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Literary focus key literary notion: plot

  • Plot

The term plot refers to an author's arrangement of the events that make up story. The plot of a work is not necessarily the same as the story. When we tell a story we generally start at the beginning and continue in a chronological order until we come to the end. Plots, however, do not always follow this pattern. Many writers choose to mix events up in order to provoke specific responses ir the reader. They may, for example, start in the middle of things and use flashbacks or dialogue to refer to previous events. The author's choices regarding plot do not stop simply at organising the events of his tale. He must also decide when the story begins, which events should be dealt with at length, which aspects of the story can be quickly summarised and when the story should end. Time is entirely subjective. The events of several years can be condensed into a paragraph, while a complete chapter may be dedicated to a particularly significant moment. The author's aim in writing a story will direct the choices he makes, and therefore analysing these aspects of plot gives us invaluable insight into the meaning of his work. Love stories, adventure stories, detective stories, horror stories: writers never seem to run out of ideas for stories. Although each story is unique, many of then: share some basic elements.

  • Conflict

Conflict is the driving force behind many plots. It may come from:

  • outside: the main character may be in conflict with external forces such as his family, society, physical hardship or nature;

  • within: the character may be forced to make a difficult choice, or he may have to question his values and beliefs.

  • Suspense

Suspense is also an important element in many plots. Creating suspense generally involves denying the reader immediate access to information which is essential to the full understanding of the story. The clearest example of this can be found in detective stories, where the author does not reveal the identity of the murderer until the very last moment. Suspense is often created through the careful ordering of events in the story.

  • Subplot

In some stories the main plot is accompanied by a subplot – a second story that is complete in its own right. The subplot is usually linked in some way to events in the main plot and generally helps to deepen our understanding of it.

Helpful questions to ask when analysing the plot

  • Are the events in the plot chronological? Does the plot begin at the start of the story or in the middle? What effect do these choices have on the story? What effect do these choices have on the story?

  • Is the story based on conflict? Does the conflict come from outside or inside? What are the conflicting forces?

  • Is suspense created in the plot? If so, how?

  • Are there any subplots? What are their functions?

Sample analysis

Graham Greene (1904-1991) is the author of novels, short stories, plays, travel books, essays and children’s books. He travelled widely and used a range of geographical locations for his works, which often deal with people on the verge of political, social or spiritual crisis. Several of his novels have been successfully adopted for the cinema.

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