Every story has a beginning. Yeah, and a middle and an ending, I hear you sneering, and I must stop you right there. You cannot begin a story by sneering, regardless of what you think of its opening sentence. You weren’t sneering when he said “Call me Ishmael,” though you knew his name was Herman. And you proceeded to swallow his tale whole, like the whale swallowed Jonah. So there’ll be no sneering here, thank you. And absolutely no fleering, jeering, leering, or queering – all verbs in Webster, all bad things to do (especially here). Peering is allowed if your eyesight requires it, and cheering is required. Leave the steering to me and we won’t be veering. As it is, we’ve been careering off course thanks to your sneering, and I must return to the beginning.
Every story has a beginning, but I am not talking about the story proper. That must have a beginning and, as you were kind enough to point out, a middle and an ending. What I mean is that every story has an origin, a certain activating event that inspires or provokes the writer to write it. In the present case, what provoked me to write The Plot Story is a plot twist.
Having stated – and, you might have noticed, illustrated – the definition of plot in “The Definition of Plot,” I had planned to write the next few posts explaining and analyzing plot in a left-brain way, but the plot twist has thrown a spanner in the works. The spanner (which my fellow Americans call a monkey wrench) resulted in the left brain turning to the right, which resulted in my writing this story. In other words, one thing led to another.
I cannot tell you the plot twist because no story – and here I do mean the story proper – begins with a plot twist. Even if what happens in the beginning appears to be a plot twist, it is not, because the plot has just got into motion and therefore cannot twist. Did you ever see anyone twist before they could dance? Apart from Elvis?
One such twist-like beginning occurs at a village fair one evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, when a man drunk on rummified furmity sells his wife and infant daughter to a sober sailor. Naturally, this can only happen in fiction. (The sober sailor, I mean. Drunken men doing terrible things to their wives and daughters is, tragically, among the facts of life.) The wife, being true to her vows, obediently goes off with the sailor.
The selling of one’s spouse to a stranger, strange as it is, is not the plot twist. It is only the beginning of the plot, the one thing that will lead to all the others. The morning after, the man wakes up sober and alone. It’s a relief not to have a wife and infant to deal with at this hour, but waking up sober sucks. To keep it from happening again, he vows not to touch the stuff for twenty-one years. Any sensible man would have kept off it for life, but it was already established last night that this man is not sensible. And it’s a clue that a major plot element will occur around the twenty-year mark.
The author cannot afford to spill ink on the intervening years (because ink is expensive and leaves permanent stains), so time flies. Next thing we know, the wife-of-yore shows up with a grownup daughter. The sailor has kicked the bucket (which presumably had no water or the sailor would still be alive), and the ladies need another man to feed and clothe them. And who could do this better than the mayor of Casterbridge? Luckily, the mayor is none other than the husband-of-yore. Even more luckily, there’s no monkey wench around or it would have thrown a spanner in the works.
Since the plot cannot come to nought yet, the mayor marries the sailor’s widow (who should never have been the sailor’s widow in the first place), and life goes on. The wife’s life goes on to the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, and this brings us to the plot twist.
Before remarrying, the husband-and-wife-of-yore had agreed to leave the grownup daughter in the dark about her paternity, for it would break her little heart to find out she was not the sailor’s girl. But once the wife is safely six feet under, the mayor is free to enlighten the girl. He’s paying for her food and clothes, after all; he might as well get some filial love in return. . . But on the very night that he does the enlightening, he finds a letter from the dead wife (written while she was alive, this is not a gothic tale) saying something to this effect: “Your daughter died three months after you sold me. This is the sailor’s girl. I kept it from you for a bit of revenge. Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.”
Now she is shrewd enough not to mention revenge (though that’s exactly what it was). I was just twisting her words for a bit of fun. Nor does she call him noble Hamlet (because he is neither noble nor Hamlet). I threw that in because I cannot begin my story without invoking the name of Hamlet. (Plus I wanted the Prologue to have at least one quote from Hamlet.) Even so, the last line of the letter is essentially the same as the last words of Laertes.
The plot twist leads to other things, including the arrival of the monkey wench, to throw a spanner in the works (it’s hard to throw a spanner all the way from Jersey); the appearance of the furmity-woman, to spill the beans in court (the beans are better with oaths and swearings); and the return of the sailor, to get his girl (turns out the bucket had water after all). It’s just one thing after another. The hero falls from prosperity to adversity and, because the author knows his Aristotle, stays there so the reader can have their catharsis.
A skimmity-ride (short for a skimmington-ride) and other interesting things happen before the reader can get to The End, but I can’t go into any of that. If I start telling other people’s stories, I’ll never begin my own.
Every good story begins with an invocation, and The Plot Story is no exception. Much as I would like to invoke the name of the Bard, I dare not aspire to such heights for I cannot say that honor is the subject of my story. Nor do I dare invoke the name of the Inimitable, because I lack his great expectations. Lesser mortal though I be, I’m not fool enough to rush in where angels fear to tread. I will therefore invoke the name of someone whose first name is my last name in the singular: E. M. Forster.
Forster’s novels will never rank among my favorite books, but he has written one of my favorite books on the novel: Aspects of the Novel. He didn’t start out writing it, however. It was originally a series of lectures delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the spring of 1927. I’m glad the lectures got redelivered in book form, because I was not at Trinity College in the spring of 1927.
I first read Aspects of the Novel years ago, and to this day I’m grateful to Edward Morgan for helping me understand how plot differs from story. Story is what happened, he says, and I’ll say the rest in Edward’s words.
A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. . . . Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?” That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel.
The element of causality is why, in “The Definition of Plot,” I had defined plot as one thing leading to another. . . And here you were, thinking I was making it all up.
I ought to hold that against you, but I won’t. What’s past is prologue. I’ll forgive you for what you were thinking while reading “The Definition of Plot,” but you’ll need to improve your opinion of me while reading The Plot Story. And if you won’t improve, you must at least trust me implicitly.
To earn your trust (since I can’t earn anything else from you), I will tell you that The Plot Story will appear in monthly installments, published on or after the third of the month. But I must tell you upfront that I cannot tell you upfront how many installments you will have the pleasure of reading. When you see “Epilogue” in the title you may safely assume that you read the end of the story last month and are now about to read some concluding thoughts. I am not obliged to write you an epilogue, however. According to the Conventions of Literature (to which I am obliged more than I am to you), a story with a prologue need not have an epilogue. And vice versa, as you know from your friend “Ishmael.”
I won’t breathe a word about the story’s plot, so don’t hold your breath (which you should never do unless you’re happy with your epitaph, or you just wrote your epitaph). Nor will I disclose anything about the characters, conflicts, or other content – including the Table of Contents. Sorry if it sounds like I want to leave you hanging, but it’s part of the art of storytelling. And, you may recall, of storyreading.
By the way, I speak metaphorically when I say “leave you hanging.” I would never leave you hanging literally. No, I’d take you off the tree and give you a proper burial.
 E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927), 86.