflict or struggle; it shouldn’t be too predictable or too far-fetched; it shouldn’t be too slow to develop…. When you hear people making such comments, it is plot they are talking about.