Plot in Literary Fiction


Commentary by Karen Bernardo


Most people think that authors, when they write fiction, begin with a plot. This is actually very seldom true. Many stories and novels, particularly in this century, do not have a formal plot structure at all, although they do have an internal consistency. Let’s contrast a very formally plotted novel like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with an almost plotless one like James Joyce’s Ulysses.


In Heart of Darkness, the narrator, Marlow, embarks on a quest in search of a cultivated but mysterious white man, Mr. Kurtz, who is said to have penetrated the deepest part of Africa in search of ivory. After many adventures, Marlow finds Kurtz, who turns out to be thoroughly evil —nothing like what Marlow expected when he began his search. But when Marlow returns to England after Kurtz’ death, he finds he cannot tell Kurtz’ fiancé what a monster her beloved had become, and he lies to protect the woman’s illusions.


Ulysses is also a quest story, but Joyce chooses as his model Homer’s Odyssey, hence the book’s name (Ulysses is another word for Odysseus). In Ulysses, the protagonist, Leopold Bloom, does virtually nothing except wander around Dublin. He has no great adventures, and yet his tiny ones in some way mirror the adventures of Odysseus, and the novel’s episodic structure very much recalls Homer’s epic. It also mirrors the structure of our own lives—a series of occurrences and revelations, with no marked beginning, middle, or end.

So which is better? A formal plot or no plot at all? There’s no easy answer to that question. Most genre fiction, like mysteries and romances, require a tightly-structured plot. But for literary fiction, neither the picaresque structure of Ulysses nor the tight, formal structure of Heart of Darkness is preferable in and of itself; each suits its very different subject and tone, and in each case the author was in complete control of the pacing of his work and the unfolding of its unique characteristics.


To be able to maintain all the requirements of a good literary work in perfect balance—while creating something that is both important and moving—is no mean feat. Novice writers often begin with a ready-made “synopsis” around which they try to fit the other components of the story as if they were assembling a jigsaw puzzle. This method generally results in a rather shallow story. A good story begins with compelling characters “brought to life” in such a way that we are immersed in both their outer behavior and inner thoughts. As these characters take on a life of their own, they will behave in ways that are inevitable for them (and which may surprise even their creator!). The result, however, will be a satisfying story.



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