Exploring the art of prose


Tag: POV

Daughter by Isha Karki

  The day you killed your mother, you wished your father dead. A whole life of could-bes glittered in your mind. A beauty parlour for your mother, reams of thread and pots of sticky wax. A lunchbox business, stacks of…

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Author’s Note

In Defense of Plot

Plot has fallen on hard times in the last hundred years or so. No less a light than Grace Paley tells us, “Plot is nothing.” John Cheever said plot “is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction.” Ouch. That one stings. In writing workshops we tremble in fear of the dreaded words “plot driven.”

And so, plot has been forced to lurk around in the corners of Target and airport “bookstores,” tarting itself up with lurid covers and aggressive blurbs in a sad, desperate attempt to attract our attention. “You never look at me the way you used to,” it whispers from the shelves. “What happened to our love?”

And, really, there are good reasons for this. As many have noted, there is an artificiality to plot—real life rarely organizes itself in such a neat way. And a book that consists of a plot and not very much else is a sad, hollow thing, flashy entertainment of the most disposable sort.

But here’s the thing—there’s a reason that the single shared characteristic of all popular fiction is a strong plot: people like them. Humans seem to have an inherent interest in the sort of cause-and-effect relationships sketched out in them. If the gun appears in the first act, we really, really want to know who’s catching a bullet in the third.

I think—and the following statements have absolutely no scientific support that I know of—that the human mind is keyed, at a really basic, physiological level, to be interested in some specific things. And one of these things is the sorts of connected chains of events that go to make up a plot.

If we further accept the premise that writing (and all art, really) is an attempt at manipulation (perhaps a better word would be influence)—that the writer is trying to evoke something in the reader, a thought, an idea, an emotion—then how does it benefit us to discard something as powerful as plot right at the outset?

I suggest, then, that we reframe the issue. Plot, like metaphor, simile, and point of view is a literary device. It is a way in which we can engage with and, yes, manipulate the reader to achieve our ends. And it is a powerful tool for this. Not only does a good plot engage the reader, but a plot, properly handled, can be as revealing as any other technique we might choose. If nothing else, stress—the kinds of stress that a good plot can create—tends to strip away our facades, to force us to reveal our underlying souls. And that place is where both art and truth live.

I am not saying that we should all be espionage potboilers. I have read many, many successful pieces of literature that had absolutely no discernible story. But perhaps it’s time to welcome plot back to the literary hearth. Handled correctly, a good plot is a very powerful thing.

So go on, writer, throw off your chains and plot away! Tell us a tale. Spin us a ripping yarn. Let’s charge into the Target, pull plot into our arms and spirit it away, back to the realms of literature where it belongs. Which, now that I think of it, that sounds like a pretty good story…


JOHN HAGGERTY’s work has appeared in dozens of magazines such as Indiana Review and Michigan Quarterly Review. He is the winner of the 2020 NO CONTEST competition by No Contact, and the founding editor of the Forge Literary Magazine.