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How complex does plot really need to be?


(TL;DR in bold) Whenever someone complains about a bad story and pins it on the plot, I always have this sense that "plot" is a red herring on why the story was bad. Every element forms a great ouroboros of ouroboros...s? For the reader criticizing the work, identifying the plot is kind of an exercise in hindsight bias and contrivance.

I've always been of the philosophy that...well...this isn't quite true but if I think too long about it I'll take an hour to even spell the word "the" in the first sentence: plot doesn't matter. This is despite the fact that if your story is bad your plot is probably bad. Again, please give me some leeway on that scandalous three word sentence. It's not quite what I mean.

There are two stories that, to me, highlight this idea very well in seemingly opposed ways. One, at least to me, kinda flies in the face of "plot". For the other, if you were the kinda person who thinks of stories in a purely analytical sense that zeroed in on plot, this story would be objectively terrible. It's the most basic, "lazy" plot there is. And yet it clearly isn't a bad story. They are: Pulp Fiction and Avatar, the Last Airbender.

For me, even if Tarantino didn't intend this, Pulp Fiction is a straight up case study of this idea. The very name of the movie seems to denigrate it if you subscribe to the idea of plot needing to be inherently solid on its own. There's a briefcase that glows when you open it, and you never even find out what's inside of it. The story doesn't follow a linear path at all. There's no overarching reason established for why you should care what's going on. This movie really resonates with that idea that "plot doesn't matter." And also with some ideas presented elsewhere in this thread about how characters themselves are the entire reason for the plot mattering.

For Avatar, the synopsis of the entire show reads like a dirty criticism of a terrible story. "Chosen one gets forced into a quest of mastering his magic and taking down the dark lord." You could write that in a much more derogatory way, but there you go.

The true answer, I think, is just a very difficult one. It requires you to be cognitively "uncomfortable"; it's work. And yet, instead of making this wall of text even longer, I'll sum it up in one word: fidelity. I know, that's a crazy vague statement. But that's what it is. A story is good if it's got high fidelity. With the characters, their motivations, how they react to the environment...etc. I'm of the opinion that you can write a million compelling stories about an orphaned boy wizard with a pet owl going to a school for magic. And yet, when a story is bad, everyone wants to talk about how it fails in "plot." That's because it's easy as hell to do so.

Describing why a story has high fidelity is like describing the world itself. It's not as cognitively easy as examining the "rules of storytelling" and coming up with what aspect of plot fell through. To me, having a great "plot", as others here have very lucidly put, is about why the reader is reading. Does the reader light up and easily explain why the story matters to them when they get asked? Does it have direction? Edit: by fidelity I mean inner-faithfulness. It never sacrifices what it has already established within itself in order to say something interesting. Actually, fidelity might not be quite the word I'm trying to grasp, but maybe in that error someone might understand what I mean.
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Myth Weaver
The funny thing is if you cut Pulp Fiction into a linear film, it’d be... iffy at best. In a sense, the film is one big gimmick. There is a plot in Pulp Fiction, IMO, it’s just not linear. Would I read the book Pulp Fiction? No. The movie was fun in its day, but the gimmick has worn off for me. It’s a bit like watching Sixth Sense or Memento more than a couple times... the gimmicks wear out.

And personally, I tend see “the writing” blamed more than the plot. But, “the writing” can mean many different things to many different people. For that matter, so can plot.

No comments on on other references, I’m not a fan to say the least, heh heh.


Agree to disagree. The character interactions/dialogue are engrossing to me. The gimmicks don't register as gimmicky to me, if that makes sense. And my point wasn't that it doesn't have a plot. My point is that a lot of people rely on sort of post-hoc plot considerations to explain why a story misses the mark, instead of getting into the nitty gritty of every element and their interactions. Pulp-fiction has a plot, but it's good (to those who love it, like me) because of something more detailed than the formula. I love all the interactions and their consequences, which begets the plot. Plot feels secondary and yet...primary. It's inter-relational.

Maybe this makes more sense: a lot of the time someone might say that a book is bad because it's -insert reductive and post-hoc pigeonholing into the flavor of the month "plot"-. But really it's because that's ALL it is. A color-by-numbers. I don't think it's to do with the most basic understanding of what the plot "is" that makes the story bad. I honestly believe I could technically read nothing but teen-dystopias with a "strong female protagonist teen" leading a rebellion against her oppressive government for the rest of my life if they were all written with true care, which is of course a tall order. I'm not saying I have a preference for this type of story. It's just an example.

So vaguely my reply to the thread title is that it doesn't matter how complex the plot is. Or rather, people have a habit of reducing a story, in discussion, to the simplest take on what it's plot is.