‘As regards plot I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots. And as I think a plot desirable and almost necessary, I have this extra grudge against life.’
– Ivy Compton-Burnett
Many modern novels do not have much plot, from what I can see. In fact, a couple years ago, an article appeared in The New York Times maintaining that young adult novels (Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.) have become popular with all ages because in a YA novel, you can still find a plot. I agree. I remember making it all the way through Wolf Hall, which won a big award and got a boatload of hype, and I thought, What was this all about? I have no idea. The book had no plot that I could discern. Some friends disagreed with me. (When I asked them, “Ok, then. What was the plot?” no one could tell me.)
What is plot, then? Go on the Web and you’ll find descriptions and definitions aplenty. But for me, plot is more than “what happens,” and while structure is important (it has a beginning, a middle and an end—an arc, if you will), it must have something more. Conflict, yes. Often you will find a journey: inner, outer, or both. A character (or more than one, but at least one) must be different at the end than at the beginning. This is why the most enduring plots, in literature and film, have that core element. Take the film Casablanca. If Rick began as a bleeding heart do-gooder, the romance and the ending would have no impact. The same can be said for Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities and Pierre in War and Peace. Nobody would care about the revolution or the war in these two novels (if you do care most about those events, you are probably reading them as history and not novels) without the evolution and transformation of these characters. Even stories that primarily depend on discovery as a plot point (genre mysteries are a good example) reveal an element of transformation for the characters. They find out something they did not know before, and they are changed, even in a small way. Like a journey, a discovery can be something outside the character, or inside. In the best plots, it is both.
I like a well-constructed, logical, interesting, surprising, and satisfying plot. And, as a writer, this is the hardest thing for me to come up with. I can write pages and pages of narration, character study, and dialogue, but if I don’t have a plot to support it, it’s all just prose to no purpose. I can pen reams of it, but who cares? Not even me, and I’m the writer.