A plot is a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax.
The word “purposeful” in this definition has two applications: it applies to the author and to the characters of a novel. It demands that the author devise a logical structure of events, a sequence in which every major event is connected with, determined by and proceeds from the preceding events of the story—a sequence in which nothing is irrelevant, arbitrary or accidental, so that the logic of the events leads inevitably to a final resolution.
Such a sequence cannot be constructed unless the main characters of the novel are engaged in the pursuit of some purpose—unless they are motivated by some goals that direct their actions. In real life, only a process of final causation—i.e., the process of choosing a goal, then taking the steps to achieve it—can give logical continuity, coherence and meaning to a man’s actions. Only men striving to achieve a purpose can move through a meaningful series of events.
Contrary to the prevalent literary doctrines of today, it is realism that demands a plot structure in a novel. All human actions are goal-directed, consciously or subconsciously; purposelessness is contrary to man’s nature: it is a state of neurosis. Therefore, if one is to present man as he is—as he is metaphysically, by his nature, in reality—one has to present him in goal-directed action.
To present a story in terms of action means: to present it in terms of events. A story in which nothing happens is not a story. A story whose events are haphazard and accidental is either an inept conglomeration or, at best, a chronicle, a memoir, a reportorial recording, not a novel.
A chronicle, real or invented, may possess certain values; but these values are primarily informative—historical or sociological or psychological—not primarily esthetic or literary; they are only partly literary. Since art is a selective re-creation and since events are the building blocks of a novel, a writer who fails to exercise selectivity in regard to events defaults on the most important aspect of his art.
Since a plot is the dramatization of goal-directed action, it has to be based on conflict; it may be one character’s inner conflict or a conflict of goals and values between two or more characters. Since goals are not achieved automatically, the dramatization of a purposeful pursuit has to include obstacles; it has to involve a clash, a struggle—an action struggle, but not a purely physical one. Since art is a concretization of values, there are not many errors as bad esthetically—or as dull—as fist fights, chases, escapes and other forms of physical action, divorced from any psychological conflict or intellectual value-meaning. Physical action, as such, is not a plot nor a substitute for a plot—as many bad writers attempt to make it, particularly in today’s television dramas.
This is the other side of the mind-body dichotomy that plagues literature. Ideas or psychological states divorced from action do not constitute a story—and neither does physical action divorced from ideas and values.
To isolate and bring into clear focus, into a single issue or a single scene, the essence of a conflict which, in “real life,” might be atomized and scattered over a lifetime in the form of meaningless clashes, to condense a long, steady drizzle of buckshot into the explosion of a blockbuster—that is the highest, hardest and most demanding function of art.
The plot of a novel serves the same function as the steel skeleton of a skyscraper: it determines the use, placement and distribution of all the other elements. Matters such as number of characters, background, descriptions, conversations, introspective passages, etc. have to be determined by what the plot can carry, i.e., have to be integrated with the events and contribute to the progression of the story. Just as one cannot pile extraneous weight or ornamentation on a building without regard for the strength of its skeleton, so one cannot burden a novel with irrelevancies without regard for its plot. The penalty, in both cases, is the same: the collapse of the structure.
If the characters of a novel engage in lengthy abstract discussions of their ideas, but their ideas do not affect their actions or the events of the story, it is a bad novel . . . .
In judging a novel, one must take the events as expressing its meaning, because it is the events that present what the story is about. No amount of esoteric discussions on transcendental topics, attached to a novel in which nothing happens except “boy meets girl,” will transform it into anything other than “boy meets girl.”
This leads to a cardinal principle of good fiction: the theme and the plot of a novel must be integrated—as thoroughly integrated as mind and body or thought and action in a rational view of man.