Most people who talk or write about plot refer to it as a series of “things,” such as “climax,” “rising action,” “refusal of the call,” etc.
But in my experience, plot is better seen as a series of processes. There are many processes involved in plot, but a key one is the interaction between storyteller and listener with regard to the listener’s attention.
How does a process approach help us understand the three most fundamental functions of plot?
Let’s suppose that I’m creating a story about Paul. It begins by showing how much Paul hates his job, how mean and mercenary his co-workers are, and how harmful is the product the company makes.
We can summarize the first three parts of Paul’s story this way:
Part 1: Paul hates his job. It is meaningless work among people who are cruel to each other.
Part 2: One day, Paul gets a letter from a head-hunter, offering him his dream job in another city, at double his current pay.
Part 3: Paul refuses the new job.
How Do You Respond?
As a listener, what was your response to Part 3?
Most of us feel puzzled. We ask, "Why did Paul refuse?"
We may even be so motivated by this puzzle that we imagine possible reasons why he refused, such as:
a) Does Paul have an aging mother nearby who needs Paul’s daily help but can’t be removed from her cancer treatments?
b) Or does Paul’s daughter, working to become a champion ice-skater, have a famous coach nearby who seems essential to the achievement of her dream?
c) Or is Paul an active alcoholic, who knows how to hide his addiction in his current job but would risk exposure in attempting to create a double life in a new city?
The Lure of the Anomaly
Why are we so engaged by Paul’s refusal of the job? For me, it's because his refusal runs counter to the expectations we have set up. It is an anomaly, which our minds are designed to focus on.
Why? Consider our ancestors on the African savanna. Those who paid attention to anomalies (such as an unusual movement through the grasses near them) would have been more likely to survive sneak attacks by lions and the like.
In fact, there would be little lost by an ancestor who responded to too many anomalies. But failing to respond to even one anomaly could remove that would-be ancestor from the gene pool, long before she could pass her genes down to us.
Levels of Interest
Most people who’ve heard the outline of Paul’s story feel some empathy with Paul in Part 1, and some pleasure for him in Part 2.
All listeners, though, report feeling very interested in Part 3: Why on earth would Paul refuse his dream job?
This is the power of a simple process: setting up expectations in your listeners, and then refusing to fulfill them.
A Co-Created Power
This power isn’t really yours alone: it’s actually an interaction between you and your listeners. If your listeners buy into your sympathetic portrayal of Paul, they will be shocked by his refusal of his dream job. If they don’t buy in, Paul’s refusal will have little impact.
Further, if you misjudge the cultural expectations of your listeners, they may respond unexpectedly. For example, very poor listeners in developing countries may not be sympathetic to a character who is dissatisfied in spite of having shelter, enough food, a steady job—and even the means to help out others less fortunate.
The Three Required Functions of Plot
We can now see that plot is (among other things) a series of three processes that, first and foremost, direct your listeners’ attention.
Plot needs to:
A) Gain your listeners' attention. This is accomplished in Paul's story by Part 1;
B) Retain their attention. This is accomplished in Paul's story by Part 2, but more especially by Part 3. (Paul’s full story, of course, will need to continue retaining their attention through various means);
C) Repay their attention—that is, don’t just keep your listeners’ attention through the whole story, but also make them glad they took the trip with you.
If plot fails to do either A or B, your listeners will fail to pay attention to the whole story. If it fails to do C, they will not feel satisfied by the story they listened to.
The Freedom of Focusing on Process
When you see plot as a series of interactions (based first on “is this interesting to my audience?”), you are free to experiment and adjust. You are free to create stories that will satisfy a particular audience—and to adapt that same story to work with a different audience.
You will stop trying only to create and identify the canonical parts of your plot (which, under certain circumstances, can still be useful) and focus first on the essentials of gaining, retaining, and repaying your listeners’ attention.
Now you can understand that the movement of plot is not something separate from the responses of your listeners (or imposed on them impersonally) but a series of interactions with them. Plot is, in essence, a story dance!