Most definitions of plot are not helpful. One of my Clarion West teachers said that plot is an effect that emerges from other elements of a story, of character motivation and conflict and so on. He’s a very famous writer and knows his stuff, but I still don’t get what he was saying there.
Here’s my definition of plot: “Plot is the demonstration that the shortest distance from point A to point B is not the straight line it appears to be.” (Corollary: “Your characters really want to go from point A to point B.”) You do not need a plot. You only need to generate tension in the reader, but a plot usually helps.
Here are some non-plots and a plot:
1. A guy sits on point A and thinks vainly about going to point B. This is avant garde, daring (of the writer), and boring. You have to have a lot of style to pull it off, but why would you try?
2. A guy walks straight from point A to point B. This is a story with progression but no plot. This is a non-plot, because there is no surprise revelation that the shortest distance from A to B is not a straight line.
3. Same as two but the guy doesn’t walk a straight line for some reason. This is also a non-plot, but f’ing irritating because you wasted our time.
4. A woman wants to go from point A through a door to point B. She finds the door is locked, so she has to get a key from her desk. She goes and gets the key and opens the door. This is a bit closer to a plot than three, but not much. It may seem that the character did not walk the apparent straight line, but, really, anyone who didn’t foresee the door would be locked is a dumbass, and anyway once you see what the true progression is, the distance from A to key to B is just what it appears to be.
5. Same as four but there is a monster chasing the woman. She tries the door and it’s locked. She has to evade the monster to get the key. The monster forces her to take a route to the key and back that she could not have foreseen. This is not quite a plot. How about, in going to get the key, she is forced to run into the bathroom, where there’s a note from her husband saying he borrowed the key from her desk and put it back on its hook in the kitchen.
So let’s test my idea about plot against successful stories. How about Star Wars? The plot is that the rebels want to get the Death Star plans from Tatooine orbit (A) and use them to eliminate the Death Star (B). The plot isn’t fully revealed until the Falcon approaches the rebel base and Leia tells the crew that R2 is carrying the Death Star plans. There are subplots in Star Wars, but the plot is very simple… or is it? We see that the shortest distance from Tatooine to the exploding Death Star involves the plans moving to the surface of Tatooine, to a Jawa sandcrawler, to a farm, to a hut, to a spaceport, to the former position of Alderaan, to the Death Star, to the Rebel Base, where they are interpreted so that Luke can blow up the Death Star and fulfill his destiny as the vector of Death Star destruction.
Or how about The Hobbit? The plot is that the party wants to go from Hobbiton (A) to Mt. Erebor and kill the dragon in his lair (B). The straight line would have gotten them killed, so it was no good. Instead, they needed detours to pick up magic swords and get a ring of invisibility. The Lord of the Rings likewise has a twisty shortest-path-to-the-goal of dumping the ring in Mt. Doom. A plot works alongside motivation and character development, but it’s really a separate thing, unless it’s so-called “character-driven,” but I don’t think a plot is really character driven, though a story can be.
(Now why do we respond to plots? I have an idea about that for later, but basically because evolution is the negotiation of plot in a very physical sense, and being able to appreciate plots and learn from them has high fitness value.)
A plot does not make a story, and a story really doesn’t need a plot. A story, I submit, is a revelation of character, that is, what the character has been or what they’re capable of becoming. Another of my Clarion West teachers said that a story is about a change in character. I think her definition was too limited.
All these great writing teachers giving dubious advice — I guess you shouldn’t trust any self-styled writing experts…. D’oh!