Plot is a four letter word. -- Alex Keegan
Plot is the picture frame. -- Me
Plot is like the picture frame. A frame is something that all pictures need to some degree, but a beautiful frame with a black velvet Elvis painting isn't going into the Louvre any time soon. Conversely, the most beautiful, insightful, imaginative painting in the world isn't going to suffer much in a weak frame. The picture makes the frame, the frame accents the picture.
This is forgotten all too much in all forms of storytelling, most notably movies. Repeat after me. Plot is the picture frame. Take a look at the most recent Star Wars movies. What could be a Tolkien-esque epic tale of the rise and fall of empires, people, relationships, ends up being a b-movie with flat characters, starring the computer generated imagery. The plot is so intricate, so twisted, so melodramatic, and overcompensating of a weak painting that is falls as flat as pastel sailboats hung above the couch.
It's the characters stupid.
I am re-reading a book at the moment, Stendhal's The Red and the Black. Wow, what a plotless book. This kid Julien is wandering around ala Huck Finn (albeit an adult Huck Finn, ahem), listlessly, pointlessly. Things happen to him. He winds up with a rich family in the country. A seminary in the city, and finally as a rich city family's secretary. *yawn*. Pretty boring stuff, eh? The novel is set in the early 1800's. Perhaps it's one of the Sense and Sensibility type period pieces... you know, the ones that women like. But there's something about this book, something that grabs me and won't let me go. Maybe it's the unlikely protagonist, Julien, his inability to be honest with himself, who in the end is honest with himself despite his attempts to culture cynicism.
The Red and the Black is perhaps the most beautiful painting in the world placed simply in a beveled piece of matte paper. It is not dialog driven, plot driven, situationally driven. Ask me what has happened serially, and I would have problems. It violates the show, don't tell rule beaten into all beginning writers. Perhaps as you mature you get to break some rules, but geez, it would seem Stendhal's downright lazy. Note the following passage as the scene is dictated in the most abstract manner, with little window into the actual goings on, the details:
I must drink some punch and dance a lot, she told herself; I'll pick the best of the crowd, and make an impression at all costs. Good, here comes that impertinent celebrity the Comte de Fervaques. She accepted his invitation; they dance. It's a matter of seeing, she thought, which of the two of us will be the more impertinent; but so that I can make proper fun of him, I must get him talking. Soon all the rest of the quadrille only dance for appearances' sake. No one wished to miss any of Mathilde's stinging repartee. M. de Fervaques was getting flustered, and as he could only produce elegant phrases instead of ideas, he was making faces; Mathilde, who was in a bad mood, was merciless to him and made an enemy out of him. She danced until daybreak and at length withdrew in a state of terrible fatigue. But in the carriage she went and used up the small amount of strength she had left on making herself sad and miserable. She'd been despised by Julien and couldn't despise him.
He does this a lot, tells you what the people are talking about, or hints at some dialog, but never reveals it. It would seem lazy perhaps. Maybe he couldn't think of the clever things that he was putting into people's mouths. Easier to just talk about them instead of showing them. It would seem that way, but then there are passages that suck you over the event horizon into the most awful wonderful despair. Here the Madam de Rênal the wife of Mousier de Rênal, the richest most powerful man in Verrières, has fallen in love with Julien. She is his senior by 10 years and is now consumed with guilt over her passion.
Shortly after the return to Vergy, Stanislas-Xavier the youngest child threw a fever; Mme de Rênal was suddenly overcome by terrible remorse. It was the first time she had reproached herself for her love with any consistency; she seemed to understand, as if by a miracle, how gross was the immorality she had allowed herself to get caught up in. In spite of her deeply religious nature, up until then she had not considered the enormity of her crime in the eyes of God.
In the past, at the convent of the Sacred Heart, she had loved God with passion; she started to fear him likewise in her new situation. The battles which ravaged her soul were all the more terrible because there was nothing rational in her fear. Julien discovered that any attempt at rationalization aggravated rather than soothed her: she took it as the language of hell. However, since Julien himself was very fond of little Stanislas, he was more welcome when talked to her of the boy's illness. This soon took a very serious turn. Then unremitting remorse deprived Mme de Rênal even of the ability to sleep; she retreated into a desperate silence: had she opened her mouth, it would have been to confess her crime to God and to mankind.
'I entreat you,' Julien would say to her as soon as they found themselves alone, 'don't say anything to anyone; let me be the only recipient of your troubles. If you still love me, don't say anything”: you words can't take the fever away from our little Stanislas.'
But his endeavors to console her had no effect; he did not know that Mme de Rênal had taken it into her head that to appease the wrath of the jealous Almighty, she had to hate Julien or else see her son die. It was because she felt she could not hate her lover that she was wretched.
'Keep away from me!' she said one day. 'In the name of God, leave this house: it's your presence here that's killing my son.'
'God is punishing me,' she added in a low voice, 'he is just. I worship his justice; my crime is horrendous, and there I was living without remorse! It was the first sign of abandoning God” I must be doubly punished.'
Julien was deeply touched. He could not detect any hypocrisy of exaggeration in this. She thinks she's killing her son by loving me, and yet, poor thing, she loves me more than her son. This is the source, I'm convinced, of the remorse that's killing her; these are truly noble sentiments. But how did I manage to inspire a love like this: I'm so poor, so badly brought up, so ignorant, even sometimes so crude in my ways?
One night, the child's fever was at its height. Around two in the morning M de Rênal came to see him. The child, racked with fever, was exceedingly flushed and failed to recognize his father. Suddenly Mme de Rênal flung herself at her husband's fee” Julien saw that she was going to confess everything and ruin herself forever.
By good luck M de Rênal was very put out by this strange gesture.
'Goodnight! Goodnight!' he said as he turned to leave.
'No, listen to me!' exclaimed his wife kneeling before him and trying to hold him back. 'You must learn the whole truth. It's my fault that my son is dying. I gave life to him, and I am taking it from him. Heaven is punishing me, in the eyes of God I'm guilty of murder. I must bring about my own downfall and my own humiliation; perhaps this sacrifice will appease the Lord.'
If M de Rênal had been a man of any imagination, he would have understood everything.
'Romantic nonsense,' he exclaimed pushing away his wife who was trying to clasp his knees. 'This is all a whole lot of romantic nonsense! Julien, summon the doctor at daybreak.'
And off he went to bed. Mme de Rênal fell on her knees, half unconscious, thrusting Julien away with a convulsive gesture when he tried to come to her aid.
Julien stood amazed.
So this is adultery! He said... Could it possibly be that those two-face priests... are right? That men who commit so many sins are privileged to know the real workings of sin? What a peculiar state of affairs!
For twenty minutes now since M de Rênal had withdrawn Julien had watched the woman he loved kneeling with her head resting on the child's little bed, motionless and almost unconscious. Here's a woman of superior genius plunged in the very depths of misery because of knowing me, he said.
Time is racing by. What can I do for her? I must make up my mind. In this situation it isn't a question of what I want any more. What do I care about other people and their insipid little comedies? What can I do for her... leave her? But I'd be leaving her alone in the grip of the most appealing grief. Her automaton of a husband is more of a hindrance than a help to her. He'll say some harsh word to her through being so crude; she may go mad and fling herself out of the window.
If I leave her, if I stop watching over her, she'll confess everything to him. And who knows, perhaps in spite of the inheritance she's due to bring him he'll cause a scandal. She may tell all, great heavens! To that b... idiot of a Father Maslon, who uses a six-year-old's illness as an excuse for not budging from this house, and with an ulterior motive too. In her grief and her fear of God she forgets everything she knows about the man; she only sees the priest.
'Go away!' said Mme de Rênal to him all of a sudden, opening her eyes.
'I'd lay down my life over and over again to know what would be of greatest help to you,' Julien replied. 'I've never loved you so much, my darling angel, or rather it's only now that I begin to adore you as you deserve. What will become of me far away from you, with the knowledge that you're unhappy through my fault! But let's not think about my suffering. All right, I'll go, my love. But if I leave you, if I cease to watch over you, to be constantly there between you and your husband, you'll tell him all, you'll ruin yourself. Just think how ignominiously he'll drive you from his house; the whole of Verrières, the whole of Besançon will talk of this scandal. You'll be made into the guilty party; you'll never get over the shame of it...'
'That's what I want,' she exclaimed, rising to her feet. 'I shall suffer: so much the better.'
'But you'll also bring about his own ruin with this abominable scandal!'
'But I'll be humiliating myself, I'll be flinging myself into the mire; and perhaps in so doing I shall save my son perhaps this humiliation in front of everyone is a form of public penitence? As far as I can judge in my weakness, isn't this the greatest sacrifice I can make to God?... Perhaps he will deign to accept my humiliation and leave me my son! Show me another more painful sacrifice and I'm ready for it.'
'Let me punish myself. I'm guilty too. Do you want me to retreat to the Trappist monastery? The austerity of life there may appease your God... Oh heavens! Why can't I take Stanislas's illness upon myself...?'
'Oh, you really love him, you do!' said Mme de Rênal, getting up and flinging herself into his arms.
At the same moment she pushed him away in horror.
'I believe you! I believe you!' she went on, sinking to her knees again. 'Oh my only friend! Oh why aren't you Stanislas's father? Then it wouldn't be a horrible crime to love you more than your son.'
'Will you allow me to stay, and to love you from now on just like a brother? It's the only only expiation that makes sense; it may appease the wrath of the Almighty.'
'And what about me?' she cried, getting up and clasping Julien's head in both hands, and gazing at it at arm's length, 'what about me, am I to love you like a brother? Is it in my power to love you like a brother?'
Tears were starting to run down Julien's face.
'I shall obey you,' he said falling at her feet. 'I shall obey you whatever you order me to do; it's all that's left for me. My mind is struck blind; I can't see what to do. If I leave you, you'll tell your husband everything; you'll ruin yourself and him too. There's no way, after this ridicule, that he'll ever be chosen for the National Assembly. If I stay, you'll think me the cause of your son's death, and you'll die of grief. Do you want to try out the effect of my departure? If you like, I'll punish myself for your wrongdoing by leaving you for a week. I'll go and spend it in a retreat of your choosing. In the abbey at Bray-le-Haut, for instance: but swear to me that during my absence you won't confess anything to your husband. Just think that I won't ever be able to come back if you say anything.'
She promised, he left, but was recalled after two days.
'It's impossible for me to keep my oath without you. I shall tell my husband if you aren't there constantly to order with your eyes to keep silent. Each hour of this abominable life seems to me to last a whole day.'
At last heaven took pity on this wretched mother. Gradually Stanislas emerged from danger. But the illusion was shattered, her reason had grasped the extent of her sin; she was unable to regain her stability. Her remorse remained, and it was as you would expect in a heart of such sincerity. Her life was heaven and hell: hell when she did not have Julien with her, heaven when she was at his feet. 'I don't have any illusions left,' she said to him even at times when she dared to indulge her love to the full. 'I'm damned, damned beyond remission. You are young, you yielded to my seduction, heaven may forgive you; but I am damned. I know from a sure sign: I'm afraid. Who wouldn't be afraid at the sight of hell? But deep down I don't repent. I'd commit my sin again if it had to be committed. If heaven would just refrain from punishing me in this world and through my children, then I shall have more than I deserve, but what about you at least, my own Julien,' she exclaimed at other moments, 'are you happy? Do I love you enough for your liking?'
It is in the passage that, I feel that one would have to be dead to not empathize with such pathos. Sure, who today would really believe that God would punish them for a transgression of the flesh. I think most people today would see Mme de Rênal's plight and send her for psychological help. However, even within the story, we note the Julien a seminarian sees her fear as folly, but he gets sucked in too. He can't help but feel her anguish, the torment at the reality that she believes to be true. So it is his love that allows him to accept her for her beliefs and look for a way to diminish her grief. I don't think you have to be a scholar or a college educated person to get this, do you? It may be old, with outdated mores, but the timelessness of the love, the undying, uncompromising love is universal.
That's what a story is all about... plot? Bah! Plot is a four letter word. Plot is the frame. This book has no plot. And you know what? All the greatest works of art don't need it either. TV show voted to be the greatest of the century: Seinfeld, a show about nothing: no plot, just interesting characters. And that, my friends, is that.