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Section 2 Plot and Structure

(Adapted from Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense) Section 2: Plot and Structure What is plot? -­‐the sequence of incidents or events through which an author constructs a story -­‐When described in isolation, the plot bears about the same relationship to a story that a map does to a journey. -­‐A plot summary may include what characters say or think, as well as what they do, but it leaves out description and analysis, concentrating primarily on major events. -­‐Plot should NOT be confused with the content of the work. The plot is NOT the action itself, but the way the author arranges the action toward a specific end. -­‐In commercial fiction, the plot may include many surprising twists and turns and a culminating, climactic incident. -­‐Because the primary goal is to keep the reader turning the pages, a commercial author is likely to use a fairly conventional structure in arranging the plot elements. (Structure: the sequential arrangement of plot elements in fiction and drama) -­‐The story may follow a standard chronology, for instance, and may employ familiar structural patterns. “The Most Dangerous Game” -­‐chronological structure -­‐three-­‐part sequence in narrating Rainsford’s attempts to entrap general Zaroff: -­‐first he tries the Malay man-­‐catcher, and fails -­‐the he tries the Burmese tiger pit, and fails -­‐but on the third try, with the “Native trick” he learned in Uganda, he manages to kill Ivan and ultimately outwit Zaroff. This is a structural tactic as old as the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In contrast. . . “Hunters in the Snow” -­‐ plot structure is more experimental and unpredictable, taking unexpected excursions into the minds of all three characters -­‐for a literary writer, a complex structure is often required to convey complex meanings -­‐In Wolff’s story, the significance of the action is more important than the action itself, and subtle exchanges of words among characters may be just as significant as the more action-­‐oriented sequences of the hunting expeditions. Defining Conflict Generally speaking, both the surface excitement required in commercial fiction and the significant meaning found in literary fiction arise out of some sort of. . . . . .Conflict – a clash of actions, ideas, desires, or wills. -­‐conflict of person against person (when characters are pitted against some other person or group of persons) -­‐conflict of person against environment (some external force – physical nature, society, “fate”) -­‐conflict of person against himself or herself (some element in their own nature) In any of these cases, the conflict may be physical, mental, emotional, or moral. The central character in a conflict, whether sympathetic or unsympathetic as a person is called the protagonist (preferable to the popular, but ambiguous terms “hero” and “heroine” – the protagonist is simply the central character, whereas the other terms imply that the character has heroic qualities, which is often not the case) Any force arranged against the protagonist – whether persons, things, conventions of society, or the protagonist’s own character traits – is the antagonist. -­‐In some stories, the conflict is single, clear-­‐cut, and easily identifiable. In others, it is multiple, various, and subtle. -­‐A person may be in conflict with other individuals, with social norms or nature, and with herself or himself all at the same time, and sometimes may be involved in conflict without being aware of it. “The Most Dangerous Game” illustrates most of these kinds of conflict. -­‐Rainsford, the protagonist, is pitted first against other men – against Whitney and General Zaroff in the discussions preceding the manhunt, against Zaroff and Ivan during the manhunt. -­‐Early in the story, he is pitted against nature when he falls into the sea and cannot get back to the yacht. -­‐At the beginning of the manhunt, he is in conflict with himself when he tries to fight off the panic by repeating to himself, “I must keep my nerve. I must keep my nerve.” -­‐The various conflicts illuminated in this story are physical (Rainsford against the sea and Zaroff), mental (Rainsford’s initial conflict of ideas with Whitney and his battle of wits, with Zaroff during the manhunt, which Zaroff refers to as “outdoor chess”), emotional (Rainsford’s efforts to control his terror), and moral (Rainsford’s refusal to “condone cold-­‐blooded murder,” in contrast to Zaroff’s contempt for “romantic ideas about the value of human life”). -­‐Excellent literary fiction has been written utilizing all four of these major kinds of conflict. Much commercial fiction, however, emphasizes only the confrontation between man and man, depending on the element of physical conflict to supply the primary excitement. For instance, it is hard to conceive of a western story without a fistfight or a gunfight. Even in the most formulaic kinds of fiction, however, something more will be found than mere physical action. -­‐Good people will be arrayed against bad ones, thus making the conflict also between moral values -­‐In commercial fiction, this conflict is often clearly defined in terms of moral absolutes: the “good guy” versus the “bad guy” (see Dracula). -­‐In literary fiction, the contrasts are usually less distinct. -­‐Good may be opposed to good, or half-­‐truth to half-­‐truth -­‐There may be difficulty in determining what is good or bad, causing internal conflict rather than physical confrontation. In the real world, of course, significant moral issues are seldom sharply defined – judgments are difficult, and choices are complex rather than simple. Literary writers are more concerned with displaying its various shadings of moral values than with presenting glaring, simplistic contrasts of good and evil, right and wrong. Suspense, Mystery, and Dilemma Suspense is the quality in a story that makes readers ask “What’s going to happen next?” or “How will this turn out?” – It is part of what can compel us to keep reading. Suspense increases when a reader’s curiosity is combined with anxiety about the fate of a likeable, sympathetic character. See old serial movies (“cliff-­‐hangers”) and murder mysteries (“whodunits”) In more literary forms of fiction the suspense often involves not so much the question what as the question why – not “What will happen next?” but “Why is the protagonist behaving this way? How is the protagonist’s behavior to be explained in terms of human personality and character?” Forms of suspense range from crude to subtle and may involve not only actions but psychological considerations and moral issues as well. Writers use two common devices to create suspense: (an element of) mystery – an unusual set of circumstances for which the reader craves an explanation or they place the protagonist in a dilemma – a position in which he or she must choose between two courses of action, both undesirable In “The Most Dangerous Game,” the author initiates suspense in the opening sentences with Whitney’s account of the mystery of “Ship-­‐Trap Island,” of which sailors have “a curious dread.” The mystery grows when, in this out-­‐of-­‐the-­‐way spot, Rainsford discovers an enormous chateau with a leering gargoyle knocker on its massive door and confronts a bearded giant pointing a long-­‐barreled revolver straight at his heart. Connell introduces a second mystery when General Zaroff tells Rainsford that he hunts “more dangerous game” on the island that the cape buffalo He then frustrates Rainsford’s (and the reader’s) curiosity for some thirty-­‐six paragraphs before revealing what the game is. Meanwhile, by placing the protagonist in physical danger, Connell introduces a second kind of suspense. Initiated by Rainsford’s fall into the sea and his confrontation with Ivan, this second kind becomes the principal source of suspense in the second half of the story. Simply put, the issues of whether Rainsford will escape and how he will escape are what keep the reader absorbed in the story. The manhunt itself begins with a dilemma. Rainsford must choose among three undesirable courses of action: he can hunt men with Zaroff; he can let himself be hunted; or he can submit to a presumably torturous death at the hands of Ivan. During the hunt he is faced with other dilemmas: On the third day, pursued by Zaroff’s hounds, “Rainsford knew he could do one of two things. He could stay where he was and wait. That was suicide. He could flee. That was postponing the inevitable.” Suspense is usually the most important criterion for good commercial fiction; unless a story makes us want to keep reading, it can have little merit. In literary fiction, however, suspense is less important than other elements the author uses to engage the reader’s interest: such a story may be amusing, well written, morally penetrating, peopled by intriguing characters; or it may feature some combination of all these elements. One test of a literary story is to determine whether it creates a desire to read it again. -­‐Like a play by Shakespeare, a successful literary story should create an even richer reading experience on the second or third encounter – even though we already know what is going to happen – than on a first reading. -­‐By contrast, when an author creates suspense artificially – by the simple withholding of vital information, for instance – readers will feel that the author’s purpose is simply to keep them guessing what will happen next, not to reveal some insight into human experience. Either a commercial or a literary story could be written, for example, about a man on the seventeenth-­‐story window ledge; but the literary story would focus less upon whether the man will jump than upon the psychological factors and life experiences that brought him to the ledge in the first place. The commercial story will keep us asking “What happens next?” but the literary story will make us wonder “Why do things happen as they do?” or “What is the significance of this event?” Types of Endings 1. the surprise ending The element of surprise is very closely related to suspense. If we know ahead of time exactly what is going to happen in a story and why, there can be no suspense; as long as we do not know, whatever happens comes with an element of surprise. The surprise is proportional to the unexpectedness of what happens. It becomes pronounced when the story departs radically from what we expect to happen in the story. A surprise ending is one that features a sudden, unexpected turn or twist. See Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour for an example of this. Commercial fiction tends to more frequently feature a surprise ending than does literary fiction. In either type, however, there are two ways by which the legitimacy and value of a surprise ending may be judged: 1. By the fairness with which the surprise is achieved 2. By the purpose that it serves If the surprise is contrived through an improbable coincidence or series of coincidences, or by the planting of false clues, or through the arbitrary withholding of information, then we may well dismiss it as a cheap trick. It may be judged as trivial if it exists for its own sake – to shock the reader. We will consider the surprise ending justified, however, when it serves to broaden or to reinforce the meaning of the story. In literary fiction, the surprise is one that furnishes meaningful illumination, not just a reversal of expectation. 2. the happy ending -­‐one in which events turn out well for a sympathetic protagonist Everyone lives “happily ever after” (see Dracula) A common obstacle confronting readers who are making their first attempt to enjoy literary fiction is that such fiction often (though certainly not always) ends unhappily. Two justifications may be made for. . . 3. the unhappy ending -­‐one that turns out unhappily for a sympathetic protagonist First, many situations in real life do have unpleasant outcomes; therefore, if fiction is to reflect and illuminate life, it must acknowledge human defeats as well as triumphs. Commercial writers of sports fiction usually write of how an individual or team achieves victory against formidable odds. Yet if one team wins the pennant, thirteen others must lose it. In situations like these, success is much less frequent than failure. Varying the formula, a sports writer might tell how an individual lost the game but learned some important moral lesson (i.e. the importance of fair play). But here again, in real life, people achieve such compensations only occasionally. Defeat, in fact, sometimes embitters people and makes them less able to cope with life than before. Thus we need to understand and perhaps expect defeat as well as victory. Second, the unhappy ending forces us to ponder the complexities of life. The story with a happy ending has been “wrapped up” for us: it sends the reader away feeling pleasantly and vaguely satisfied with the world, and it requires no further thought. The unhappy ending on the other hand, may cause readers to brood over the outcome, to relive the story in their minds, and by searching out its implications to get much more meaning and significance from it. We can see deeper into life when it is pried open for inspection. The unhappy ending is also more likely to raise significant issues. The ending of “The Most Dangerous Game” resolves all our anxieties, but the ending of “Hunters in the Snow” forces us to think about the mysteries and contradictions of human nature. Readers of literary fiction evaluate an ending not by whether it is happy or unhappy, but by whether it is logical within the story’s own terms and whether it affords a full, believable revelation. An ending that meets these tests can be profoundly satisfying, whether happy or unhappy. In fact, some artistically satisfying stories have no ending at all in the sense that the central conflict is resolved in favor of the protagonist or antagonist. In real life some problems are never solved and some battles never permanently won. A story may therefore have . . . 4. an indeterminate ending -­‐One in which no definitive conclusion is reached There must be some kind of conclusion, of course; a story, which must have artistic unity, cannot simply stop. But the conclusion need not be in terms of a resolved conflict. We cannot be sure whether Tub and Frank in “Hunters in the Snow” will maintain their alliance, or what the ultimate fate of their “friendship” might be. But the story is more effective without a definite resolution, for it leaves us to ponder the complex psychological dynamics that operate within human relationships. Additional Terms Artistic Unity That condition of a successful literary work whereby all its elements work together for the achievement of its central purpose. In an artistically unified work nothing is included that is irrelevant to the central purpose, nothing is omitted that is essential to it, and the parts are arranged in the most effective order for the achievement of that purpose. Keep in mind that the most effective order does not necessarily refer to chronological order (see Catch-­‐22) Chronological or otherwise, in a carefully unified story, each event grows out of the preceding one and leads logically to the next. The author links scenes together in a chain of cause and effect. Plot Manipulation An author who includes a turn in the plot that is unjustified by the situation for the characters is indulging in plot manipulation. -­‐An unmotivated action is one instance -­‐A plot’s overreliance on chance or on coincidence is another deus ex machina (Latin: “god from a machine”) Named for the practice of some ancient Greek dramatists in having a god descend from heaven at the last minute (presented in the theater by means of a mechanical stage device) to rescue the protagonist from some impossible situation. It worked at the time for its purpose, but is seldom convincing in fiction. The action should grow organically out of the plot rather than with an arbitrary, chance resolution for which the author has laid no groundwork earlier in the story. Chance and Coincidence Chance cannot be barred from fiction, of course, any more than it can be barred from life; the same is true of coincidence. But if an author uses an improbable chance event to resolve a story, the story loses its sense of conviction and thus its power to move the reader. Coincidence may justifiably be used to initiate a story, and occasionally to complicate it, but not to resolve it. In life, almost any sequence of events is possible; but in a story the sequence must be plausible in order to convince and hold the reader. Lastly, a word about plot analysis. . . There are various approaches to the analysis of plot. We can draw diagrams of different kinds of plots or trace the development of rising action, climax, and falling action. Tracing such structural patterns, however, if they are concerned only with examining the plot in isolation, will not take us very far into the story. A more profitable approach is to consider the function of plot in trying to understand the relationship of each incident to the larger meaning of the story. In literary fiction it is important for what it reveals. Analyzing a story by focusing on its central conflict may be especially fruitful, for this quickly takes the reader to the primary issue in the story. In evaluating fiction for its quality, it is useful to examine the way incidents and scenes are connected as a way of testing the story’s plausibility and unity. In any good story, plot is inextricable from other elements of fiction to be considered in upcoming sections. It provides a kind of map, or guide, but it cannot serve as a substitute for the reader’s journey into the author’s fictional landscape. Works Cited Arp, Thomas R., and Greg Johnson. Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound & Sense. 11th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2012. Print.