Some writers ask me ‘What’s the difference between the action and plot of a novel and its ideas or theme?’
In the terms described at some length in the book How Stories Really Work, plot can be explained by talking about the things writers use to create linear motion and mystery in stories. But the ideas and themes of a story are sometimes not connected to the plot in ways that are quite so easy to describe. One can go through all the actions of Macbeth, for example, scene by scene, watching the play or studying it, and get a pretty full grasp of its plot and action - but its ideas and themes ‘creep up on you’ while you’re doing that. Things that authors use to create that creeping effect include moral vacuums - questions of right and wrong, which intrigue and engage readers or audiences - and what How Stories Really Work calls ‘core vacuums’, those things which ask really big questions.
The plot is what readers get caught up in; what might be called the ‘doing’ part of the story, the so-called ‘world’ in which things happen, with its demands for forward motion and effort and time. This world draws upon readers’ and audiences’ attention and pulls them this way and that without giving them much chance to think about what is happening to them.
The other dimension in fiction might be called the ‘being’ part of the story. This is the real point and purpose of the piece of fiction. It has no demands. Simply by making their way through the plot readers meet all the requirements for entry and continued occupation of this ‘being’ part. Their attention is not ‘sapped’ - in fact, nothing much is done with their attention at all, it’s all theirs, every last bit of it. To use an image, instead of readers and audiences being driven down channels to work the mill-wheels or hydro-electric dams of the tale, on this plane of the story their thought rests in still pools, calm and unmoved. Reflective.
I once visited Scotland. Out in the highlands, on a lonely road miles from any kind of settlement, I stopped the car and got out to sit by a pool. The silence and stillness was almost absolute; it was so quiet that there was an element of discomfort about it, as though something was wrong with my ears. The only interruption came randomly, as a tiny fish popped up to the surface of the pool with a faint ‘plop’. Then nothing again.
It’s possible to look at stories and see the ‘being economy’ functioning: the birds singing or flying soundlessly across the landscape, the wind blowing, a line of trees at the top of a nearby field, the sunlight on clouds in Wuthering Heights, for example. Great writers use description economically, as it is supposed to be the part of the story that readers most ‘skip’. But it only takes a few well-placed words and images to create a reflective world around the paced events of the fiction. What passes for thought in this zone of the tale doesn’t register in the plot world as there appears to be no motion, no destination, no purpose, no drive. In the plot world, there must be a direction, an exchange between characters, a clammering and a grasping; in the reflective world, simply being sufficient - ‘exchange’ is outmoded, it is what it is. The very idea of ‘character’ loses much of its meaning. Far from grasping, one takes in easily, without much consideration. Infinite nuances are the channels through which this part of the writing arrives at the point where readers are.
When in the reflective world, one looks down to find the plot world stuck to one’s shoe, as it were. It has a pull, a stickiness which will eventually draw one back into its network of unceasing demands. But once one has glimpsed the ‘being’ of the story, the forces of the plot world are less intense and have far less authority.