For the third part in my four part series on literary basics, I’d like to discuss something I consider to be one of the biggest areas for misunderstandings. Although characters are what drive my own work and reading, plot is just as important as character to a story. Therefore it’s important for everyone to understand what plot encompasses.
The basic definition of Plot is it is the actual story with a beginning, middle, and end. Easy enough to understand and most stories follow the classic three-act structure. The beginning is sometimes referred to as the exposition and on average comprises about 15% of the story. Setting, conflict, and the main character are introduced here. Next comes the middle which, not surprisingly, makes up a bulk of a story. Through chapters we get rising action as our main character climbs toward the apex of the story. Then our main character spends a few chapters in falling action working toward the ending. Finally, we have the ending, which like the beginning, usually makes up a small percentage of the overall story. While there are plenty of examples of novels experimenting with beginning, middle, and end, the very definition of plot cannot be confusing. However, it’s when we start digging more into plot and its elements that confusion starts.
Let’s start off easy with what a subplot is. A subplot is a mini-story contained within the main plot. A subplot or subplots may or may not involve the protagonist but should be something that somehow serves the overall plot in addition to aiding in character development.
Next, let’s talk about what a plot device is. A plot device is an object or even a person which propels the protagonist, antagonist, or both forward in the plot. This is a rather vague definition so one way to think of it is to give an example. For example, the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings books is what Frodo believes his ultimate goal to be.
The category of plot device is surprisingly denser then one would believe. For example, a type of plot device is something known as a MacGuffin. A term coined by Alfred Hitchcock, it refers to an object whose pursuit isn’t actually essential to the story. For example, when reading a spy novel, the essential papers which could prove who the mole is seem the most important when in reality it in the search for those papers that’s important. The object itself isn’t the point of the story and it’s the chase that is truly the plot.
Deus ex machina is another plot device and one that greatly irks many readers. More commonly referred to as the Hand of God, it is a concept dating back to ancient Greece when an actor would be lowered by a crane onto to the stage as a God to magically resolve and end the story. Even back then audiences were bothered as it comes across as the author realizing he or she has painted himself or herself into a corner and couldn’t come up with a better resolution. What to do? Poof! Magically swoop in and just make everything better.
Finally, another kind of plot device is the red herring. Mostly used in mysteries and thrillers, it is a way to throw the main character (and reader) off the trail of the real killer or evil plot. Usually the red herring is a person but can also be an object.
There are many other kinds of plot devices but these are a few of the most common types.
Now we get to the one term which makes me cringe when I hear it and that is plot hole. A plot hole is a logical inconsistency within the context of the world of the story. This can include statements and actions which contradict stated facts and that have not been developed to make the current situation plausible. It can also refer to actions and events never hinted at but by using deus ex machina everything is right with the world.
Why this makes me cringe is often times when I hear it mentioned is by people who use it as a means to explain their personal dislike of a character’s action or outcome of the story. Apparently not liking something is the equivalent to a plot hole. Even when whatever it is explained by actions and dialogue earlier in the story, somehow it must still be a plot hole because “I said so and don’t accept your attempt at discounting my opinion with facts.”
Sometimes this term is used when a person doesn’t understand something. It’s okay to not understand everything which happens in a story. It’s hard to catch it all and one of the nice things about literature is through reasonable discussion with others or re-reading, our understanding becomes clearer. That being said, it is not a plot hole if as a reader you don’t understand. It’s highly possible the author didn’t make something clear. But again, it’s not necessarily a plot hole.
As you can see within the world of plot it is quite robust. However, once the terms are known and understood we all become better readers and writers. As with the other literary elements I’ve already discussed, without a firm grasp on plot one cannot fully enjoy the story the author has written for us.