Any Discussion of plot must begin with the drawing of crucial distinction between plot and narrative. E. M. Forster formulated the difference most memorably. He observed that if we write “The king died, and the queen died,” we have a narrative, but if we write, instead, “The king died, and the queen died of grief,” then we have a plot. The second assertion has established a link of cause between the two events. And this, the making of connections, or designs, is the essence of storytelling. Narrative is simply a record of what happened. For narrative to become a plot must reveal its meaning in human terms. Events only become interesting, which is to say relevant to our understanding of life, when we see their effect upon people, or, in the case of fiction, upon characters.
This is not to say, however, that the writer always explains the connection of events to lives. That task is quite often left to the reader; it is the puzzle that we try to solve as we read and that draws us more deeply into the world of the story. The writer may, indeed, deliberately present a narrative sequence in such a way that it falls to the reader to assemble it into a plot.
Narrative is what it told; plot is how the material is shaped to affect the reader. Events unfold in sequence: one thing happens, then another. But stories are very often told in different order. A writer may choose to tell us right away that two men had a fight and that one of the men was killed, and only then step back in time to show what circumstances provoked the incident. How the story gets told depends upon the effect the writer desires. It may be the case the writer is less interested in the drama of physical combat, and more concerned with the changing relationship between two old friends. By revealing the fight and the death at the outset, the writer has determined the way we will experience the story of the relationship. We will understand the whole pattern of their relations as marking out a path toward betrayal and confrontation. Another writer, looking to create a different response, might narrate the events in sequence, possibly even trying to surprise the reader with the outcome. The basic elements are more or less the same, but how they are used, or plotted, makes a tremendous difference.
Changing the natural sequence of events is only one of the writer’s plot options. The use of multiple narrators is another. Suppose that the writer is less interested in what happened than in the different ways that people perceive events. Why not tell the same story twice, or three times, allowing variations to emerge in each person’s telling?
The writer may also choose to tell several stories at once, making use of parallel plots or subplots. A parallel plot generally tells two stories of equal importance, moving from one to the other and back again; a subplot tends to be secondary, often taking the form of a story told by a character within the story. Both of these strategies are common with in novels, but are less often encountered in the short story. The reason is simple. Two or more plots can only resonate off each other where there is ample narrative space. Building a short story around two plots is like having two large families living together in a small apartment – it’s possible, but it’s not easy.
The short story, by and large, tends to move toward what Edgar Allan Poe called “the single effect,” a culmination that pulls together a resolves the tensions created by the characters and their circumstances. And what is quite remarkable is that for all of the diverse technical options open to the writer, most stories still conform to what we think of as the classic short story form. It would seem that there is a time-tested way to engage and hold a reader, and that an author takes certain risk in disregarding it.
The classic pattern, from which our fundamental descriptive terms are derived,
is linear, with beginning, middle, and end coming in natural sequence.
There is a set-up, or exposition, in which the characters and their situations
are introduced. This followed by the rising action, which poses and
intensifies the complications, building toward a climax. The climax
is the moment of maximum tension, the point after which the circumstances
must change. After the climax comes the resolution, also known as
the falling action, which shows the consequences. The resolution
tells the reader how things turned out, answering the inevitable question
“What finally happened?” Sometimes an author will attach a further
explanation so that the reader makes no mistake about the meaning of the
outcome. This is the denouement, which is a French term that literally
means “unraveling.” Most authors, though, especially modern authors,
prefer to leave the meaning and implications for the reader. They
favor a policy of indirection; that is, they would rather suggest than