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EILAND'S ONLINE ENGLISH CLASSES
- Most simplistic thematic element, and usually least important, but your analysis of it is mostly predicated on your understanding of the elements that authors use to tell a story.
- Defined, plot is simply what happens, action-wise. Keep in mind that the description of plot in essays of literary analysis is to explain some literary point. At no point should you be be simply retelling the story. It is unnecessary, as your reader is looking for analysis, not plot description. You must keep in mind that your reader has read the story or has seen the movie or has watched the play. You are using the plot descriptions and character descriptions to explain some literary point such a symbol or irony or some kind of critical perspective.
FACTORS OF PLOT TO CONSIDER
- Plot -- what happened
- Conflict -- the problem that the primary character must face. The conflict does not have to be resolved in the story.
- Linear -- A linear plot occurs in easily-followed sequence of events moving forward in time. Linear stories usually involve following a single character through a sequential series of events. Even if the character has some kind of flashback remembrance, the story is still considered linear because the setting and the main character are fairly consistent throughout the work and the main action occurs moving forward in time.
- Non-linear -- A non-linear plot may jump around and appear disorganized, less easy to follow
. This is especially common in works in which there are multiple character storylines that are introduced one at a time to have the characters later join up and interact with each other in some fundamental way. This may also be presented in a manipulated way in cinematic form in which a fairly simplistic plot, such as that seen in works like Memento or Pulp Fiction, in which the director's purpose is to create mystery and suspense through the means of re-creating or retelling the story in a nonlinear way in order to either demonstrate someone's problems with memory or to simply highlight how seemingly inconsequential and unconnected events actually led to a single ending.
- Suspense -- This is the anticipation of following events. While suspense is often predicated on foreshadowing and even a bit of predictability, these three elements, while connected, are not the same thing. Suspense is a specific feeling the audience gets, often manipulated by the author, that something is going to happen or, conversely, that something desired is NOT going to happen. The most obvious examples of suspense occur in thrillers or horror movies in which there is an expectation of some kind of violence or surprise tragedy about to befall a character, and the authors often use that to keep the audience's attention. In fact, that suspense is often played with by creating false surprises... the opened door does not reveal an ax murderer, but just a coat that grandma used to wear. Keep in mind that suspense is sometimes intense as in the aforementioned work, but can also be much more mild. For example, the suspense of waiting to see whether the main character will resolve some kind of long-standing romantic conflict is far less intense, but is usually something more to be expected in a literary work.
- Plot Manipulation
-- A standard element in commercial and escapist fiction, plot manipulation is the author's orchestration of events or characters in a way guaranteed to create a certain type of ending, whether it follows artistic unity and logic or not. As Annie Wilkes in Misery points out, plot manipulation is quite common in order to resolve situations in which the main character is about to be defeated or even killed or have some other kind of outcome that would be displeasing to an audience expecting a happy ending. Plot manipulation in soap operas is often the introduction of a character or some information that was kept from the audience (nothing that we could have expected), yet it certainly solves the problem at hand. This was also popular as a device in the old 1960's television version of Batman where at the end of the first half of a two-part episode, the dynamic duo would be in some sort of dire situation... about to be overcome by some mysterious gas, about to be eaten by sharks, about to be cut in half by a giant saw,... and at the beginning of the next episode Batman would suddenly pull something out of his Utility belt (Bat anti-poison gas pills, Bat shark repellent, Bat anti-giant saw net)... or perhaps Alfred would show up out of nowhere... and save the day. For certain types of audiences, a happy ending is much more important than artistic unity and consistency.
- Predictability -- A predictable plot or predictable ending is not based on the notion that we understand EXACTLY what will happen, but rather that we understand the general arc of the story. For example, it is PREDICTABLE that in a standard horror movie, there will be bloodshed and that the protagonist... at least one of them... will survive while there is carnage all around. How that person survives in the carnage itself is what draws us to the story. However, if there is no bloodshed or killing in our horror movie, we are disappointed.
- Foreshadowing -- The author's presentation of information that indicates that something will happen, in some ways it can either establish an element of suspense or an element of predictability. For example, in the story What You Pawn I Will Redeem, the main character's tendency to spend what money he gets on alcohol is quickly determined at the beginning of the story and is consistently portrayed throughout. The foreshadowing event is the character's own discussion of his alcoholism, and another foreshadowing event is the fact that the first time he gets money he turns around and spends it on alcohol. The predictability occurs when, after a while, we surmise that any money that the character is given will be spent somehow on anything other than his stated goal, which is to get back to regalia.
- Artistic unity -- All of the elements of the story should fit. The way this usually works is that a character who has particular traits, such as alcoholism or dishonesty... or honesty for that matter... must have a COMPELLING reason to change or alter that behavior and become a different person. For example, in What You Pawn I Will Redeem, it would be unlikely for our main character to quit drinking or to no longer be homeless, for the author spends a great deal of time through the first-person narration explaining in that character's own words why he is where he is. The fact that the character feels differently about how others view him is explained during the course of the story and therefore at the end, as he's dancing in the street and he feels everyone is watching him, the character's change in terms of his self perception seems logical and consistent with the arc of the character of the story.
-- In a determinate ending, a primary conflict for the main character is resolved by the end of story. As part of your analysis, you must explain what the conflict is and how it is resolved by the end of the story.
-- In an indeterminate ending, a primary conflict for the main character is NOT resolved by the end of the story. As part of your analysis, explain what the primary conflict is and how it still exists by the end of the story.
- Contrived (manipulated) -- This type of ending is standard in stories that are designed to please the audience. Especially, for example, in a romantic comedy, very often there is some kind of hidden information or some kind of unrealistic aspect that brings the characters together by the end of the story that resolves all the tension and fixes all the conflicts and makes for essentially a happy ending.
- Surprise -- An unexpected twist, often used both in contrived happy endings and also in solving mysteries, the foreshadowed clues to this type of ending may sometimes be very carefully hidden in the storyline in a way to draw the observer's attention away from it. For example, a careful reader will realize that the pawnbroker is inclined to return the regalia back to Jackson the first time they meet, so while it may seem a surprise for him to suddenly turn around and give the regalia back for essentially no cost, the dialogue early on in the story indicated that the pawnbroker was already inclined to do so. His questioning of the main character's effort in some ways solidifies the notion that what he really wanted was effort on the part of Jackson, and he rewarded him with returning what was rightfully Jackson's. However, this can also be used in ways that are not nearly as satisfying, especially in soap operas, for example, where long-lost relatives or relations no one has ever heard of prior to this particular episode show up and either create or resolve some kind of problem. The surprise ending is a standard element in order to either create new unexpected conflict or to resolve long-standing seemingly impossible conflicts.
- Happy -- A happy ending makes the reader feel good
; obviously, this type of ending is designed to make the audience feel good about themselves. Heroes conquer, villains are vanquished, the two main romantic leads get together, and problems are resolved.
USES FOR PLOT
- Use for examples in your essay.
- Usually plot is the focus of Escapist Literature.
- Be accurate in your analysis of plot -- don't alter story.
- Do not merely restate plot -- I know what happened.
© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: September 10, 2017