1.01.2004

Footprints in the Sand


That's what Ray Bradbury called plot in Zen in the Art of Writing. Footprints in the sand. I think that's as apt a description as any. When I served in the Navy, we had a board that tracked our course by means of a light on a gimbaled mount under a glass table. It was slaved to a computer that moved it to correspond to our bearing and speed. Men who specialized in those sorts of things would cover the table with big sheets of white paper and make a pencil mark every fifteen minutes to denote the light's present location and then they would draw a line from present to past. We called that a plot as well. It was used to show us where we‘d been. I think plot in narrative isn't anything different. It's the history and not the future of the story, and not useful in describing the narrative beyond a shallow overview that can't be used but in the most basic of synopses. Stories, the best stories, aren't only about what's happened. They're about how the people in them deal with it. Not that it's unimportant, it is. But only in tracking the story from start to finish and not as a thing unto itself.

Point of fact, I don't think it's actually possible to have a story with characters and events and then say truthfully that it contains no plot. How could this be so? Even if the people in the story only travel a short distance, do they not still leave tracks behind them? Of course they do. Now to say that there isn't enough plot, as though we were to measure the events in a story by volume and rank them each accordingly in descending order, I can understand. Not condone, mind you, but it makes a certain sense if that's the way one chooses to look at their literature. But if that's the direction we're to go, then I think I might point out some problems I detect with this approach. For instance, what are we to do with stories such as Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro, in which nothing more than the ruminations of a man dying of gangrene occur throughout the entire narrative. Will we dismiss it? Or does Papa get a pass for nostalgic reasons not tied to his occasional sin of plotlessness. What about Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar? Certainly something happens, but if we synopsize stories by their mere plot then what can we cay of this story other than a man hypnotizes a friend at the exact moment of death? This may titillate a reader sufficiently to draw them in, but then again perhaps not. Plot can only describe fully the least of our literature. If I were to have hours of time and the fortitude to deliver a plot synopsis of Robert Jordan’s interminable masterpiece, I believe I could deliver the scantiest of descriptions and still manage to convey the full impact of the story. Jordan is of the least of fantastic writers and his work is only about what happens to his characters rather than what happens inside them. I can't call that literature, but it certainly has a plot.

discuss this post at our messageboard