(Perhaps you thought – you hoped – that two weeks without my Sunday ramblings meant the feature had been discontinued. Let me reassure – or disappoint – you that it is not the case. I’m now back with more unrequired and preferably controversial opinion stated as fact but still open to reasonable discussion. Okay? So here we go!)
Plot – « the P-word » – is a topic I have often addressed on this blog, most often to point out how crucial it was to mystery fiction and to deplore its relative second-class citizen status nowadays. This article however will take on the subject from another angle. Good plotting matters, but what is good plotting to start with?
The most common answer to this question is that good plotting is one that fools and surprises the reader. This definition lies at the heart of the traditional detective story and of much suspense fiction and the standard by which writers in the genre are most often judged, but it ultimately is the expression of personal taste rather than an objective measure. That a mystery fails or avoids to fool and surprise doesn’t mean that it is badly plotted – « bad plotting » is something different altogether.
The difference between a plot and a story is premeditation. To plot means you know where you’re going even before you actually start writing, whereas a story may take any direction it wants, no matter how convoluted or arbitrary. Great plotters can also be great storytellers but both are not synonymous, for a good story only has to be gripping whereas a good plot has to make sense too. A writer that plots must take care that no thread is left loose in the end and that everything builds up to the inevitable climax.
Bad plotting is thus not about failing to pull a rabbit out of a hat – only the most seasoned practicioners can do that. Bad plotting is about not being able to build a cohesive ensemble. I remember a conversation that took place over at the FB Golden Age Detection group some time ago about the respective plotting skills of the so-called Crime Queens, with me saying that Christie of course was the best of them all but that Sayers was a better plotter than Allingham and Marsh. Some of my fellow members were surprised as DLS in their opinion nowhere approached Christie’s brilliance; her plots they said were often transparent and clearly not her main concern. This I don’t dispute (well yes, I do – but this is not the point here) but as I said there is more about plotting than misdirection and surprise solutions. Sayers’ plots at their best may be lacking in those but more than make up for that on cohesion grounds with every cog, even the tiniest one, finding its place in the machinery. Nothing or almost nothing is incidental or coincidental, and it’s clear Sayers not only knows where she’s going but goes there using the shortest distance, the straight line, leaving no loose ends behind her on arrival. This makes her a better plotter technically speaking than the digression-prone Allingham or the arrhythmic Marsh.
Don’t get me wrong: I love surprises as much as anybody else, but in the absence of those I can still marvel at the beauty of a well-constructed plot in which everything makes sense in the end. This kind of beauty is getting increasingly rarer these days as most modern crime writers are storytellers, not plotters, and Chandler’s poor plotting skills are no longer held against him but almost seen as a virtue. That has been many years in the making, starting with the elevation of Elmore Leonard and culminating with the genre’s enthusiastic embrace of Stephen King, whose rambling narratives are the antithesis of tight plotting. It took one century and a half, but as far as crime fiction is concerned, Dickens has finally prevailed against Wilkie Collins.