Plot:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“In the best fiction, plot is not a series of surprises but an increasingly moving series of recognitions, or moments of understanding.” John Gardner

The cat sat on the mat is not a story; but the cat sat on the dog’s mat is.” John le Carre

“We must distinguish plots not by their skeletons but by their full bodies; for they are embodiments, little worlds.” Eudora Welty

“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep the reader reading.” Kurt Vonnegut

“Plots are what the writer sees with.” Eudora Welty

“Plot is the aesthetic approximation of gravity.” Joyce Carol Oates

“Profluence—the sense that things are moving, getting somewhere, flowing forward. The common reader demands some reason to keep turning the pages. Two things can keep the common reader going, argument and story. (Both are always involved, however subtly, in good fiction).” John Gardner

“By an episodic plot I mean one in which the sequence of episodes is neither necessary nor probable.” Aristotle

“Plot is structuring the events of the story.” Aristotle

“’The King died and the Queen died’ is a story. ‘The King died and the Queen died of grief’ is a plot.” E.M. Forster

“There is only one plot—things are not as they seem.” Jim Thompson

“Character, of course, is the heart of fiction. Plot is there to give the characters something to do.” John Dufresne

“As regards plots I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plot.” Ivy Compton-Burnett

“When a character does something, he becomes that character; and it’s the character’s act of doing that becomes your plot.” Henry James

“Writing a plot summary makes the writing of the actual book a needless extravagance.” Jorge Luis Borges

“Plausibility lies not in the plot, whether it be myth, fable or fantasy, but in the treatment of it.” Gerald Brace

“The imitation of character is not the purpose of what the agents do; character is included along with and on account of the actions. So the events, i.e., the plot, are what tragedy is there for, and that is the most important thing of all.” Aristotle

“Ultimately, in fact, plot exists only to give the characters means of finding and revealing themselves.” John Gardner

“For the plot, as related (or told) by the author to the reader, an apparent simplicity is essential. And yet, what is told to have happened must gain significance, background from what is not told. The story’s action, for instance, may take place on a Friday; but the reader must sense, through the author’s knowing, what sort of Wednesday, Thursday, led up to it, and what sort of Saturday, Sunday are to follow.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Also, the alternatives to the plot, owing to the latent alternatives in the behaviour of the characters, must be felt by the reader up to the last moment—it is indeed in this that suspense consists; and no novel, whether the action in it be psychological or physical, ought to omit the factor of suspense. The existence, inside the author’s mind, of a possible, far vaster range of the plot than is ever told gives what is told, for the reader, certainty and validity. . . . The same is true with regard to the scenes of happenings, which must be by the author envisages down to the final detail, though descriptions of them must not be categoric.” Elizabeth Bowen

“The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence. Beyond this basic, invisible job, the narrative sentence can do an infinite number of beautiful, surprising, powerful, audible, visible things. . . . But the basic function of the narrative sentence is to keep he story going and keep the reader going with it.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or to a tyrannical sultan or to their modern descendant the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by ‘and then—and then—’. They can only supply curiosity. But a plot demands intelligence and memory also.” E.M. Forster

“The most important element of a novel is plot. A plot is a purposeful progression of events. Such events must be logically connected, each being an outgrowth of the preceding and all leading up to a final climax. I stress the word events because you can have a purposeful progression of ideas, or of conversations, without action. But a novel is a story about human beings in action. If you do not present your subject matter in terms of physical action, what you are writing is not a novel.” Ayn Rand

“An adventure is a luminously causal chain of acts.” Milan Kundera.

“I start to make it up and have happen what would have to happen as it goes along.” Ernest Hemingway

“Because he is intellectually and emotionally involved—that is, interested—the reader is led by successive, seemingly inevitable steps, with no false steps, and no necessary steps missing, from an unstable initial situation to its relatively stable outcome.” John Gardner

“It is Aristotle’s energeia, energeic action, that is, the actualization of the potential which exists in each character and situation.” John Gardner

“Proper plot action is neither spirit alone nor body alone, but the integration of the two, with the physical action expressing the spiritual action involved.” Ayn Rand

“The wise writer counts on the characters and plot for his story’s power, not on tricks of withheld information.” John Gardner

“To my mind, plot is merely one way of telling a story, by connecting the happenings tightly, usually through causal chains. Plot is a marvelous device. But it’s not superior to story, and not even necessary to it.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Unceasing violent action is usually a sign that there is, in fact, no story being told.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The series of problems that a character faces and her attempts to solve those problems are what makes a story interesting.” Othello Bach

“The first point to remember about plotting is this: every story must open with a problem—not just any character’s problem but the main character’s problem.” Othello Bach

“Learning to plot means learning to think in a clear, logical way. It means creating believable problems and solving them with believable solutions.” Othello Bach

“Plot exists so that the character can discover for himself (and in the process reveal to the reader) what he, the character, is really like: plot forces the character to choice and action, transforms him from a static construct to a lifelike human being making choices and paying for them or reaping the rewards.” John Gardner

“When I wrote it my mind was not primarily on these abstract things but only on what would Haze and Enoch do next, they being themselves . . .” Flannery O’Connor

“A causally related sequence of events.” John Gardner

“In nearly all good fiction, the basic—all but inescapable—plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.” John Gardner

“There is nothing wrong with fiction in which the plot is relatively predictable. What matters is how things happen, and what it means that they happen, to the people directly involved and to the larger humanity for whom the characters serve as representatives. Needless to say, it is always best if the predictable comes in some surprising way.” John Gardner

“Though character is the emotional core of fiction, and though action with no meaning beyond its own brute existence can have no lasting appeal, plot is—or must sooner or later become—the focus of every good writer’s plan.” John Gardner

“Throughout the entire chain of causally related events, the writer asks himself, would a really cause b and not c, etc., and he creates what seems, at least by the test of his own imagination and experience of the world, an inevitable development of story. Inevitability does not depend, of course, on realism. Some or all of the characters may be fabulous—dragons, griffins, Achilles’ talking horses—but once a character is established for a creature, the creature must act in accord with it.” John Gardner

“Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. . . . If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’ That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel.” E.M. Forster

“The plot-maker expects us to remember, we expect him to leave no loose ends.” E.M. Forster”

“A novel is like a machine, it either runs or it don’t.” Flannery O’Connor

“If a character took the action because of a previous event which forced him to make a choice, then the action is a plot event.” Ayn Rand”

“The process of writing a novel seems to be one of continual forestalling and anticipating; far more important than the immediate page is the page to come, still in the distance, on behalf of which this one is secretly working. The writer makes a point and reserves it at the same time, creates an effect and holds it back, . . . the art of preparation is no art if it betrays itself at the outset, calling attention to its purpose.” Percy Lubbock

“Traveling is like a novel; it’s what happens that counts.” George Sand

“Any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you’ll be ahead of the game. Readers bearing their own associations will do some of the work for you.” William Zinsser

“I find [plotting] difficult in the sense that you’re continually coming to forks. . . .  And you’re not quite sure, very often, which road to take. It’s been a great dilemma for me. I don’t think this basically matters too much. It’s the quality of the chapter-by-chapter writing that’s important. And also, I think it’s true of life. I’d be suspicious, I’m always suspicious of beautifully automatic plots. You know, that go click, click, click. They’re attractive in detective novels and films, but that’s not what real life is like. Real life is far more complex and ill-functioning.” John Fowles

“This inner or mental reversal of the actual movement, common to all traveling, comes very close to what I like most in all narrative art, from the novel to the cinema: that is, the motion from a seen present to a hidden future.” John Fowles

“A good plot is like a melody, logical and fulfilling.” Ulf Wolf

“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story that results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story.” Stephen King

“None of the story’s [Misery] details and incidents proceeded from plot; they were organic, each arising naturally from the initial situation.” Stephen King

“Please remember, however, that there is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.” Stephen King

“When constructing plots and working them out complete with their linguistic expression, one should so far as possible visualize what is happening. By envisaging things very vividly in this way, as if one were actually present at the events themselves, one can find out what is appropriate, and inconsistencies are least likely to be overlooked.” Aristotle

“One should also, as far as possible, work plots out using gestures. Given the same natural talent, those who are actually experiencing the emotions are the most convincing; someone who is distressed or angry acts out distress and irritation most authentically. (This is why the art of poetry belongs to people who are naturally gifted or mad; of these the former are adaptable, and the latter are not in their right mind.)” Aristotle

“As for the art of imitation in narrative verse, it is clear that the plots ought (as in tragedy) to be constructed dramatically; that is, they should be concerned with a unified action, whole and complete, possessing a beginning, middle parts and an end, so that (like a living organism) the unified whole can effect its characteristic pleasure.” Aristotle

“The novelist should, I think, always settle when he starts what is going to happen, what his major event is to be. He may alter this event as he approaches it, indeed he probably will, indeed he probably had better, or the novel becomes tied up and tight.” E.M. Forster

“We noted, when discussing the plot, that it added to itself the quality of beauty; beauty a little surprised at her own arrival: that upon its neat carpentry could be seen, by those who cared to see, the figure of the Muse; that Logic, at the moment of finishing its own house, laid the foundation of a new one.” E.M. Forster

“The plot is, of course, life versus death, which includes nearly every story in the world.” Eudora Welty

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