Plot, Milieu, Poetry, and Character

Fiction writing spans a vast range of styles and structures. Some fiction concentrates on the plot. Just tell the story. Don’t distract me with useless details about scudding clouds, or a woman’s updo, or the sonorous music playing in an elevator. Just tell me what happened. That’s all I want to know.

Certainly there is an audience for such writing. The purpose of such a narrative style is to relate a sequence of events– that is, action. BANG– the story opens with a heist. WHAM– one of the robbers shoots and kills a guard. POW– police arrive at the scene and get in a gunfight with the thieves, who manage to escape by… Why should we care about the color of a thief’s hair, or his thoughts about cosmology unless it somehow leads to his arrest?

But we should ask– is a plot absolutely essential to the telling of a story? Must a story be a rapid fire sequence of BANG / WHAM / POW? Or is it possible to write a novel in which plot is subordinate to something else?

An important counterexample would be James Joyce’s Ulysses. The plot of the book is supremely ordinary. It focuses on the events in the day of a life of one man (Leopold Bloom), a resident of Dublin, on June 16, 1904. And why should we care about the life of this one man on one inconsequential day? Well, there are certainly lots of readers who have no interest whatsoever in Mr. Leopold Bloom, or in his reading material (“Sweets Of Sin”), or his dietary habits. (He ate the inner organs of beasts and small fowls. With relish. Or was it enthusiasm?) We learn everything about Leopold Bloom– where he lives, what foods he likes, what he understands about metempsychosis, what he thinks about the Irish politician Charles Stuart Parnell. No detail is too small, no thought too fleeting.

Ulysses is as much about heroic literature as it is about the life of one rather ordinary man on an ordinary day. As Leopold Bloom travels through the city of 20th century Dublin, his experiences mimic those of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s as if Homer’s narrative is a shadow following in the background throughout Mr. Bloom’s mundane day. This is not so much a plot element as it is an aspect of the story’s milieu. This is the author stretching the boundaries of storytelling and using the narrative itself to tell a story about storytelling. If you read Ulysses with that understanding I think you have to agree that Joyce achieved his objective, and that he did so in a very imaginative way. But if you’re looking for a story that could serve as the basis for the next Die Hard movie– forget it.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov takes the elements of fiction in a different direction– that of poetry. The book has two halves. The first half is an extended poem, itself titled “Pale Fire.” The second half consists of commentary on the poem by someone who, we eventually realize, is a murderer. The plot is subtle and subdued. The victim’s corpse isn’t hauled off to the morgue for a coroner’s investigation. Detectives don’t examine the crime scene searching for clues. The clues are to be found in the commentator’s writings, and then only by inference.

This is a book, more than most, that centers on character. The poem– written by a man named John Shade– is about the struggles of the author to understand and sort through his own sense of failure, his notions of art, his mortality. That is, John Shade is a man of moral character. The commentator is a man of shallow character. Yes, there is a plot. But the elements of poetry and character are in the foreground, and the plot is in the background. I regard Pale Fire as a wonderfully imaginative piece of fiction writing, though there’s little chance Marvel Studios will pick it up for a new installment of the adventures of Dr. Strange.

Picture a four dimensional space, the axes being Plot, Milieu, Poetry, and Character. Any novel can be positioned somewhere in this space. Is there an ideal location in this space that is most true to the notion of what a novel is? No. I would argue that a novel could be successful regardless of its location in this space. The task of the author is to make the choices of plot, milieu, poetry, and character work for the intended audience. And we should acknowledge that not all audiences will appreciate these elements of narrative in equal measure. Some are more drawn to plot, others to character. There is no true and correct answer to the question of how best to write a novel.

I therefore caution against the idea that by following certain rules an author can learn the method that is most likely to result in a successful novel. Ulysses and Pale Fire both succeeded, in my view, because they broke all the rules. Rules are for drudges. Imagination is for artists.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

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