“And then what happened?”

Why I write meme.
Ain’t it the truth?

Some time back an acquaintance was ranting on-line about his pet peeve: people who criticized a movie by saying it had no plot. This was his pet peeve, he said, because it was impossible. “No matter how badly written or executed a movie is, something happens. So it has a plot!” He wasn’t very happy with me when I told him that he didn’t know what the word “plot” means, at least in regards to a narrative such as a play or novel.

The definition I usually cite is one common in books and articles about writing: “a plot is a problem, riddle, or obstacle that confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and is the thread which connects everything the happens between the beginning and ending.”

In other words, it’s not just that things happen, it’s that the events of the story need to be related. A well constructed story can appear to have a lot of chaotic things happening, but by the end the audience needs to feel that those seemingly random events meant something, or contributed to the character’s struggle. The whole point of a narrative—the whole reason humans tell each other stories—is to create meaning…


There are other meanings to the word “plot,” obviously. One of the definitions you will find in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language which applies to storytelling is: “the plan or scheme of a literary work; the interrelationship of the main events in a play, novel, film, et cetera.” While it differs, there are two very important points of congruence: the plot is a plan about the interrelationship of events.

The first definition I gave is most useful for people actually writing stories. The OED’s is useful for people wanting to talk about stories. From either definition, however, we can see how it can be a very legitimate critique to say a movie (or play or novel) has no plot: if it seems to a reasonable reader as if the writer/director had no plan, if it feels random and directionless, if there appear to be no relationships between any of the events shown, then we say it has no plot.

It’s easy, when putting together a story, particularly a comedy or adventure, to keep throwing events at your characters, making things more and more impossible. You just have to find away to make it all feel to the audience as if each of those events has a meaning. You may, during revision, go back and slip a small amount of foreshadowing for a couple of events. You may, at the end, show that certain random seeming events were actually a result of earlier actions by the characters.

It’s never an acceptable excuse that things just happen. You’re telling the story; you’ve decided to show this particular event in the character’s experience. Make sure you have a reason.

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