The Problem with Plot

What can literature do that only literature can do?

Dale Stromberg

What can literature do that only literature can do? As authors, shouldn't we be acutely aware of this?

The Edit in Film

Stanley Kubrick frequently spoke of the uniqueness of editing in the art of cinema. Of the many aspects of a film, most are shared with other art forms. Screenwriting is a genre of writing; acting originates in theater; cinematography is based on photography, in turn informed by painting and other visual arts. Films include music, but music is an art form of its own; and even the combination of music with acting existed before films—for example, in opera.

Kubrick thought that editing was what made cinema unique (1). In one interview, he gave the example of showing “a simple action like a man cutting wheat from a number of angles in a brief moment,” which makes it possible for the viewer “to be able to see it in a special way not possible except through film.”

Since Horses Can’t Spell

So, again, what about literature? What can fiction do that other genres struggle to equal?

There’s an idea going around that fiction must compete with film for eyeballs—which implies a mandate to focus on doing what film does well, but somehow to do it better. This is a truly depressing notion; it sounds to me like a foot race against a horse.

I’d rather choose a different contest against a horse: a spelling bee, say, or a cooking contest. If we write stories on the assumption that our ideal reader would rather be watching the movie version, haven’t we already lost? Shouldn’t we instead write literature for readers who want literature?

If we will give readers something they can only get from us, then one important area to consider is our ability to manipulate time—to spend pages on the events of a moment, or to span a century in a sentence. I believe this is unique to fiction: the written word can stand outside time, as painting or sculpture can, but it also allows movement within time, like music, film or theater. This is the author’s superpower, and it is given surprisingly little attention in writing blogs (2).

Its enemy? “Show, don’t tell.”

The Inner and the Outer

Modern storytelling wisdom is that narrative outweighs all else. “Showing is better than telling,” we are helpfully reminded, and, “Plot is king.” Yes, stories that preponderate in dramatization can be powerful, as can those with unencumbered plots. Yet such writing can also end up feeling shallow—as though the novel is simply a dress rehearsal for the eventual screen adaptation. Why?

To focus on what happens, and then what happens, and then what happens next… is certainly one way of telling a tale—it is essentially the prioritization of plot over all other storytelling possibilities. But it risks lacking context.

In particular, I refer to two important contexts: the inner and the outer. By the inner, I mean the heart, the psyche, the soul: whatever is inside one that drives or influences one’s acts. By the outer, I mean the wider world: history and politics, the grand narrative of humanity within which your particular narrative happens, and, without which, it could not happen otherwise.

Life occurs within these contexts, after all. Plot divorced of them lives that much less.

Both of these contexts must often be “told” more than they can be “shown”—and their telling is most effective within the spaciousness (3) of literature. Why are modern writers warned to do as little of this as possible?

Perhaps it is no accident that we writers find ourselves in an age in which the most economically powerful form of storytelling is visual. Showing sells—or, at least, what sells these days can only really show.

Show, Can’t Tell

Television, film, internet video—these are genres of entertainment which do inner context, the heart or psyche, extraordinarily badly. (Exhibit A: the much-derided voiceover.) Lacking literature’s unencumbered scope, cinema only generally “shows” the inner life through actors’ subtle external cues. The trembling lip, the cocked eyebrow. Sounds a lot like, “Show, don’t tell,” but in cinema’s case, it is, “Show; can’t tell.”

As for outer context, for history and politics—same problem. (Exhibit B: the much-derided opening montage.) Larger context is often clumsily dispensed with through title cards or, again, ponderous voiceovers. The urge seems to be to get past such material as quickly as possible, which makes sense; it is like a musician who, knowing she’s a poor public speaker, keeps her opening hellos to the audience short, then gets on to what she does better. The viewer of most films that ostensibly touch on politics or history ends up seeing very little of either, and a great deal more of the acts of a small set of characters.

Filmmakers, limited by their medium—and its real-world economic strictures—simply have few effective techniques for more elegantly providing either slow dives into psychological depth or overviews of sweeping realities.

Voluntarily Limited

A novelist or short story writer wishing to expand and contract so sweepingly may find it expedient to adopt a narrative voice with the ability to pluck the reader from the normal flow of time and swoop out or in, portraying with perfect freedom the massive or the miniscule. In other words, the omniscient narrative voice.

But omniscient narration is, again, one of the techniques that young writers are increasingly warned against—often for no other stated reason than that it is “hard to pull off”. Is this really why it is falling out of favor?

Or can it be that authors (and purveyors of writing manuals), cowed by or covetous of Hollywood’s money-printing powers, are so anxious to stay in the swim that they avidly condemn as a profitless vestige of yesteryear any authorial technique with no moving-picture equivalent?

To do so is the author’s loss, and the reader’s. A story shackled to plot-and-nothing-but is likely to run in a single gear, necessarily relying on that gear being a high one so that the passengers, duly impressed by the velocity at which they are being rattled along, are given no time to note how little of the scenery they may enjoy.

Using All We Can

Now, just as a filmmaker might choose not to make extensive use of the edit—say, creating a film composed entirely of long single takes that are never intercut—so might an author choose not to make use of each and every narrative technique available. I have no intention of implying that psychological exploration or historical/political contextualizing are compulsory requirements of fiction, or that you’re a wicked writer if you leave them out.

Then again, it seems a terrible waste not to at least learn how to use these techniques, and to grasp what they might do for us. Sure, plot may be all you ever need—but what if it isn’t?


1 He was influenced in this by the Soviet filmmaker Pudovkin.

2 Barring occasional exhortations to compress boring bits in order to get on with the plot.

3 Joseph Bottum, analyzing the development of the novel for The Spectator, writes, “Novels became central to the culture partly because they were the only available art form spacious enough for all the details authors needed to draw increasingly realistic pictures of their characters.” It is his use of the word “spacious” that attracts my attention. From compact tales like The Crying of Lot 49 (47,000 words) or The Color Purple (67,000), to comfortable reads like Gilead (85,000) and sagas like Dune (187,000), all the way up to doorstops like Gone With the Wind (418,000), the novel has a range that far outstrips that of the feature film screenplay, an average specimen of which might be 90 to 120 pages, running to perhaps 24,000 words—one-seventeenth the length of Margaret Mitchell’s famous epic.

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