In prose fiction, the author tells a story by dramatizing human conditions and human relationships. In doing this he/she uses characters to live out the experiences presented in the work as they engage in certain actions and involve themselves in series of events and incidents which are arranged in a particular sequence. This is plot. A story that is well arranged is presented in an artistically satisfying manner. Plot is one of the elements of prose fiction. Other elements are theme, subject matter, characterisation, setting, point of view and language. An author who deploys these elements effectively will produce an effective work. The first element, plot will be discussed in this article.
Plot, or storyline, is often listed as one of the fundamental elements of fiction. It is the rendering and ordering of the events and actions of a story. You have encountered plot in other course materials like Elements of Drama and Creative Writing I. Usually, plot has a beginning, middle, and an ending. Plot starts with a situation depicting the characters’ interpersonal relationships and they are usually in conflict with each other or with an outside force. As the story progresses, the conflicts deepen, intensify and are heightened and lead to a complication of action and it rises to a climax and moves down to a resolution. This could be depicted as follows as presented by Oakley Hall (64):
CLIMAX: Revelation – Recognition – (Crisis)
COMPLICATION: Deepening of oppositions Reappraisal – Heightening of conflicts Showdown – Intensification of tension (The plot thickens)
SITUATION: Relationships, Compulsions, Conflicts Compulsions (instability)
DENOUNMENT: Reappraisal – Showdown
RESOLUTION: Stability with change
H. Abrams,in his definition, states that “the plot in a …narrative work is constituted by its events and actions, as these are rendered and ordered towards achieving particular emotional and artistic effects” (Abrams 159).In his own contribution, E. M. Forster explains that a story is a narrative ‘arranged in their time-sequence” while plot is also a narrative of events with “emphasis falling on causality.” He goes ahead to illustrate: “The king died then the Queen died’ is a story but that ‘the king died and the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved but the sense of causality overshadows it (87). So what differentiates a story from plot is that incidents in the plot unfoldingare based on previous actions. However, this is not applicable to all types of plot. There are two basic types of plot: simple and complex plots.
In simple plots, as the name implies, the incidents are presented in a simple straight forward manner. In this type of plot, the incidents or events are closely knit and are strung together in a linear sequence. This means that events and incidents are presented in a chronological order as one event leads to the other and the subsequent event is dependent on the preceding one. A very good example is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I know that most of you have read the novel but if you have not, do so immediately. In the novel, Okonkwo’s father, Unoka is a lazy man so his son works hard to avoid his father’s fate. Okonkwo inadvertently kills a man during a funeral ceremony and he is sent on exile. He would not have gone on exile if he did not kill the person. This is a very simple and popular novel, so, pick it and read and you will see that incidents follow one after another from the beginning to the end.
A simple plot, in most cases, presents the adventure of one character, usually the hero, from the beginning to the end. Other good examples are Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Flora Nwapa’sEfuru.
Complex plot as the name implies is more complicated than the simple plot. The story here does not run chronologically from the beginning to the end. In many cases, the story is presented in a disjointed manner and the reader will have to rearrange it to form a logical sequence. This type of plot, according to Ezeigbo “requires disentanglement” and itis a type in which “the author’s point of view necessitates some rearrangement and realignment of circumstances or events” (11) for it to make meaning. We will again examine Chinua Achebe but this time, his novel, No Longer at Ease. The first chapter of the book presents Obi Okonkwo as he is caught in a bribery act and this is the incident that should have ended the novel. In this case, the novel starts from the last incident and the story starts to unfold after that. Consequently, at the end of the novel, the reader has to recast the plot as presented so as to piece the different parts together.
In some novels, there is a subplot which is a second story that is complete and interesting in its own but is integrated in the main plot in such a way that it forms part of the main story. A sub plot that is well integrated helps to broaden the reader’s perspective on the main plot so itconcretises instead of diffusing the overall effect of the story.
Subversion of Plot:I have decided to add this section because you may find a novel that does not adhere to the principles of plot which we have discussed so far. The traditional concept of plot has been subverted since the first part of the 20thCentury especially after the First World War when writers deviated from the conventional plot construction. These writers tried to recreate human experience, not strictly in the realistic form but from other perspectives of literary modes like absurd, modernism, structuralism post colonialism and many other forms. “Predictably, recent critical theories have radically eroded, interrogated, and revised many traditional concepts in the classification of plot”(Ezeigbo 12).
Plot is the sequential arrangement of incidents in a literary work. In some works, the incidents may be arranged in a chronological causal sequence. This is called simple plot. In some other works, the incidents may be arranged in a disjointed manner. In this case, the story does not flow smoothly from the beginning to the end, instead, the reader will have to piece the disjointed parts together and rearrange them to give a coherent whole. Some works contain sub plots which are stories within the main story but integrated in the main plot to give the reader a broader perspective of the events in the work.
In this article, we have learnt that there are two basic types of plot – the simple and complex plot. We learnt also that some modern writers have deviated from the traditional or conventional modes of plot construction and have invented other types.