“All human happiness and misery take the form of action.”
Since my young years as a student in high school, I have underlined and highlighted words, sentences, paragraphs and pages of description, characterization, scenes and setting from the different books that I have read. I have copied and collected these pieces of writing in notebooks of different sizes and shapes. While browsing through one yesterday I came across the following by Michael Ondaatje:
“I’m always accused of being plotless. Plot is discovered as I go along in the writing. Plot for me isn’t even the way it is. Plot can be about the discovery of character, the uncovering of a relationship.”
It is easy to confuse plot with story but they are not at all the same. A story is a tale, a narrative, an account. A story is theme, plot, character, setting all put together in a logical order. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Plot on the other hand is intrigue, stratagem, scheme. Plot cannot exist unless it has a character to reveal it. The person and plot happen together. One cannot exist without the other. Complexity comes through character. Complication comes through plot. The plot is simply the mechanical structure that arranges the story and gives it a particular form. Isak Dinesen wrote:
“I start with a tingle, a kind of feeling of the story I will write. Then come the characters, and they take over, they make the story. All this ends by being a plot.”
Literature is packed with books about people where the character is at once the plot and the action. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dickens’s David Copperfield, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Ondaatje’s The English Patient are but a few examples. Ivy Compton-Burnett wrote:
“As regards to plot I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots. And as I think a plot desirable and almost necessary, I have this extra grudge against life.”
I do not agree. It is in real life that we find great stories about the not so great people like us, that we like to associate with and with whom we have a lot in common. Perhaps you have read the book “Bridges Of Madison County” by Robert James Waller, or seen the film played by Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Neither the book nor the film are action packed. And the book is not about a farmer’s wife having an affair with a stranger who is only passing through their town. No, it is about a wife and a mother, a woman, an ordinary person who wants to be noticed. And the stranger passing through is not a hero and does nothing out of the ordinary. He only notices her, all of her.
Perhaps the plot of the book can be summarized in the following excerpt:
He looked up at her.
“Jesus,’ he said softly. All the feelings, all of the searching and reflecting, a lifetime of feeling and searching and reflecting, came together at that moment. And he fell in love with Francesca Johnson, farmer’s wife, of Madison County, Iowa, long ago from Naples.
“I mean” – his voice was a little shaky, a little rough- “if you don’t mind my boldness, you look stunning. I’m serious. “you’re big-time elegant, Francesca, in the purest sense of the word.”
His admiration was genuine, she could tell. She reveled in it, bathed in it, let it swirl over her and into the pores of her skin like soft oil from the hands of some deity somewhere who had deserted her years ago and had now returned.
And in the catch of that moment, she fell in love with Robert Kincaid, photographer-writer, from Bellingham, Washington, who drove an old pickup truck named Harry.
Who among us humans doesn’t want what she wants?