Is It Story That Makes Us Read?

What makes the pages turn? Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Recite a plot backward and you’ll discover some things. Try it with a classic you haven’t read in years. You remember the green light on the last page of The Great Gatsby, of course, and probably Gatsby’s corpse in the pool a chapter earlier. Do you remember who killed him? It was Wilson, the husband of Tom Buchanan’s lover, Myrtle, who was run over by Gatsby’s car with Daisy at the wheel. It was Tom who told Wilson, a man with a few screws loose, that the car belonged to Gatsby, so you could make a case that Gatsby’s death was all Tom’s fault — that he was the real killer and had plenty of motive. You could also argue that Fitzgerald’s end plot is a shambolic mess heaped on a pile of coincidence, though there’s a beauty to the end of the novel that does express one of its great themes: that Gatsby was a careful man who involved himself with careless people and died as a martyr to their carelessness. 

But my point here isn’t to pronounce on that novel’s worthiness. What I mean to get across are the thin traces the plots of even the most memorable, near universally read books can leave in our minds. If a work of fiction has any force to it, we close the book with a head full of images, lines, and emotions.

We’ve gotten to know characters and may think of them the way we think of the heroes and villains of our own lives. That sense of them can stay with us for years, even if we forget their names. A good prose style will stay in our ears the way memorable music does. But there’s something that goes away quickly when we close a book, or the screen goes dark, or the curtain falls: the memory of just what happened, in what order, and why. Plots are ghostly things in our brains. It can be hard to keep a grasp of them even as you’re reading a novel or watching a film or a play. I sometimes fret that I have a better memory of the font certain novels were printed in than the incidents that riveted me as I was reading them.

But it’s plot that keeps us turning pages, even when we feel no sympathy or the opposite of sympathy for a fiction’s characters and animating ideas. Nell Zink has said that when she wanted people to read a book about avian conservation and militant environmental activism, the logical way to do it was to embed those elements in the sex-farce plot of The Wallcreeper. Yet a summary of that novel wouldn’t tell you much about why it’s so good. The late Robert Belknap points out in his study Plots (a work largely devoted to close readings of King Lear and War and Peace) that some argue that the only adequate summary of War and Peace is the text of War and Peace, the implication being that you can never really know the novel unless you memorize the text, something that’s possible with a play but not so with Tolstoy’s masterpieces. Others hold that “the summary of a book is the plot of the book,” since the act of summarizing a plot mimics the way our mind grasps a story as it unfolds. On this view, we are all critics when we read, unconsciously adding emphasis to certain events, flattening out ambiguities, lending our loyalties to some characters over others. Some readers want plots that will sweep them away. Others want to keep their distance and examine plots the way a doctor might look down a patient’s throat. In between is a style of reading that takes temporary possession of a text, creating a new work of art that exists only in the reader’s head.

The History of Plot

Let’s start from the beginning
(the Western beginning, anyway).

prehistory to 500 BCE: The Creation Story

(the Hebrew Bible, Sumerian tablets). How we first started to explain the world, relying mostly on supernatural explanations.

2100–400 BCE: The Epic Poem

(the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad). Episodic narratives in which the gods interact with people, with man at the center of the story.

500–400 BCE: Classical Tragedy

(The Oresteia, Oedipus the King, Medea). Murder, incest, revenge, and the tragic flaw. Aristotle wrote in Poetics that they ideally preserved “the three unities” — of action (one story), time (one day), and place (one location).

1350–1450: Framed Vernacular Stories

(The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales). With the breakup of Latin and the very beginning of “modern” Europe, writers began compiling often bawdy, irreverent stories under baggy framing devices.

1450–1550: The Chivalric Romance

(The Death of Arthur, Amadís de Gaula). A marriage of heroic saga and earthy romance, these were the first stories written mostly in prose.

16th century: The Picaresque

(Don Quixote). Technically, this loose structure of roving misadventures was born with the anonymous novella Lazarillo de Tormes; Cervantes popularized the style (while also satirizing the chivalric romance).

1590s: Parallel Plots

Shakespeare didn’t invent modern drama — or really most of his plots — but he pioneered the practice of moving several stories through the same place and time.

1700–1750: The “True” Novel

(Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Tom Jones). The first fully coherent realist plots — rise, climax, and fall — often pretended to be even realer than they were.

MID-18th CENTURY: The Comic Metastory

(Tristram Shandy, Candide). Satire and experiment predated modern formal play by a couple of centuries.

1764: The Supernatural

(Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto).

1813: The Marriage Plot

Pride and Prejudice was the Ur–marriage plot — the winding tale of a woman’s road to saying “yes” — but Jane Austen’s entire body of work points to her larger (quite modern) project of capturing (and gently satirizing) the mores of the day.

MID-19th CENTURY: Urban Social Panorama

(Balzac, Dickens, Hugo): Ambition was the primal drive and a core subject of capacious plots that traveled up and down the social strata of industrial cities.

MID-19th CENTURY: The Detective Story

(“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” The Woman in White). Following Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins pioneered the mystery genre at novel length, and Arthur Conan Doyle later introduced the procedural with Sherlock Holmes.

1860s–1870s: The Moral-Anguish Plot

(Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina). Two very different thick Russian novels move the realist plot inward.

LATE-19th CENTURY: Science Fiction

(Journey to the Center of the Earth, War of the Worlds).

1910s–1920s: Stream of Consciousness

(Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, In Search of Lost Time). A new avant-garde redefined plot as the not-always-linear progress of a mind as it processes the world.

1920s–1930s: Noir

(Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler). Hardboiled and noir fiction complicated Agatha Christie’s neat puzzles.

1930s–1940s: Dystopia

(Brave New World, 1984). Aldous Huxley and George Orwell helped bring the premises of sci-fi to bear on the question of how the individual interacts with society at its future worst.

1950s: The Fantasy Quest

(The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings). The quest goes into worlds never seen before, though they may resemble medieval and ancient folklore.

1960s: Autofiction

(Marguerite Duras, Karl Ove Knausgaard). This term for thinly veiled autobiography was only coined decades after Marguerite Duras wrote Hiroshima Mon Amour and decades before Knausgaard made it his own.

1967: Modern Folklore

(One Hundred Years of Solitude). Jorge Luis Borges and other Latin American writers spent the preceding decades marrying supernatural native folklore to European realism, but Gabriel García Márquez’s best seller made “magical realism” a big thing.

1960s–1970s: Metafiction

(Robert Coover, Slaughterhouse-­Five, Gravity’s Rainbow). Postmodernism opened plots up to elements that winked at the reader in self-conscious ways.

1984: Cyberpunk

(Neuromancer): This subset of sci-fi juxtaposes the picaresque with the dystopian and sets up a world in which technology outpaces society’s ability to cope with it.

It was Aristotle who first called plot “the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy.” (The elements of less importance for him are character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song.) He was writing about Greek drama, but we can apply his ideas to novels, though he considered narrative works, particularly epic ones, inferior to tragedy. There’s something hostile to the bagginess of the novel in Aristotle’s notion that the best works are those in which nothing can be  subtracted without the meaning being lost. A more generous theory of plot arrived about a century ago in Russia. The Formalists Vladimir Propp and Victor Shklovsky held that every work of fiction has a fabula and a syuzhet. The fabula is the set of fictional events related within or implied by the work; the syuzhet is the manner in which the fictional information of the fabula is conveyed to the reader. Together they constitute the plot.

There’s something beautiful to me about the concept of the fabula. Every narrative implies an entire world beyond the confines of the narrative, and another history stretching backward and forward in time forever. Thus books proliferate that enter into other books’ fabula to fill in backstories, portray familiar events from other perspectives, and see characters on to further escapades. Television spinoffs and movie-franchise universes operate within shared fabula, and great care is taken not to violate the illusion of a consistent fictional world. Lots of people, after all, are keeping track.

Theorists of plot tend to think of the concept elastically. If plot is the arrangement of incident, each incident itself is also a plot in miniature. The crucial question is the level of causality linking the incidents — or if not causality, the appearance of design, as in Aristotle’s example of the murderer of Mitys dying when a statue of Mitys falls on him. Paradoxically, he says, tragic wonder is greater when it happens by accident.

Aristotle scorned the epic, but he would have hated television. “Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst,” he wrote. An episodic structure tends to do away with any causal link between the episodes. It’s a string of plots where all the conditions are reset between episodes, and each character returns to his or her mean. Of course, seriality is something else: an episodic structure nested within larger plot arcs — more a linked chain than a string of beads.

Prestige television inherited this structure from the 19th-century novel. Many are enthralled by this development — novelists like Jonathan Franzen among them — but the parallel development of binge-watching has exposed some of the seams of the serial television drama. Binge-watch Breaking Bad and you’ll notice that Walter and Jesse will often reverse their stances on the meth-cooking business every few hours. What would the writers do with them if they weren’t constantly getting out and then being pulled, or jumping, back in? Even The Sopranos shows its reliance on formula if you watch it quickly enough. Rapid rotation of personnel within Tony’s crew means there’s always some problem capo around whom it’ll take a season for somebody to whack. Aristotle thought a tragedy should unfold over the natural course of a day — so perhaps he would have been a fan of 24.

Literature’s Very Worst Endings

Endings are very, very hard. Pressure, didacticism, human frailty — the greater question is less why books disappoint than why any succeed. Each of these is a good book written by someone of great skill who, for whatever reason, choked, rushed, or otherwise ran a narrative off a cliff. Like all such things, the list is completely arbitrary and personal. Oh, and, spoiler alert, I guess.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn By Mark Twain

Some wish to believe that Mr. Twain knew exactly what he was doing – that after hundreds of pages of deliberate moral ambiguity, he made the subversive decision not to end with Huck’s awakening to escaped slave Jim’s humanity. Hemingway recommended readers just skip the final chapters.

A Farewell to Arms By Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was one to talk. The neat death of nurse Catherine Barkley in childbirth is a thoroughly crummy copout and a prime example of Female Character Sacrifice.

Gone Girl By gillian flynn

Gillian Flynn created a complex, genuinely interesting heroine. And then proceeded to turn her into an untrammeled — yet one-dimensional! — psychopath.

Little Women By louisa may alcott

As disappointing an ending as exists in literature. Alcott didn’t want her independent Jo to marry fan-favorite Laurie: Fine. Author’s prerogative. But in marrying Jo off to the priggish (and famously unsexy) Professor Bhaer, she broke the hearts of generations of readers.

The Return of the Native By Thomas Hardy

Like several Hardy heroines, the rebellious Eustacia Vye is sacrificed for sexual transgressions; her suicide punishes a fallen woman a little too neatly. And the epilogue just adds insult to injury. (They often do.)

Our Mutual Friend By Charles Dickens

Dickens’s last completed novel is one of his most fun. Until, that is, he lays on a triple-whammy of cheat-y twists: the old “miser was testing his heirs all along” saw, and not one but two lost wills coming to light. It’s Dickens, so he gets away with it, but really it’s a bit much.

The Pursuit of Love By Nancy Mitford

Mitford’s best and funniest book contains, for my money, her worst ending—the novel changes tone at the end and degenerates into what feels like total, wistful wish-fulfillment. (Also, people are unnecessarily killed off.)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows By J.K. Rowling

If books are difficult to end well, series are near-impossible, and Rowling gets high sangfroid marks for wrapping up Harry Potter in a timely and competent – if uninspired -- fashion. (Mockingjay presents the unhappy alternative.) But it can’t be denied that the last volume of the saga is the least inventive. Add to that a dreary epilogue that gives us dull, grown-up versions of the beloved characters and it’s no wonder fans are clamoring for prequels.

London Fields By Martin Amis

Does Amis have us right where we wants us, clothing his acid, linguistically ingenious postmodern noir in the lurid trappings of ironic genre narrative? Or does the deterministic conceit ultimately result in exactly the languor he’s been exploiting for 200 pages?

The Broom of the System By David Foster Wallace

I know, this is kind of cheap. DFW’s honors thesis turned debut is not conventional fiction. But that showy last line (“I’m a man of my”) feels unworthy.

The Song of the Lark By willa cather

A tip-off that this ending isn’t up to snuff may be found in the section title: “Kronborg: Ten Years Later.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland By lewis carroll

It was all a dream. Enough said.

Many revolutions have tried to put plot in its grave, and tried to replace it with intellectual or aesthetic dazzle, but it always returns zombielike, and suddenly we’re again reading books that end with weddings. “All plots tend to move deathward,” Jack Gladney says in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. “This is the nature of plots.” Of course, a marriage is its own kind of death, the death of the individual in the union of a couple. That’s the sort of death that gives people hope for the future, and it’s a plot’s power to trigger the emotional release — catharsis — that Aristotle values. Tragedy’s power rested in its ability to stir feelings of terror and pity in an audience. Unlike Plato, who thought the emotional manipulations of poets a danger to society, Aristotle saw emotional release as a healthy thing — a way to purge the heart of pity and terror before going to war, where such feelings are a liability.

What sort of feelings do we look for from plots today? On television, it’s been well documented, we’ve watched an era of criminal males enacting power fantasies at a time when patriarchy seems to be waning. I’ve seen a different pattern, another prevailing feeling recently in literature, both in novels I’ve admired and many I’ve detested. The feeling is shame. Many fictions these days are animated by a shameful trauma lurking in the fabula, but typically undisclosed until the reader is half or three-quarters of the way through the work. The strange thing about such shame-inducing secrets is that they exist apart and without a direct causal link to the rest of the fictional events but still exert an overpowering distortionary force on subsequent events: Plots become sand castles washed away in a tide of shame. Jay Gatsby had a shameful secret too — that his fortune was criminal. He wanted to get rich in order to marry Daisy. He ended up a corpse floating in a pool.

*A version of this article appears in the August 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.