Say you’re writing a detective story. Should you give precedence to the characters and allow them to do what they need to do? Even if that means dilly-dallying in a private investigator’s office, sipping tea and doing admin work (which is what a real detective does much of the time)? Or should you be harsh and bend them to fit the plot, send them out into the mean streets and get them to push the story forward?
Plotting is one of our major literary conundrums of the day. Most writers aspire to create a fictional world peopled with believable characters going about their day-to-day activities in a realistic manner. But if these characters just potter like normal humans habitually do, you don’t really have a crime novel (though you might have an experimental theatre classic).
Even though plot in the conventional sense isn’t crucial to a great novel, especially if you happen to be Marcel Proust and your project is to remember the flavour of some obscure cookie (and the many things associated with it), it is imperative to have a solid plot in a crime novel. But, and this is a very big “but”, if the characters only serve the plot requirements, then one may discover that they lose their verisimilitude.
Mythos: An engraving for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, circa 1800. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
A writer like Stephen King says (in On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft) that plotting is the good writer’s last resort, because a plot is like a noisy jackhammer that forces characters to do things that they wouldn’t. On the other hand a great writer like Vikram Chandra found that using professional project management software was the best way to keep track of all the characters, times and places in his masterpiece Sacred Games—and that is one novel peopled with amazingly lifelike characters.
Mind you, plot is not the same thing as story. But what exactly is this thing called plot then? E.M. Forster, although not a crime writer, gave the clearest explanation (in Aspects of the Novel): “The king died and then the queen died” is a story, says Forster. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot—because it shows us that there is a connection between the two events seemingly unrelated in the story. To turn this plot into a mystery, Forster suggests the following: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.”
However, the confusing thing with plot, as literary critic Jai Arjun Singh pointed out in a recent blog I came across, is that almost all works of literature—provided that they employ a plot—can be reverse-engineered to a point where their plots are revealed to be exactly the same.
True? Let us take an example. Take a typical detective story about a guy who returns to his hometown to find that somebody once close to him is dead. Suspecting foul play, he goes out of his way to prove that a seemingly unimpeachable person is the murderer. The story ends in a gruesome massacre. Now you think that this is the plot of a Clint Eastwood B-movie. If I tell you that there are ghosts and quite a bit of madness in the story, you change your mind and think of Friday the 13th Part II. Wrong again. I’m actually talking about Shakespeare’s Hamlet—frequently referred to as the first modern detective story (which incidentally had lifted its plot from Thomas Kyd, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who in turn copied it from an old Danish chronicle, in turn probably swiped from an Icelandic saga).
Plot was first codified in Aristotle’s Poetics. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.
The essential plot components in a crime novel are: 1) a misdeed; 2) an investigation; 3) a solution; and 4) some suitable explanations. When seen like this a detective novel isn’t different at all from a classical Greek drama or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Already, way back in the 300s BC, Aristotle, who felt that plot (mythos) is the soul of any tragic story, pointed out that the ideal artistic wholeness has all its parts “so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoint and dislocate the whole” (Poetics). The professional crime writers of today would say: You must always kill your darlings.
Or your darlings will kill your plot. All the characters in a well-crafted detective novel will have to serve the plot in their functions as victims, witnesses, suspects, red herrings, criminals, policemen and so on. There is, according to my findings, little room for superfluous elements (unless you’re writing a deliberately bad detective novel).
Plot cannot be substituted by an excess of flying bullets, although Raymond Chandler is supposed to have said that when you lose track of your plot just throw in one more guy with a smoking gun. He did get away with lots of half-baked things, it is true, and we forgive Raymond because of his expertise in complicating plots by the use of unpredictable, volatile characters that don’t always have each other’s best interest in mind.
So a good crime novel has an underlying, almost invisible, mechanism to organize the various components into a coherent system, which can be reduced to the formula—A does B and therefore C happens. This may appear ridiculously simple. But then again there are new crime novels published every day, and each of these comes with the potential to stun and surprise, so that at the end of a good read a reader is left with a momentous sense of revelation—“oh, so C happened because A did B!”
For every morsel of well-plotted story, there will be a pay-off in some form that will cause a feeling of enlightenment, whether a mind-bending eureka or a minor key “aha”. That’s what a fictional plot is then—it’s a demonstration of our daily travails to make sense of a complex world. I dare say that no other modern genre of fiction does it better than the detective novel.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based crime novelist. His most recent novel is Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.
Write to Zac at firstname.lastname@example.org