Friday, February 25, 2005

The Plot Thickens

Nick Lowe pointed out (see previous post), that badly written fiction (and especially bad SF and Fantasy) is dependent on plot devices. He also made a credible argument that Plotting is often more elaborate in comedy than in "serious" fiction. (As the plot of any Discworld novel can prove.)

So does the art of good plotting only matter in "less-than-serious" novels? Seriously now: is plotting just "for kids"?

Others may disagree, but I think plots are anything but trivial. Not only are elaborate, carefully written plots a guarantee of commercial success, they are also an entertaining alternative to the naturalistic or "traditional realistic" novel. I'll go one step further and claim that Plotting has become the new Realism.

Let me make the following argument: The complexity of a plot is directly proportional to how many options, opportunities and freedom it offers the characters. The more fatalistic a story is, the fewer options, opportunities and freedoms its characters are given.

And this fatalism used to be called "realism." I'll explain.

In the traditional concept of "realistic" fiction, created in the 19th century, the environment and genes shape the characters. And the characters simply bend to these forces of nature.
That is precisely why "serious" novels are so often bleak and depressing: they work according to the unspoken premise of Determinism and Fate. The "Old Realism" characters are basically Doomed. Any attempt on their part to resist Genes and Environment is Futile. Nothing can be invented or prevented; what happens must happen. If characters try to rise above their Station in Life, they will be Punished.

A side effect of this dour outlook, and a persistent tendency of traditional "serious" literature, is contempt and hatred of the middle class - because the middle class obviously are social climbers, believe in a Rising Standard of Living, Opportunity, and are therefore enemies of Determined Fate.

You know what? Traditional realism might have been "realistic" once, but it no longer is. We now live in the era of Chaos Theory. Fate may exist, but can no longer easily be determined. People may not have unlimited options, but the options are many, and increasing by the day.

A prime example of the old "Realism" - that people are Doomed by Fate and Resistance Is Futile - is Gustave Flaubert's 19th-century novel Madame Bovary. (Not that it's unreadable; it's an excellent novel about failure, and could be read as a black comedy if you're in that mood.)

The plot of Madame Bovary is that the stupid bourgeois protagonist Emma and her idiot bourgeois husband move to a village populated by even stupider bourgeois people. Emma is frustrated and bored, but since she is stupid and small-minded, she is unable to really change her life.

She tries to coax her dumb husband into becoming ambitious, but this scheme backfires disastrously - he's too dumb to succeed. Then she tries to emulate a romance heroine by starting a love affair with a rather stupid gigolo. It all ends in tears. None of the characters end up one iota more successful or wiser, or essentially changed (except those who end up dead).

Science Fiction, and the development of this modern world, are a one-two punch in the face of the Old Realism. The modern reality offers not too few options, but perhaps too many. In this reality, characters can and often do rise above their circumstances, or even transform themselves completely. Second chances are plentiful.

Imagine: what if Gustave Flaubert wrote the story about Pamela Anderson or Arnold Schwarzenegger? (Madame Anderson???) That's right, he couldn't. Those characters belong in a different model of reality.

In the realism of this reality, where we live today, Fate is overrated. And Plot is everything. Because Plot equals Possibilities. (And useful Plot Devices, such as Computers, Gadgets and other convenient things can save the day... just like in a badly written book.)

Are we having fun yet? :)


Laika said...

Spot on. This is the reason I like stories about people put in extreme situations. It's situations where the character's options are few or (seemingly) none that are more interesting to me. It's also the reason I hate (most) fantasy. In a world where anything can happen, who cares WHAT happens?

(This is Angus McPresley from the Asimov's list, btw.)

A.R.Yngve said...

I suppose that with most novels there's an unwritten agreement between reader and writer.

The writer agrees to give the reader a conclusion (or "closure") that makes sense within the context of the story.On the other hand, when you read a novel by Philip K. Dick, the "agreement" is different: the writer agrees to yank the rug from under the reader's feet and just keep yanking.My beef with most "generic" fantasy is that the "anything can happen!" promise turns out to be a con: the stories and characters are predictable, even boring.