Go here for an introduction to the Wheelhouse Project.
I read a lot and fairly widely. I really like books. Which means that when thinking about which of Nancy Pearl’s four Doorways to reading—Story, Character, Setting, Language—I react more with, “Yes, those,” rather than identifying with one alone. That said, I find one of these least compelling: Story, a.k.a. plot.
Pearl states: “Books with a large Story Doorway have a lot of action moving the plot forward and are difficult to put down. Readers want to know what happens next, and might even stay up all night to finish. When readers describe these books they will talk about the events of the book.” Looking over my 2019 Top 10 I see only two “plot-y” books, The Haunting of Hill House and The Parable of the Talents but a drive to learn “what happens” only explains a portion of why I appreciated them so much. My Honorable Mentions, on the other hand, contain several more plot-driven titles, showing that I can perhaps appreciate a story-book but will be less likely to float it to the top.
My disinclination to the Story Doorway likely explains why I struggle to remember the details of “what happened” in a book or movie. My brother will attempt to quiz me on plot details from the Harry Potter series and I generally fail miserably. While he can sometimes name the exact chapter that an obscure event happened, I struggle to remember just what the Deathly Hallows were or why Harry’s looking for them instead of Horcruxes. But if you want to discuss how Hermione—the cleverest and bravest witch Hogwarts has seen for decades—gets done dirty by the series and the publishing industry, or whether or not love really can overcome evil, then let’s chat.
I’m likewise rubbish at figuring out whodunnit and am more drawn to “why done its,” mysteries where the story focuses not on who but why a person did the deed. Pearl notes that fiction bestsellers often fall in the Story Doorway, and looking over the examples she lists—including Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, John Grisham—I see authors whose work I generally find, well, kinda dumb, perhaps launched by an interesting idea but failing to fulfill that idea through the machinations of plot.
But let’s take a bestselling, plot-y author she lists who I do appreciate: Stephen King. His novels do transform into page-turners, particularly at the climax (which lasts, on average, a millionty pages or the final third of the book, whichever comes first). In between times, you will find large stretches, sometimes hundreds of pages, of digressions, character notes, and tension-building episodes. And what I ultimately like the most about King is how he puts interesting but generally ordinary people into extraordinary, often horrific circumstances. So yes, I want to know “what happens” but because I want to know what happens to them.
I sometimes feel that plot serves as the herring that King throws to the seals so we’ll keep reading about his people and places. Perhaps this explains why I appreciate Rose Madder, a book that often gets ranked near the bottom of King’s oeuvre, because I’m compelled by Rose and Norman and Rose Madder, as well as the bizarre world inside the painting.
And so, I find myself at the end. Unsure how to wrap up, which seems fitting for a post about how I’m not that into plot. C’est la vie.
4 thoughts on “The Wheelhouse Project: Story”
This puts me in mind of three things: first, Kurt Vonnegut’s amazing lecture on the shape of stories, which I’ve used to introduce plot and literary interpretation to “intro to lit” classes – see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ and here: https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/arts-letters/blackboard. Second, it makes me think of Atwood’s wonderful little “Happy Endings,” which offers discussion about the “middle” of stories, a part that I often link to plot. Finally, it makes me realize I haven’t yet asked you what you thought of The Starless Sea, which sprung to mind immediately when you said “So yes, I want to know ‘what happens’ but because I want to know what happens to them.” Back I go, then, to your previous post…
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