The full title of this section is Plot in a Short Story, as against Plot in a Novel. Having elbowed himself ample room to ignore plot in the previous section, Hills returns to the question of plot and his definition of a story as “something that happens to someone”:
What “happens” in a story, the real meaning, is seldom much concerned with the plot.
By ‘story’ here Hills means a short story. Novels, of course, are rife with plot, even if they aspire to literary goals — as Hills notes in comparing the two forms:
But at any rate it [plot] is of very great interest to even the literary novelist: after all, he’s got to get the reader through four hundred pages somehow.
The point remains, however, that meaning and plot are not the same thing. The vast literary real estate of the novel almost necessarily demands that plot act like a kind of superstructure, bridging and supporting the literary points an author wants to make on the road to meaning. For this reason novels lend themselves to a kind of separateness that is the antithesis of the literary short story.
But this separateness or back-and-forth between plot and character, plot and meaning, plot and authorial indulgence is not limited to print. It’s in almost every long form including movies and television, where stories routinely cycles between character moments, asides, and the advancement of plot. (There are valid pacing reasons to do this, none of which apply to the short story because the short story is a single punch.)
There’s nothing wrong with mixing things up. It holds the audience’s interest even if the connections are weak and the story is generic. But Hills isn’t concerned with lowest-common-denominator storytelling. His interest, and I hope your interest, is in the most effective writing you can create, whether your aims are literary or commercial.
As a demonstration of the difference between plot and meaning Hills gives a short, brilliant lesson using Hemingway’s equally short and brilliant story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Every beginning author ought to study both the story and the lesson — and all the more so given that the time commitment is probably less than a half hour. There is not, and probably cannot be, a more concise demonstration of the difference between a story’s plot and a story’s meaning.
Which leads me back to my continuing emphasis on the portability of techniques. As I’ve noted before, the concentrated effect of the short story can easily be replicated in a longer work by having separate, parallel or disparate elements resolve at key moments. Wandering along various pathways through a novel is not a crime, and can be quite enjoyable, provided those pathways resolve at some point.
In this sense a short story is actually limited by its abbreviated nature:
Plot, or incident, in a short story then, is never there for its own sake, for it’s intrinsic “interest” or “excitement”. Any action in a [short] story must be justified by its contribution to the whole — no matter how indirect or oblique it may be.
The novel provides more latitude, and the reader allows for and expects as much. But that acceptance does not confer a license to be bland or verbose. Bringing focus to any work benefits that work, and one of the best ways to bring focus to a work is to avoid confusing plot with meaning. The former supports the latter — or ought to — in every narrative form.
Next up: Selection in Plot.
— Mark Barrett