How important is plot?

A few years ago I watched a film called Arrival. A number of mysterious spaceships appear and station themselves near major cities on earth. Then nothing happens. The usual debates start: Shall we attack before they attack us? For once the doves prevail over the hawks, at least momentarily, and the American government hires a woman expert in language and communication to try and establish some kind of contact.

I’m very interested in language and means of communication between humans, or even between humans and animals; and in this instance the aliens were, in my opinion, portrayed in a very imaginative and subtle way. So I became fascinated by the ways this woman came up with in attempting to communicate with a species which has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in common with us humans. We do not share any parameters of DNA, culture, location, experience or anything else.



Anyway, I found the film explored this subject well so, when two of my grandsons turned 11, I thought this would be an interesting film to watch all together (with something to discuss after). Well, that was not a huge success, to say the least. One of the boys kept pausing the film to criticize some technical or scientific detail they’d got all wrong, while the other kept up a running commentary on the ‘plot holes’. At the end I got mercilessly teased about the fact that I hadn’t understood half of it but it was just as well, because the whole story made no sense and if I’d tried, I’d have become even more confused. We ended up crying with laughter because yes, they were right in a way—the plot did contain holes, and a ridiculous and unnecessary subplot at the end. Moreover, when I looked up the reviews, I saw that I really hadn’t got the half of it. However, I still remember the scenes where the woman tries to find ways to connect to those aliens, and I still find them fascinating. This made the plot secondary in this instance.

At other times I can get so annoyed with the blatant disregard for continuity or even simple cause and effect, that I stop reading or watching. So, how important is plot in a story? Of course, a solid, well-constructed plot is a thing of beauty in itself. But the impact of it on the enjoyment of the story can be quite relative sometimes.
Mystery or crime writers can be so clever at unexpected twists and red herrings that they paint themselves into a corner—and you find that the brilliant page turner that kept you up all night ends in a damp squib. Or a denouement that defies all plausibility. But—you’ve still enjoyed the ride.
At other times the lack—or manner—of plot is so annoying that you’re unable to go beyond a couple of chapters or episodes. Is the difference in the quality of the writing? The characters? Your own mood? What do you think?



Also, I think that tastes have changed. Exposure to new technology means that we expect instant gratification: for example, usually we don’t even have to wait a week for the next episode of a series, we can binge on the whole thing at once. Thus people’s attention span has become shorter. We don’t feel we have the time to read reams of description. We expect short bites, hopefully ending in a cliffhanger, which keeps us turning the page, or going on to the next episode. Long, meandering novels like Middlemarch, or classical short stories such as those written by Charles Dickens or Herman Melville have given way to flash fiction and mini series.

I’d be curious to know if some of you still have the patience to read the old classics and enjoy the slower pace.

28 thoughts on “How important is plot?”

  1. Plot flaws and story holes perhaps. But whatever they were, I didn’t care. I loved this film, which I made an effort to watch at the cinema. And the aliens fascinated me! 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. Read any Pynchon lately? His books will keep you floating—even Inherent Vice couldn’t be filmed exactly as it reads, but it’s a wonderful film cause it’s a fil & not a novel—even the odyssey’s got “holes” ! Thanks for the post. Ps, dug Arrival, too.

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      1. Pynchon is terrific. Don DeLillo is another exponent of the plot-light style. One has to write extraordinary prose to achieve this “floating” effect, however – when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work.

        DeLillo wrote a novel (The Names) set in 1980s Athens, which I highly recommend.

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      2. Talking about instant gratification, I downloaded it on kindle and started already… although I do prefer real books. But there’s no way of getting it at my little local French bookstore…

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    1. So annoying. You should try audiobooks, sometimes they’re marvelous. My problem is I have to listen while driving or chopping vegetables or something. If I’m just sitting down, I fall asleep!

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  3. Marina, I’m smiling at the unsuccessful attempt to convert your grandsons to the film! It’s great you all could laugh about it and still hold firm to your opinions! I’m watching an Italian series called ‘My Beautiful Friend’ … it started so well, but slowed down so much almost going backwards, plot holes galore and dreadful cinematography at times yet the characters draw me in and I have to see what happens!

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  4. I’m all for slow writing – definitely my preference.

    And you put your finger on it with ‘continuity’; mess up with that and it all goes horribly wrong – that carefully built up picture in your mind shatters and you stop believing any of it.

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  5. Now that I’ve moved back to England and living in the midst of Thomas Hardy country, I’m having fun re-reading some of his novels. ‘Tess of the D’Urbevilles’ has been a long time favourite and this time I re-read it with special interest in the ‘fictional’ place names that he created to stand in for real villages around and about where we live now.
    Apart from that, I think I might have been affected by the ‘instant gratification’ disease as I’ve tried re-reading some of the other classics and really have to force myself to slow down to just appreciate the writing and the language especially when I already know what the plot has in store.

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    1. I find that some of those books are really enjoyable on audio, if the reader has a good voice. You are immersed in the rhythms of the language, and cannot skip or turn the page.

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  6. I have been reading and enjoying and watching science fiction since I was 11 years old, and I’m now 60. I found this one of the most interesting, thought-provoking films of its kind. It’s mostly free of idiotic whizz-bang, it’s thoughtful, quite slow and intelligent. One of the most fascinating premises is that the driver of what action there is, is a woman whose entire focus is on preconception- and context-free communication rather than gun-waving action. We are formed by the language we first learn to speak. What happens if we don’t speak, and our communication is a permanent and ongoing process? For me, the plot holes and continuity errors have the same importance as misprints in a book. So what? They’re irritating but they don’t detract from the book’s narrative or message. To spend your entire time in the movie looking for errors rather than understanding the message/story and thinking about it seems to me a huge waste of everyone’s time: the writer, the director, the actors and ultimately, you.

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    1. I agree with you, loved that film too, and didn’t care about the rest, because I focused on the communication issues. I did have a laugh with the kids, though, so funny how they see things differently at that age. Maybe we can watch it again in a couple of years

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  7. I loved that film, no matter how many ‘plot holes’ it may have had, (or not)!
    I’ve watched it a few times too! It just shows how unprepared we are at something so ‘alien’ how set we are in our ways that even a warning from a very distant future and advanced race of beings has us all confused and perplexed that we can’t even begin to analyse this confusion.
    I think that was the point of the whole movie. Now I agree, the youngsters would have seen this movie and ridiculed it just because they can’t see through it yet 🙂 They’ll learn though as they grow older and start distinguishing between elaborate effects and story telling!
    Thanks for brining that up!

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  8. I think that you are right on the “instant Gratification”. It also extends to how many of my friends read headlines of papers rather than the whole article. I feel that I do it too as I have on-line subscriptions and get head-line alerts ! In my mind I justify this by saying to myself, I don’t have time and I am receiving them in different languages so that I keep my brain from going to mush!!
    But yes, I do like reading whole books over time.

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  9. Sometimes a great concept or thought experiment makes a really good premise for a book or film, but it can be difficult to build a plot around it. Maybe the plot should be secondary, and be something to just help facilitate the journey?

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    1. Well, it’s an interesting question at any rate. And at the end of the day, I suppose it’s also a matter of taste, what kind of books one likes to read. Thanks for the follow, btw, I’ll take a look at your blog ASAP. Nice meeting you!

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