Plot is a four letter word.
— Alex Keegan
Plot is the picture frame.
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
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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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.