Critique Technique, part 21–unclear plot

Today we start a 3-part series on critiquing a story’s plot, or the lack thereof.

The basic concept of plot is simple: it’s the series of events that the characters experience and are involved in. Every story–fiction or non-fiction–has one. In a so-called “literary” story, most of the “action” may be internal to the characters (emotional and/or psychological) rather than external, so it may seem like there isn’t much plot, but there has to be some. A perfect example is Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Not much happens in this story: two couples sit around a kitchen table drinking gin and talking/half-arguing about and around life and love. On the other hand, pick up any Tom Clancy novel and there’s tons of external activity–chases, explosions, spycraft, you name it.

But the point of this post isn’t to examine how much plot there is, or how little, but whether what is going on makes sense. Plot events build on each other, doing those things I’ve written about before, providing conflict, creating tension, putting obstacles in the characters’ ways. Every scene has its own set of plot points (the very briefest may have just one) that, if done right, build to a high point, then fall away to leave the reader wanting to know more. The same is true of each chapter, and of course of the entire story. These are the scene, chapter, and story arcs.

An unclear plot will fail to build that arc in one or more ways. Plot and characters are inseparable, so if the plot events seem unrelated to the characters’ goals, needs, desires, or conflicts, that’s a problem. Even in experimental fiction, events don’t happen at random or for no reason. It’s true that the connection between a plot event and a character’s motivations may not be apparent right away, especially early in the story, but the author must eventually make that connection. It may be hard, even impossible, for you to see it if the motivation isn’t revealed in the part of a longer piece you’re reading. In that case, your discussion about the event with the author should reveal the link.

Similarly, there might be no clear connection between events. Now, if the story contains several parallel plot lines, events on the different lines might never be connected, or the connection might not be apparent until later in the story. That’s fine. But within a plot line, unconnected, disjointed events will just confuse the reader. In a case like this, the author may know what the connection is but has failed to show it on the page. Sometimes this is a good thing, because the way it surprises the reader can increase her tension and curiosity about the story, but now we’re back to the point I made a few lines above about saving the connection for later.

Irrelevant events fall into the same category. If, for example, in the middle of a spy thriller, the protagonist waxes poetic about his Aunt Tillie’s prize-winning mac-and-cheese recipe, there’d better be a darn good reason for that. If there isn’t (and the excuse is likely to be, “it’s character development”), you need to flag it so it can be deleted.

Also, plot events need to fall in some kind of logical order, but I’m going to save that discussion for Part 23.

The thing about an unclear plot is that it doesn’t build tension or move the story forward. A flashback can do that if it adds a new wrinkle to the story or demonstrates a bit of a character’s motivation. But anything that stops or retards that forward motion, takes the story off on a tangent, or leaves it wandering is something you need to call to the author’s attention.

Here are some questions for you to ask about the plot as you read a piece:

  • Do the plot events relate to the characters’ goals, needs, desires, or conflicts?
  • As best I can tell, are the plot events relevant to the story?
  • Can I see the connections between the plot’s events? If not, can the author explain their connections to me, or how those connections will be revealed later?
  • Do the plot events continue to make life more difficult for the characters in believable ways? (Note: it’s OK for problems the characters face to be resolved before the climax if doing so creates opportunities for new problems to arise.)
  • Do the plot events make sense, or do they leave me wondering, in a bad way, what the hell is going on?
  • Do the plot events continue to pique my interest and keep me reading?

A poorly constructed plot leaves the reader at sea without a paddle or sail. Writers don’t let writers plot badly.

What do you look for when evaluating a plot for clarity?