Novels: Many Plots Or One Plot?

Posted: March 21, 2013 in Reflections, Writing
Tags: , , , ,

I was watching a movie recently and at one point near the end, a literature teacher is teaching her class that there is only one plot in any work of fiction: “Who am I?” And when I logged onto the Internet a little while ago, I read a blog post by my friend and fellow author Pat Bertram (see here: where she stated that at the core of every one of her novels, plus her memoir on grief, the central theme was “Who are we?” This all happened within a 48-hour period, so I definitely started thinking hard about these questions. Do all stories of fiction have just one plot to them, which can be summed up in “Who am I?” or “Who are we?”

Well, a lot of novels do have this question as a theme throughout the story. Plenty of coming-of-age novels are about children and teenagers finding themselves and learning just who they are, or becoming individuals, or finding their place in this chaotic universe. Heck, my own science-fiction novel Reborn City has plenty of identity themes in it, especially for Zahara and for the Hydras as a whole.

But at the same time, I’m not so sure that all stories are about “Who am I?” Look at some classic novels like “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. I hated that novel, but I do know that the central story was about one character nearly getting his head chopped off because of a family relation’s crime. I don’t think the whole “Who am I?” question figured much, especially when one character kept trying to keep his head on his shoulders. And recently I read Henry James’s “Daisy Miller” for class. That had nothing to do with “Who am I?” It was an unidentified narrator telling us about a story he heard (with details and all) about a guy trying to court a naive young girl who spends too much time with men and gets slandered in society for it.

Of course if you would rather me use a modern example, how about “Daughter of Time” by Josephine Tey? That whole novel was about figuring out an actual conspiracy in history, not about the main character’s identity as a cop or anything. Or what about any of the Hannibal Lecter books? Those are about one agent trying to catch a serial-killing criminal while Hannibal gets in their heads.

Sure, one can make an argument that each one of those examples has someone trying to find themselves, whether they know it or not (Richard III certainly didn’t know in “Daughter of Time” that people were helping him clear his name, a form of finding themselves). But those arguments sometimes seem very circuitous to me, at least when I go through them in my messed-up head. And do they necessarily prove those stories are about “Who am I?” or “Who are we?” I’m not sure, but if you can make an argument that doesn’t seem long and circuitous, then by all means, go ahead. I’d love to hear it.

Still, I don’t think you can sum up all fiction in one sentence or one question. And as for my friend Pat Bertram, that’s just the sort of stories she writes. I write some that are like that and some that are definitely not like that (Snake comes to mind for the latter). So like many things in the writing world, it all depends on the author and their particular stories and preferences.

What’s your view? Are all stories under a particular question, or do they fall under different questions and themes and beliefs?

  1. Pat Bertram says:

    All the books I like to read (as well as those I write) are those that try to answer the question, “Who am I?” In your examples, the question may not be the characters asking “who am I?” but we, the reader. When we read about Lector, we are trying to figure out who we are. Do we have that capability for evil, or even his ability for indulging our basest whims? In Daughter of Time, perhaps it’s not Richard the third who is asking “Who am I? but Alan Grant. Maybe while in the hospital he is feeling unlike himself and he still needs to prove that he is a detective. In A Tale of Two Cities, the story for both Sydney Carlton and readers is about who we are and if we would have the courage, the love, the selflessness to give the object of our love her heart’s desire, even if it means giving our very lives to do so. (To me, the story is about what sort of person can accept that sort of sacrifice. If you can accept it, are you worthy of it? Tthough maybe Lucy saw the sacrifice as being for her husband, rather than for herself.)

    But you’re right — not all stories ask the question, but perhaps they should.

    • Thanks for commenting Pat. I hadn’t thought about that question in terms of the readers, so thanks for giving me something to think about along with a very logical argument. I appreciate it.

      • Pat Bertram says:

        Long before I was a writer, I was a reader, so I tend to see books from a readers standpoint rather than a writer’s. Stories are about us readers in some way — either fulfilling our wishes (even if that wish is just for a bit of entertainment or distraction), expanding our horizons, helping us figure out who we are.

      • I agree, especially with fulfilling our wishes and expanding our horizons. I got both of those when I read the Age of Misrule trilogy by Mark Chadbourn.

  2. timothyfmcgregor says:

    “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

    Dickens, Charles (2010-12-01). A Tale of Two Cities (Kindle Locations 6104-6105). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

    Sydney Carton comes to know himself in these beautiful lines, please give Dickens another chance

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