So before these early essays into computer-mediated storytelling, many definitions of plot existed with varying emphases. Each has points which may or may not continue to function when observing and creating stories for digital media. Looking at a number of them together helped me in formulating a defintion encompassing of what creators such as Don Woods and Stuart Moulthrop had and could do with plot in this medium.
A complete and whole action with a beginning, middle and end.
Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.
Aristotle, Poetics. 350 BC (Trans. S. H. Butcher) [<http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html>] Part 7 para. 2.
Ancient Greek tragedy traditionally began in medias res, in the middle of the story's action. Therefore, Aristotle is speaking of a functional beginning, middle and end, rather than a chronological one, which when fulfilled, gives a sense of completeness and wholeness to the action.
This is a useful beginning for defining plot for digital media, since the emphasis is off physical ordering and is more concerned with the placement of functional elements, a manageable task within a multi-linear environment.
A causal sequence.
Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. 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...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.
E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel [New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1927] p. 86.
If the audience is allowed to move through a digital narrative in any sequence whatsoever, then it becomes difficult to represent causal relationships amongst characters and events. This usually results in plotlessness and a sort of anti-fiction that bears a closer relationship to poetry. William S. Burroughs' cut and paste works have some similarity to this sort of narrative.
On the other hand, as soon as any sort of structure is used, and in this case structures unique to or conveniently managed by a computer such as my story shapes, creators are again in a position to weave together inter-relatedness amongst these same characters and events. Once more we can ask more than just "and then", but also "why?".
Selecting and arranging events from real life, forming an argument.
How the reader becomes aware of what happened.
For Aristotle, the imitation of actions in the real world, praxis, was seen as forming an argument, logos, from which were selected (and possibly rearranged) the units that formed the plot, mythos. The Russian formalists, too, made the distinction, but used only two terms: the "fable" (fabula), or basic story stuff, the sum total of events to be related in the narrative, and, conversely, the "plot" (sjuzet), the story is actually told by linking the events together. To formalists, fable is" the set of events tied together which are communicated to us in the course of the work," or "what has in effect happened"; plot is "how the reader becomes aware of what happened," that is, basically, the "order of the appearance (of the events) in the work itself," whether normal (abc), flashed back (acb), or begun in medias res (bc).
Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Ficiton and Film [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978] p. 19-20.
Interestingly, though many writers refer to Forster's definition of plot, they have taken it to mean how the story is ordered, be it chronological or causal.
Plot as an ordering device is too rigid a definition to fully explain the audience's experience when going through a digital, multi-linear, interactive story. When well done such a story can feel whole and complete, though the audience were left to co-order their narrative journey with the author.
Nevertheless, I would agree that plot forms a sort of rhetorical argument and thought experiment, and that part of plotting is selecting the events which best represent the argument.
Dynamic elements forming a meaningful sequence.
Plot can be defined as the dynamic, sequential element in narrative literature. Insofar as character, or any other element in narrative, becomes dynamic, it is a part of the plot. Spatial art, which presents its material simultaneously, or in a random order, has no plot; but a succession of similar pictures which can be arranged in a meaningful order begins to have a plot because it begins to have a dynamic sequential existence.
Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative [New York: Oxford University Press, 1966, paperback edition 1968] p. 277.
As soon as any element represented as self-motivating begins interacting with its environment or other such elements, we have the rudiments of a plot. Animals and anything anthropomorphised, if sufficiently self-motivating, can hold the position of character within a story.
It is possible to have a plot without any overt representations of humanity. It is not possible to have plot without self-motivating actors. Therefore, "dynamic" is insufficiently descriptive. A volcano is dynamic, though not self-motivating. A group of creators may be able to present a story about the life of the volcano alone. But that story, no matter how it is ordered, will merely be a report unless the narration implies some sort of anthropomorphic motivation on the part of the volcano.
Within a digital story the environment the audience is exploring may yield no self-motivating actors. However, by virtue of the experiences the audience is interactively creating for themselves, they can become characters in their own story. Plot becomes a characteristic of the way the environment is formed and therefore experienced.
A sequence of events that paradigmatically delineate a process of change.
Story consists of events placed in a sequence to delineate a process of change, the transformation of one event into another. An event depicts some sort of physical or mental activity, an occurrence in time (an action performed by or upon a human agent) or a state of existing in time (such as thinking, feeling, being, having). The events constituting a story do not occur in isolation but belong to a sequence...Events in a story do not 'simply happen' in a *syntagmatic chain but are structured *paradigmatically as well.
Steven Cohan and Linda M. Shires, Telling Stories: a theoretical analysis [New York: Routledge, 1988] pp. 53-54.
*Syntagmatic-being an orderly collection of statements
*Paradigmatic-having a pattern, such as a system of beliefs
This definition more fully expresses the place of temporality within a plot. The beginning, middle and end not only serve certain functions, they also flow into one another through the transformation of characters, situations, or the audience's perceptions of these things. Moreover these transformations will represent an overall theme or inter-related cluster of themes.
Representing the transformation through time of characters and situations is probably the toughest challenge digital storytellers have to face. I love experiencing character growth within a story, since I find it personally inspirational. Therefore, to create digital stories which can reveal character growth, I recommend creators reclaim some plotting control through structure, over a story of totally non-linear segments floating randomly in an information soup.
An intentional, goal-oriented and forward moving structure.
Plots are not simply organising structures, they are also intentional structures, goal-oriented and forward-moving. Plot as we need and want the term is hence an embracing concept for the design and intention of narrative, a structure for those meanings that are developed through temporal succession, or perhaps better: a structuring operation elicited by, and made necessary by, those meanings that develop through success and time.
Peter Brooks, "Reading for the Plot", Narratology: An Introduction eds. Onega, Susan & Jose Angle Garcia Landa [London: Longman, 1996] p. 255.
Events and states evolve through time while representing a theme. However, more than that, they come to a temporary conclusion. This definition brings in the function and importance of the end moves within a story. This is where the plot is rounded out to give the audience that final experience of wholeness and completeness.
The satisfaction inherent in a good ending tends to make the overall story more memorable, something which can be spoken about and shared with others, a lasting aesthetic experience.
Endless digital stories such as Addventure are a lot of fun, but because they do not come to be a conclusive structure, they can frequently become lost experiences.
A guiding principle for the author and an ordering control for the reader.
Plots are important. But they are not what makes you read a book. If plot was all there was to it, it would be enthralling to have someone tell you the plot of a book you haven't read. And having someone tell you the plot of a book you haven't read is hardly ever enthralling. Think of some people who have a knack for telling a joke well, while someone else can tell the same joke and it falls flat. The difference isn't the joke itself but how it is told. What transforms a plot into a piece of powerful writing is design: not the events themselves but how the events unfold.
If thinking of a plot is a real problem, you can always ransack Greek myths or Hollywood movies or stories your grandmother told you until you come up with a plot you can borrow...Plot is one of the most artificial qualities of the artificial construct called fiction. Life doesn't have plot: life just has a flow of events. The only kind of plot that life can offer is a retrospective one. There's nothing wrong with artificial constructs such as plots. But a writer can choose to do without them. A writer can choose to imitate the plotlessness of life and allow the material to be organised in some other way...The great danger of the conventional plot is that it becomes so contrived and unlifelike that it becomes dead: a pale, shallow imitation of the richness of real life. The great danger of the plotless narrative is that there isn't enough forward movement for the reader to stay interested.
Kate Grenville, The Writing Book [St. Leonards NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1990] pp. 142, 143.
Take fifteen unrelated things and it is not possible to keep them in conscious memory at once. Organise them into a structure and it is easy, for only that one structure has to be kept in conscious memory. As a result of this power of organisation to overcome the limits of working memory, explanation and understanding become essential components of conscious thought: with understanding and explanation, the number of things that can be kept consciously in mind expands enormously.
One thing that does bother me, however, is the belief that hypertext will save the author from having to put material in linear order. Wrong. To think this is to allow for sloppiness in writing and presentation. It is hard work to organise material, but that effort on the part of the writer is essential for the ease of the reader. Take away the need for discipline and I fear that you pass the burden on to the reader, who may not be able to cope, and may not care to try. The advent of hypertext is apt to make writing much more difficult, not easier. Good writing, that is.
Donald Norman, Psychology of Everyday Things [New York: Doubleday, 1988, paperback edition 1990] p. 127, 213.
These last quotes are not made by professional literary critics, but by an author of fiction and a computer interface and human factors design engineering expert.
Kate Grenville recommends that writers "borrow" plots since by the time creators have fleshed the plot out with their own characters, descriptions, etc it can become unrecognisably distinct from the original story from which they borrowed it. She, like many authors, finds it artificial to separate plot from the many other elements of storytelling. Nevertheless, she finds it important as a device for writers to get at character and theme.
She also touches on what I believe is one of the most basic tenets of art and storytelling: whatever you do to story, it must at least be interesting.
Donald Norman stresses the importance of structure. One of the benefits of which is being able to present, and have your audience grasp, quite complex experiences and thought processes.
He points out that hypermedia can and has made the writing or storytelling task more complex, but I believe it need not be more difficult than other forms of storytelling. It simply requires a better understanding of what is possible and how it may be achieved.
Plot is the system of inter-relatedness amongst states, events and sapient actors, and the process of revealing this inter-relatedness such that the story proposition flows into a conclusion.
Copyright © 1997 Katherine Phelps