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Plot is the arrangement of incidents in the play. Like all other elements  of fiction, it has interdependence with character. Any competent writer  organizes the incidents in such a way that each will have the maximum impact on the reader’s response and advance the story’s total objective. If the incidents are arranged sequentially from the beginning to the end  and one event leads to the other, you will say that the play has a  chronological, causal plot. If however they are presented in a disjointed manner, you say that it has an episodic plot. Simple plot is when the story is  straightforward and easy to understand but when it is difficult,  you say that it has a complicated or complex plot.

Plot is the incidents in a play. It helps to give the play an organic unity and a coherence that makes the play easy to understand. A good plays hould therefore possess a unified plot with a beginning, middle and the end. Plot in simple terms is the arrangement of the events/actions in a story in such a way that there will be a sequential, logical and chronological order.

Whenever you are reading or watching a play, you are concerned with the story that it tells. The play may be about an orphan whose step-mother maltreats so much that you feel that he will die. Incidentally, it is not only that he survives but eventually fate smiles on him and he becomes very wealthy. What makes this story interesting is the way the incidents are arranged. This arrangement is what we refer to as plot. If you have been watching Nigerian home movies, you may have observed that there are many movies that deal with ritual killings  either for the purposes of making money or for acquisition of power. The way the story is presented is what makes a particular movie better than all the others on the same subject. You are going to learn everything about plot and why Aristotle believes that it is the ‘soul’ of drama.

Definition of Plot

A lot of volumes have been written on drama and aspects of drama of which plot is one of them. The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary  defines plot as a “plan or line of events of a story especially of a novel or a story”. In dramatic plot, unlike in the novel where the author describes the characters and incidents they are involved in, the playwright presents the characters in action. This means that plot in drama develops through what the characters do or say, what is done to them, and or what is said about them or to them. This is why in his opinion, Grebanier describes plot as “a matter of action of deeds that are done during the course of the story”.

In One World of Literature, Shirley Geak-Lin Lim, compiles the following definitions of plot from different scholars which I believe will give you a broader view of plot;

  • The plot as the organization of action was traditionally conceived asa sequence of important moments arranged chronologically, with an introduction, series of complications intensifying the conflict, a climax clinching the fate of the central characters, a resolution and a denouement that concludes and summarizes the issues (p. 1107).
  • Plot is the organization of a series of action or events usually movingthrough conflicts to a climax and resolution. The arrangement oftenimplies causality and achieves certain effects (p.1135).
  • Plot does not concentrate on an individual hero or his fate or her fate. Instead, its open structure permits the inclusion of other important but minor characters. (p. 1108).

In his own contribution, Oscar Brockett maintains that plot is not just a  summary of the incidents of a play but that it also refers to the organization of all elements into a meaningful pattern, the overall structure of the play(6). In Play Production, Nelms sees plot as the anecdote told to illustrate the theme, and the bare bones of the action and therefore the key to the structure of the play. According to Scholes  and Klaus, plot is a highly specialized form of experience. In drama, every event is part of a carefully designed pattern and process. And that is what we call plot. He explains that plot is “…a wholly interconnected system of events, deliberately selected and arranged, in order to fulfill a complex set of dramatic purposes and theatrical conditions… it comprises everything which takes place in the imaginative world of the play. And the totality of the events must create a coherent imitation of the world” (65).

You have seen that there are many opinions on plot but I cannot  conclude without looking at the insistence of the foremost critic Aristotle that tragedy is an imitation not of men but of an action and of life. He further explains that since life consists of action plot is the most important aspect and the soul of tragedy. He mentioned tragedy specifically because then, the comic writers were allowed to invent their own plots. The Greek tragic plots were based on the destiny of man and the gods were involved in the action. The tragic poet (playwright) was expected to base the plot on true events, myths and legends and so his choice was limited because not many families were “doomed” and not many individuals were driven to murder or incest that aroused pity and fear. He maintains that incidents presented, must be according to the law of probability and necessity.

Plot is the structure of the actions which is ordered and presented in order to achieve particular emotional and artistic effects in a play. It helps to give the play an organic unity and a coherence that makes the play easy to understand. A good play should therefore possess a unified plot. Plot in simple terms is the arrangement of a story in such a way that there will be a sequential, logical and chronological order. The plot should be arranged in such a way that the action starts from the beginning rises to a climax and falls to a resolution. It is arranged in this form – exposition, discovery, point of attack, complication, crisis, climax, denouement or resolution.

Some people confuse plot with story. To them, plot means a story which the play tells. It is therefore necessary at this point to make the distinction between plot and story so that you will not fall into the same error. A story is a series of incidents whose development does not necessarily depend on each other which means that the incidents may or may not be related or connected. Plot on the other hand, is the way the story is arranged and it thrives on causality and logical unity. In it, one incident happens and as a result the next one happens and the situation must be related to each other. It has a beginning, middle and an end. A  beginning gives rise to the middle, which in turn raises the dramatic question that is answered in the end, thus completing what was started in the beginning. Dramatic plot is also expected to produce a result or an effect on the audience. The playwright, therefore, tries to fashion his play in a particular way to produce a particular impression on his audience. This explains why a theme like corruption, could be treated by different playwrights. Each playwright by the use of plot and other devices gives his own perspective, understanding of what corruption is, its effects on the society and why it should be eradicated. He could, also, in the course of the plot, suggest means or ways through which corruption can be reduced to a barest minimum or its complete eradication. The success of a play depends mainly on the plot. It helps the audience or reader to understand the theme and the motivations of the characters in the play. Playwrights design their plots in most cases, to achieve different purposes like to create tragic comic or ironic effects. As the plot  progresses, it arouses the reader’s curiosity and expectations concerning future events in the play especially the fate of some characters. This is called suspense. A good playwright makes an effective use of suspense to sustain his audience. Plot is a highly specialized form of experience. Let us use our daily experiences to illustrate and see just how specialized it is by considering what  happens to us daily: we probably converse with a number of people and perform a variety of action. But most of these events have very little to do with one another, and they usually serve no purpose other than to satisfy our pleasure, our work, or our bodily necessities. Thus the events that take place in our daily existence do not and cannot embody a significant pattern or process even in a boarding school. There is an extent to which a person’s life can be patterned. But in drama, every event is part of a carefully designed pattern and process.

And this is what we call plot. In a good plot, the interest of spectators has to be deeply engaged and continuously sustained. This means that the plot must be arranged in such a way that the interest must be aroused and engaged by events that make up a process capable of being represented on stage. This means that plot is not confined merely to what takes place on stage. Plot includes reported, as well as represented, action. In Oedipus Rex, for example, we witness what we might call  a process of criminal investigation, in which the investigator discovers himself to be the criminal and inflicts the appropriate punishment for his  crime. You will also notice that in the play, we do not witness all of the events that make up that process and contribute to its development. The three types of action in drama are reported, physical and mental. In reported action, an action that is not part of the present action on stage is reported by a character or a group of characters. The action could be about an incident in the past like the death of Polybus or an incident that happened in the course of the action of the play. In the play, the wisdom of the oracle is reported by Creon, the death of Polybus is reported by the First Messenger, the suicide of Jocasta and the self blinding of Oedipus are reported by the Second Messenger. Obviously, all of these events take place in the imaginative world of the play but are not presented directly to the audience. (Can you recall other reasons why some of these events are not presented on stage?) They are  part of the plot. But they are not part of what we call the scenario—– the action that takes place on stage. Thus if we wish to identify the plot  of a play, we will have to distinguish it from the scenario because it is not the same thing as the plot. We can recognize this distinction in another way if we consider the order in which events may be presented to us in a play. In Oedipus Rex, for example, the death of Polybus takes place before the time of the action on stage however it is reported to us only after the stage action is well under way.

The physical action is based on the current incidents in the play, the concrete action on stage. It includes the movements, gestures, facial expressions and other forms of physical action made by the characters and seen by the audience. The mental action includes the action in which the audience is left to imagine what happened. In most cases, it comes at the end of the play as the audience is left to imagine what happened to a character or a group of characters. This is one of the main reasons why movie producers produce the part two of some of their films. In the plot, of course, these events are linked to one another by an unalterable chronology. But in the scenario, these same events have been presented to us in an entirely different order. Thus in studying the plot of a play, we must examine not only the events of which it consists, but also the complex ways in which those events are   presented by the scenario.

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