“Plot” (by Robert Cummins)

Colorado-based author Robert Cummins has had a successful academic career, and has now turned his pen (which authored four books from MIT and Oxford Press as well as sixty articles) to fiction writing. His two novels—Hariq, a Cold War spy thriller, and The Finder, a detective mystery—are available in Kindle format on Amazon. He makes his professional paid fiction debut in our Department of First Stories of our March/April 2021 issue (on sale next week), and here he discusses plot and what it means in a mystery.—Janet Hutchings

If you look up ‘plot’ in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, this is what you get (slightly edited):

Definition of plot
1aa small area of planted ground a vegetable plot
ba small piece of land in a cemetery
ca measured piece of land LOT
3: the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work)
4[perhaps back-formation from complot: a secret plan for accomplishing a usually evil or unlawful end : INTRIGUE
5a graphic representation (such as a chart)

(transitive verb)
1ato make a plot, map, or plan of
bto mark or note on or as if on a map or chart
2to lay out in plots (see PLOT ENTRY 1 SENSE 1)
3to locate (a point) by means of coordinates, or to locate (a curve) by plotted points
cto represent (an equation) by means of a curve so constructed
4: to plan or contrive especially secretly
5: to invent or devise the plot of (something, such as a movie or a literary work)

(intransitive verb)
1to form a plot SCHEME
2to be located by means of coordinates the data plot at a single point.

The items in bold are the senses most relevant to mystery writers. Your plot (3a) may involve a character who plots (4, or perhaps 5) to do something, or a storyline that involves, but neither of these really gets at the concept that is relevant to mystery stories, the sense of “plot” in which mystery stories, some of them anyway, have ingenious or clever or complex plots, or transparent plots that allow us to figure out who done it and how and way way too soon, thus undermining the suspense.

“Suspense” isn’t really the right word here, though, suggesting, as it does, an anticipation of something bad or unwanted. A good plot, in the sense of the word I am interested in here, keeps us in the dark, or relative uncertainty about how things are going to turnout in a story that makes us care, for one reason or another, how things will turn out. But there is more to it than that. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), as the title suggests, has no plot in the sense I am trying to isolate. We wonder (or even worry) whether Denisovich will make it through the day. There is no mystery here, although there is, or could be, an element of suspense, and there is no plot in the sense of the word I am trying to isolate, though there is certainly a story with a beginning, middle, and end that includes a kind of resolution—fragile though it is. Imagine a procedural in which we know from the start who did it, but are simply let through the process that actually identifies the culprit. One could say of such a story that it has no plot, or just that it has a really bad or disappointing one. A good plot keeps us guessing, and keeps us guessing because we want to know the answer.

Imagine a  How Done It in which we know from the start who did it and why. This could be a very engaging story, of course, hinging, for example, on character development/discovery. But it has no plot in the sense of the word I am trying to isolate. The only mystery that gets resolved is how it was done, and perhaps, how the character(s) evolve and change.

Here is a short list of fictional works of various lengths. I think you will find it relatively easy to pick out the ones that have a good plot. (If you haven’t read them, you should, but you can probably answer the question by reading a synopsis online.)

  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – le Carre
  • The Drowning Pool – Ross Macdonald.
  • Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Affair at the Bungalow – Agatha Christie
  • The Jewel That Was Ours  – Colin Dexter
  • Macbeth – William Shakespeare
  • Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare

To repeat, having a good plot is neither necessary or sufficient for being a good, or even a great, story, as even this short list illustrates.

I have heard it argued that plot matters less in movies or TV because it is possible to make up for a weak plot with great cinematography. But this misses the point, which is simply that a story that should have a good plot, but doesn’t, isn’t saved by great visuals or anything else. It doesn’t matter how beautifully the story was filmed if the story needs a great plot and doesn’t have one.

Consider the following two opening lines of a query to a literary agent:

  1. How far would you go to protect your daughter?
  2. How would a father who flips houses for a living go about protecting his daughter from a football star who is the son of the local crime boss?

Number two is going to need a good plot, whereas one really can’t tell from number one.

I am fond of mysteries in part because I love a good plot, and mysteries are more likely to have them than, say romance novels, currently the best-selling genre according to  Writers Write.

I would love to see a good definition of “plot” used in the sense I have been trying to identity. If you look online, what you will likely find is an identification of plot with story line, e.g., this one form seattle piSo, perhaps I am looking for something that doesn’t exist. But I don’t think so. When someone comments about a story—whether a short story or a novel—that it has a really great plot, I don’t think they are saying that it has a really good “storyline.” What could that mean beyond the claim that it is a really good story?  The stories in the list above all have good storylines, i.e., they are all good stories. But not all of them have a good plot. Nor should they. That’s not, for example, what Dostoevsky was after in Crime and Punishment.

So send me your definitions, or good reasons why there can’t be one, by commenting on this post with your thoughts.

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