A common mistake made when considering plot is to assume that plot refers to the sequence of events in a finished story. A more accurate view considers that there is a difference between the progression of events in a story’s structure, and the order in which these are revealed to an audience.
As an example of the difference between the two, we can look to the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. The book opens with five travelers falling to their deaths as the bridge they are crossing collapses. The remainder of the book documents how each of the travelers came to be on that bridge at that time. Clearly, the progression of events for the characters was quite different than the order of revelation granted to the audience.
In contrast, the novel Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. follows the adventures of a Main Character who lives his life out of chronological order. In this case, the mixed-up progression of events is part of the plot’s structure, not simply part of the storytelling.
The key difference between these two aspects of plot is that there is an internal logic to the plot’s structure from the character’s point of view and there is an order in which that logic is revealed to the audience.
Looking toward motion pictures for examples, films such as Pulp Fiction or Remains of the Day present their plots in quite a different order than the events actually occurred. In each of these stories, there is an internal logic to the sequence of events as they occurred in the structure. Then, that sequence is mixed up in order. This new arrangement has a completely different affect on how an audience will respond to each story, yet does not alter the internal logic at all. In other words, if Pulp Fiction or Remains of the Day were re-edited to reveal the plot in chronological order, the message of the story’s structure would remain the same, but the viewing experience for the audience would be completely changed.
A prime example of this kind of impact shift can be seen in the film and video versions of the movie, Once Upon a Time in America. The story explores the changing relationships of a group of friends from their days as poor children during the Depression to their ultimate stations in life as old men in today’s society. In its original theatrical release, episodes from several different periods in their long history together were jumbled up, so that the audience would see them as old men, then young boys, old men again, and then teenagers. A large part of the enjoyment in watching this film was to try and sort out how one thing would eventually lead to another, and also to determine why some expected things didn’t happen after all. In a sense, viewing the movie was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
In the video release, however, the story was re-edited to chronological order. All the same pieces were there, but the story lost much of their charm, appearing ludicrously simple and predictable in this new form.
The point is: the plot of a story describes the internal logic or sequence of events that lead the characters from their situations and attitudes at the beginning of the problem to their situations and attitudes when the effort to solve the problem is finally over. Once that has been established, an author may choose to rearrange the order in which those events are revealed to the audience. This rearrangement may be integral to the feel of the finished work, but has no effect on the internal logic. As a result, such a technique falls into the realm of storytelling. In Dramatica, storytelling techniques of this nature are called Storyweaving. Storyweaving is fully explored in the portion of this book dealing with The Art of Storytelling. Here, we will only examine the nature of the plot itself.