‘What’s it about?’

It would be fair to say I struggle with plot. I really do. One of the reasons is that I just don’t care that much about it. It’s never what really interests me.

Some of my favourite books don’t have plots. Obvious examples would include Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, of course, but also more recent examples. Independence Day (Richard Ford), Hawksmoor (Peter Ackroyd), Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf), just to take examples at random. These have no plot, in the sense of a sequence of events and situations that lead consecutively to an end. They just give you some life, some vivid representation of what it feels like to be alive.

Whenever I read anything, I am always uncomfortably aware of the clanking plot machinery going on in the background. I just had to abandon reading a bestselling thriller by ‘one of our leading crime writers’ because I could see, not only exactly where it was going, but that that was all it was going to do. Characterisation, description, mood, atmosphere, sense of place: nope, just the story. There might have been some pallid pleasure in finding out if I was guessing right or not about the trajectory, but, ultimately who cares? I could invent my own ending. Who cares what such a bad author wants the story to be? And yet clearly, a great many people do.

I ploughed all the way to the end of a Jeffery Archer novel once, in the vain hope of working out what other people see in him. There were four ‘characters’, all of them simple cardboard cutouts with names attached to them. One of them was going to win an election, and I imagine you were supposed to be busy guessing which one. But again, how could anyone care which of four interchangeably one-dimensional characters ultimately won? The author clearly didn’t: they were simply a means to his tiresome end, and were no more than shop dummies with different coloured suits on. (I think the blue one won, but I couldn’t swear to it.)

There is a theory that men go for plot, women go for character. (A creative writing teacher recently reported that one of his male students had told him he would ‘fill in the characters later’.) I suspect there’s more to it than that, though. People go to books for a huge variety of reasons, and plot is just one of them. But film and TV have prioritised plot over everything else, to the extent that ‘what is it about?’ now can only mean: ‘what is the story?’ I think that’s a shame. Book are about life, and life hasn’t got a plot, it just goes on for a bit, there’s some shouting and drinking and so on, and then it, sort of, stops (round about page 235, just after the chase but before the shock twist that makes sense of it all). Plot is just a lie we tell ourselves that things have an order, a logic, a (deep breath) meaning. Well guess what, they don’t.

I read an interview with Keanu Reeves once. He was having what appeared to be a very, very bad day. ‘What is your new film about?’ he was asked. Long Pause. ‘It’s about the human condition,’ says Keanu. ‘Tell me about your next film.’ Long pause. ‘It’s about the human condition,’ says Keanu, at which point he gets up and starts, slowly and gently, to bang his head against the window. But that’s my answer from henceforth. ‘What’s it about?’ ‘It’s about the human condition.’ End of.

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2 thoughts on “‘What’s it about?’

    • Like your piece. But literary theory always rather goes over my head. I’m certainly not suggesting that characters should just sit around thinking: that would surely be self-indulgent solipsistic nonsense. Mine is a slightly different point, I think; that the requirements of visual forms of fiction (film/TV) have started to dictate the terms of engagement for all writers. My favourite Graham Greene novel is Brighton Rock: there is a brilliant ‘plot spring’ at the beginning, which forces Pinky, the psychotic gangster, and Rose, the naive waitress, together. The book is so immensely powerful, I think, not because of the plot (gangsters and so on, yawn), but because of what the plot allows or forces to happen: the ‘dark theology’ between these two characters. The plot is a necessary means to this end, but it isn’t what makes the book great: it’s not what the book is ‘about’.

      Or take Independence Day by Richard Ford. A plot summary would yield something like: ‘A middle-aged suburban American man goes on a road trip with his difficult, oppositional teenage son’. If there was a film made of it, that’s what the listings would bill it as. But that barely begins to describe the richness and sadness and beauty of the thing. That plot description would never entice me to pick the book up: it sounds dull and uneventful, whereas it is an absolute page-turner, urgent and desperate and fierce. Again, the book is really ‘about’ the relationship between the two characters, and, by extension, about fathers and sons more generally. Again, the plot is just a way of allowing or forcing this to happen.

      That’s what I’m getting at.

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