July 25, 2014

Plot and the starving person

Plot is a tricky thing.

I’m not going to talk here about constructing a plot, or what makes a good or bad plot (though a mystery plot is about the most durable and readable one you can ever hope for), but rather I’m going to talk about what plot does to the reader and what it means for the book.

Think of a story like a meal. It is an experience comprised of many disparate elements, each prepared and presented in many different ways.

Now, imagine that you haven’t eaten in 36 hours. How will that affect your attitude toward your next meal? If it’s not food you especially like, are you going to turn it down? Probably not. If it’s a T-bone steak, are you going to slow down and enjoy it, or are you going to wolf it down just like you would a bigass, greasy burger because that’s how hungry you are? Probably the latter, right?

That’s what plot does to you. A really good, clockwork plot creates an insatiable hunger in you to get to the next thing. And like a hunger, it’s simple: you want to see what happens next, so you keep turning the page, just like a starving person shoving french fries in their mouth.

Sometimes you’ll keep reading a book you don’t think is especially that great (DaVinci Code alert) just because that plot has made you that goddamn hungry. In that regard, you’re a lot like the starving person eating a meal they’d normally turn down. I have absolutely no desire to eat pickled pig’s feet, but if I was starving, I’d probably still wolf them down.

However, if you’re just reading for plot, then sometimes you can be like the starving person who’s sucking down a $94 meal just because that’s how hungry they are: you might be missing things.

A story, like a meal, sometimes (preferably all the time, but not necessarily) has had a lot of work go into it so that every element is an experience in its own right. If you’re just reading for plot, you might be missing the prose, the characterization, the ambience the writer is trying so hard to manifest on the page, all because you’re hungry to find out Who’s Behind the Big Conspiracy, or whatever the plot goal might be.

So sometimes, if you really want to enjoy a book that’s had a lot of work go into, slow down a little. Don’t read for plot. I’ve intentionally spoiled myself on certain books just because I wanted to see how it was made, or because I wanted to luxuriate in its prose or characters. I’m cutting that hunger off at the pass, just so I can slow down and enjoy the meal more.

A really, really good book makes you stop caring about the plot: suddenly you want the plot to have some stupid twist just so it extends the book’s length by another hundred pages or so. If you’ve ever had this sensation, it means that the writer has created characters or a world that are much more attractive and compelling than the desire to see what happens next.

Likewise, I’ll find myself skipping through some plotty books because the plot is more attractive than the characters or the world. I’ll actually find myself thinking, “I don’t give a shit about these people, but I do want to find out how this will end,” so I’ll skip past the, say, seventy pages about how the main character lived in the woods for a year eating tubers and nuts. I just want to see if he actually kills the guy he wants to kill, okay?

And if you really want to see if a book is more than its plot, go back and reread it. Then, theoretically, you’re not hungry at all. Still want to read it, to eat that meal? Then that’s a sign that it’s got something going for it more than your hunger. Trying to figure out what makes it so attractive is the next step.