What constitutues “Plot” in fiction? GENRE’s a big factor

I’m still making my way through Charles Dickens–“Dombey and Son,” one of his longer works–and besides feeling utterly depressed because I’d forgotten how tragic his vision of humanity always is, I’m realizing how thin the “plot” is in this novel (though I’m really enjoying it.) And that got me thinking:

What Dickens does–passing off characterization and even just character study as plot–would not pass today in most genres other than literary fiction. This is nothing groundbreaking, but it reminded me how strongly genre influences a writer’s definition of “plot.”

I wrote a post a while back about romantic relationships in fantasy literature, which kind of touches on this: my basic argument was that a romance by itself really shouldn’t be a major focus in a fantasy plot. While it can be a fun subplot and play a dynamic secondary role, if the crux of your plot in a fantasy novel is about the progression of a romance, you might want to reconsider your genre (or at the least, market/describe your work as fantastic romance). Love as the major point of interest in a story–as the arena where most is at stake–can carry a romance (just call me Captain Obvious today) and a piece of literary fiction, but other genres…. not so much, I’d think. That’s because each genre defines “plot” as something different.

Now, if you are writing fantasy, you can–and should–write the fantasy you want to write. I’m not telling you you should cater to genre stereotypes in the hopes of selling books: that’s a HORRIBLE idea. You can write your fantasy and focus almost entirely on a love story and pace things slowly. You, after all, are the writer. But you definitely want to make that choice deliberately, while aware that the majority of your fantasy readers are used to action-packed, fast-moving adventure stories.

Why Authors Need To Consider Plot Expectations

Authors do well to consider the expectations their readers will bring to the table regarding plot because plot (in my personal opinion, at least) is one of the major things readers take away from a novel and one of the major things they read for. Some people get sucked in by other aspects of a work from time to time–such as a political message or a running theme, or a symbol, or a knack for description on the writer’s part–but in general, I know that I read for two reasons:

  • To get into the minds and lives of other people (Character)
  • To experience a good story (Plot)

So obviously, your plot matters. This means that what the average reader of your genre will be expecting in terms of plot matters. Can you break expectations? Absolutely. Can you break the rules? Without a doubt. Can you even turn the staples of your genre on their head? You can, for sure. But you should understand what you’re doing, and doing those things needs to be a deliberate and reasoned choice on your part, not an “accident.”

For instance, I write fantasy. Tolkien basically defined that genre. EVERYONE thinks of “The Lord of the Rings” when they think of fantasy. (I also love the Harry Potter books, and while there are some major distinctions, there is no denying the influence LotR had on J.K. Rowling’s books. The One Ring/Voldemort’s Horcruxes, all of which need to be destroyed, is a major one). I try to keep in mind the power Tolkien exerts on reader expectations in my genre not as much when I write as when I do marketing…. You don’t want to lead your readers on. If your book is something different than what they would expect based on the genre classification, you should prepare them in some way for that.


14 responses to “What constitutues “Plot” in fiction? GENRE’s a big factor

  1. I actually hate literary fiction, and some romance, because I feel it’s too character driven and not enough of a plot.

  2. I once read a story that ran afoul of this. The blurb said ‘telepathic spy missions’ but inside was ‘high-school love triangle involving a telepath’. I felt cheated.

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  5. I don’t think that a particular setting limits the type of story that can be told. Umberto Eco’s “The Name Of The Rose”, for example, is a hardboiled detective novel set in a medieval monastery.

    • I agree that it’s very possible to make the kind of setting you’d like to use work for you…. For me, sometimes setting is ingrained in the plot and sometimes I think, “this action needs to happen. What setting feels most appropriate and fun for it?”

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