When we start reading a story (or watching one), we usually have some idea what it’s about. Chances are we picked it up based on a back-cover blurb or advertisement, or a review. But the blurbs and ads are often “teasers,” aimed at drawing us in and getting us to start the story. They may not really tell us where the plot is headed.
The genre may also give us a clue. If the tale is presented as a mystery, we expect a crime (generally a murder) which will be solved. If it’s a thriller or action epic, we’re prepared for physical challenges and victories. In a romance, we anticipate a successful love affair. But the details are unknown. And in stories without a strong genre identification, we may be less sure about where the story is going.
Consider the James Bond movies. Typically the film opens with an action sequence that may have little to do with the main plot. We can get quite a few minutes into the film before we know what the real plot is. There’s no danger of deterring us from watching; we all know what a James Bond story is like—that’s why we’re there. The action sequence is merely a genre-appropriate appetizer while we wait to get into the main story.
What I’m interested in here is the reader’s developing sense of what the main action or conflict is: what goings-on will make up the main business of the story. It’s not as intangible as the theme or “meaning” of the tale. It’s more concrete than that: the overall shape of the plot.
Some stories start out with one kind of plot, morph into another, and then take off in a third direction. This can result in a certain amount of reader whiplash, though an adroit author can carry it off. She may even gain points for taking the reader on a ride through unexpected twists and turns.
Diana Wynne Jones’s The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988) is my favorite example. The first segment of this children’s fantasy novel is reminiscent of Dickens: the young Christopher, neglected by his parents, is used by a scheming uncle to bring back forbidden goods from alternate worlds. In the second phase of the book, Christopher is sent to a boarding school, where magic is one of the subjects routinely taught. This section recalls the classic British schoolboy tale, with the addition of magic; it’s a sort of predecessor of (and perhaps inspiration for) Harry Potter, which Jones’s book predates by about twelve years. The third part of the novel develops into a high-fantasy epic conflict. At the end Christopher is selected for the future role of “Chrestomanci,” a Sorcerer Supreme position in the British government.
On first reading, I found it a bit of a swerve to go from the narrative of a difficult childhood to that of a genial school-days story. When this evolved into a magical conflict of epic proportions, I was surprised again. But the story held together through the continuity of the strongly sympathetic character Christopher (and his alternate-universe friend Millie). The shifts in tone seemed natural concomitants of Christopher’s growing up and grappling with more mature problems.
In fact, starting on a small scale and gradually building up to grander events made the grander events more plausible, as in The Lord of the Rings. While the opening section of Christopher Chant wasn’t exactly realistic, the issues were more limited and personal. You had the sense of gradual expansion as the story went along.
C.S. Lewis provides a more pronounced example of this effect in the last novel of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945). The novel starts out with extremely mundane matters of domestic ennui and academic politics. This establishes such a sense of realism and naturalness that the later fantastic developments, involving everything from cosmic entities and biological abominations to Merlin and Atlantis, gain plausibility from being built on so familiar a foundation.
Uncertainty About the Narrator
Another kind of story where it may be hard at first to make out the nature of the plot is the tale with an unreliable narrator.
Jo Walton’s Among Others (winner of the Best Novel Hugo Award in 2012) is a fantasy, but it’s set in the present day and much of the action is mundane. The main character, Morgana, is convinced that her mother is a witch. But for most of the book, I wasn’t entirely sure that was true; there was a distinct possibility that Mori was an unreliable narrator who was imagining the whole thing. Nor was it clear how the threat was going to be addressed. I only really grasped what the narrative arc was around p. 291 out of 302 pages—that is, at the very end.
The uncertainty didn’t impair my enjoyment of the story. Mori is an extremely sympathetic character, especially for those of us who loved F&SF back when those genres were considered odd and fans were regarded as uncool nerds. And the events of the tale are fascinating even when you aren’t quite sure they’re real. But the ambivalence of the plot kept me from forming a clear opinion about the book until the end.
The Nested or Layered Story
Occasionally a story will contain one or more other storylines—not like the explicit play within a play that occurs briefly in Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but more subtly interwoven. This structure can make it hard to detect where the real plot of the overall story is.
In Patti Callahan’s Once Upon a Wardrobe, an Oxford student’s younger brother, who doesn’t have long to live, asks her to find out where the idea of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (then just published) came from. The student, Meg Devonshire, tracks down the author, C.S. Lewis, and is drawn into hearing the story of Lewis’s life from Lewis himself. Sequences describing Lewis’s personal history are thus sandwiched with Meg’s reports to her brother. With the informal reportage building up to a kind of epiphany, one almost doesn’t notice that Meg’s own story is building toward a romance with a fellow student. The intertwined narrative arcs make it hard to guess in advance where the book will end up.
Much more complex is Jo Walton’s 2020 book Or What You Will, described in Wikipedia as a “metafictional fantasy novel.” The first-person narrator is a kind of character archetype in the mind of fantasy author Sylvia Harrison, the basis of characters in many of her stories. (The similarity of the imaginary Harrison’s oeuvre to that of the real-life Walton adds a further recursive layer to the story.) Fragments of Harrison’s personal history are intermixed with chapters about the story Harrison is writing, and also with the (fictional?) narrator’s plan to deliver Harrison from a fatal illness that may make this her last writing. Given these very different types of story, coexisting in the same book, it’s hard to know what kind of resolution we might expect. Yet in the end, as with Callahan’s book, the story works.
The Side Quest That Takes Over
We also see cases where what originally seemed to be a minor side trip or interruption turns out to be the main plot of the whole story. This can be irritating if we’re invested in what we thought was the original tale, and are waiting with mounting impatience for the interlude to conclude so as to get on with it. At some point we need to realize that the apparent side trip or side quest is the point.
I had that reaction when first reading Howl’s Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones, 1986). Near the beginning, the young heroine, Sophie, is magically transformed into an elderly woman. Somehow I didn’t expect that transformation to last long. But in fact Sophie continues as an old woman for almost the entire novel. It took me a while to stop waiting for the transformation to be reversed and to accept it as a central feature of the plot.
Sometimes this is a matter of mistaking the main preoccupation of the author. David Weber’s Safehold series starts with the premise that alien invaders, attracted by Earth’s burgeoning technology, have wiped out the human race, with the exception of a secret colony planted on a distant Earthlike planet in hopes of growing back to a level capable of dealing with the invaders. The refugee world Safehold is deliberately kept under a rigid theocracy which suppresses technology, originally to avoid detection by the enemy, but later going far beyond that motive to a permanent proscription. One might expect that the main plotline of the series would involve reacquiring high technology and re-engaging the invaders. But so far the series has progressed through ten bulky books devoted almost entirely to detailing the military and political campaigns of a sort of Protestant Revolution to overthrow the dominant theocracy. I’m still waiting for the lengthy storyline to wrap around back to the plotline I want to see developed.
Similarly, John Ringo’s “Council Wars” series starts with an intriguing premise in which a high-tech near-future civilization on Earth collapses into a kind of pseudo-medieval chaos due to a conflict among the ruling council. In the initial high-tech utopia, people have entertained themselves by (among other things) participating in live-action game-playing, which involved biologically engineering dragons, randomly hiding useful minerals in artificial mountains, and so forth. The opening conflict thus sets up a situation in which the main characters need to operate in something rather like a D&D game or fantasy world, dragons and all, which they’d initially created themselves but no longer control. What baffled me as this story developed (four books so far) was that Ringo was more interested in military-SF preoccupations—what would combat be like using aircraft carriers with dragons instead of aircraft?—rather than riffing on the fantasy tropes themselves.
Defying Narrative Conventions
In some cases, writers seem to be determined to depart from traditional narrative conventions in ways that make the storyline obscure. I’m generally skeptical about such attempted departures—they often seem mannered or artificial—but there’s no denying they sometimes produce interesting results. Or What You Will, cited above, is an example of an odd approach that nonetheless presents an engrossing and satisfying tale.
This Is How You Lose the Time War, a Hugo-winning 2019 novella, is a peculiar kind of epistolary story that consists of deliberately obscure messages left for each other by two time-traveling agents of opposing empires. It’s not clear at first where the story is going, and the message-writing format deprives the reader of the background information that might normally help establish what’s going on. But Time War eventually develops into a kind of romance, as well as a meditation on war and politics, that’s definitely worth reading.
There Is No Plot
Finally, there’s a class of stories that don’t actually have an overall plot at all. This isn’t necessarily a fault, but can be a virtue: “a feature, not a bug.” In these kinds of stories, our natural tendency to look for a plot is bound to be frustrated.
A fellow writer on Critique Circle, reading Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, expressed puzzlement about the plot of the book. I responded that it’s like Winnie-the-Pooh: a collection of linked but separate episodes that don’t actually have an overall plot. There is a sort of overall character arc for Christopher Robin, but it’s not really a plot—just as The Wind in the Willows develops a coherent plot only toward the end, within the background created by a set of separate episodes. My fellow writer, who was quite familiar with children’s stories, grasped the point at once from the Pooh analogy.
We also find the occasional short story that’s essentially a mood piece, evoking an emotion without actually depicting a sequence of events. In the science fiction canon, good examples include Arthur C. Clarke’s “History Lesson,” a meditation on the transience of the human species, and Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a moving story depicting the aftermath of a nuclear war. In these short pieces, however, there isn’t enough time to build up much readerly expectation to be frustrated; it quickly becomes clear that the point of the story is to express a mood rather than to tell a tale.
When the plotline of a story doesn’t immediately become clear, or is subverted, the best advice may be simply to roll with it and see what happens. And I give myself that advice occasionally when I’m puzzled with a tale.
This does, however, require us to trust the author. Knowing an author’s work can give me confidence that taking the time to read will be worth it in the end. Hearing that an author or a work is highly regarded by others may, to a lesser degree, give us a similar confidence. If the author is new to us, though, that trust may be harder to come by. Lacking a sense of direction, we may give up on a story prematurely. If a writer isn’t going to meet the reader’s ordinary expectations about where a story is going, they’ll need to find other ways to reassure the reader that the tale is worth the investment of time.