Monday, April 16, 2012

Spoiler alert!

There is a game that I sometimes play with my friends that I just now dubbed The Plot Game (I'm super creative, I know). The idea is that you take a famous book/movie and you tell the story without any specifics. You strip away names, character, style, etc. Basically, everything but the plot. The goal of the game is to be the first to guess the book/movie by just the plot outline. Let's play!

There’s a girl who is in first grade or so, who is brilliant, but her parents and her brother are awful. The girl goes to school and has an amazing teacher and the teacher realizes that the girl is brilliant and tries to get her to realize her full potential, while avoiding the evil principal who ends up being the teacher’s aunt. The girl sort of has super ESP-like powers because she is so smart that her brain can’t contain her intelligence. She uses her magic to overpower the principal and lead a children’s rebellion. Then she gets adopted by the teacher. 

Do you know what book I'm talking about? Scroll down to see the answer...

For those of you who guessed Matilda:

You're right! Congratulations!

This game is fun for a few reasons. The first is that it’s a competition, and competition is always fun. The second, and more relevant reason, is that it interesting to see how different a book/movie is when it’s stripped of everything but the basic plot outline. This summary of Matilda carries with it none of the magic from the original book to the point where it is almost unrecognizable as the book. This is really interesting because it shows how important the sentences are when we read a book. If instead of my plot summary above, I simply said to you "Everyone is born, but not everyone is born the same," (which is the first sentence of the book) you would get a much better sense of what the book Matilda is going to be like than if I just gave you the plot summary, which describes instead what it will be about.

But that doesn't mean that a plot itself cannot be quite good in isolation. Many Shakespeare plots are so well-loved that they have been done and redone as movies:

and even SNL skitsFairy tales, legends, myths, and fables are other genres whose plots have been done and redone: 

This shows that there is some inherent pleasure in the simple plot of a book, without the burden of prose and character development.

This is apparent when we think of things that entertain us that strip away everything but plot. For example, if you miss an episode of How I Met Your Mother, you may get a friend to fill you in (this was, of course, before the internet made it easy to catch up). The friend can say something like “Robin and Ted had sex” and you will get some pleasure from knowing that plot aspect without knowing anything about the process that got them there.

Plot is often enhanced by other aspects of a story like style and characterization, but plot is the foundation on which most writers write. When I write a story I start out with a plot outline. I do not start out by thinking, "Hmm I want to create a mood that embodies the scent of lavender..."but instead, "Okay, we're in the future and there are these robot vending machines, and the robots are basically hookers..."

Think about shows like Law And Order:

or The Twilight Zone:

These TV shows are almost entirely plot. We get new characters in almost every episode and we really only care about the things that happen to them, and not so much the way that they are happening.

And when we tell a story that happened in our own life, we are just giving the core details of the plot. “You’ll never guess what happened to me the other day! I got pulled over by a cop for speeding yesterday and I sort of recognized him, so I looked at his badge and I recognized his name. So I asked ‘Are you Spencer Jones from Vassar’ and he said ‘Yes’ and then I realized who I was. Turns out, we had dated back in college! Needless to say I got out of the ticket.”

Okay, so this story was entirely made up, but we all tell stories like this: fast-paced, shallow, plot summaries. And what is more is that we are entertained by them. We like telling them and we like hearing them. We have no idea who Spencer Jones is and we don’t care because his only purpose is to further the plot of this little story.

Twilight has a plot. One might even say that it has an engaging plot. A girl goes to a new school where she is worried she doesn’t really fit in and she falls in love with a man who turns out to be a vampire. This is like 100 times better than the Spencer Jones story!

Almost all of the complaints about Twilight are about the weak writing style or the flat characters, but no one ever praises the plot. Turns out, the plot is pretty awesome! We have to give Stephenie Meyer some credit here. 

Sometimes it is hard to remember, but there was a time when nobody knew that Edward Cullen was a vampire. If you were to read this book before it made the big screen, you would be wondering along with Bella just what was up with Edward! And then once you realized it, you wouldn't be yawning like I was when I first read the book, you would be shocked! There is something to be said for reading a book for the first time and not knowing what is going to happen. The element of surprise can provide us with tremendous amounts of pleasure, and it is hard to feel that initial shock when a book is as well-known as Twilight is.

I'm currently reading Fifty Shades Of Grey which is a Twilight fan fiction-turned-novel. If you are planning on reading it, do not read this post any further, as there will be SPOILERS!

Fifty Shades Of Grey is essentially a retelling of Twilight with an older and less wooden female lead and a whole lot more sex. The important thing here is that it is a retelling of Twilight

I did not know coming into this book exactly what its backstory was. I did not realize that the story was supposed to mirror that of Twilight and for the first fifty or so pages (before I figured out that it was Twilight) I was genuinely engaged in trying to figure out what Christian Grey was. There is something very exciting about not knowing something, but knowing that if you keep reading you are going to find out.

We cannot write off the plot when we read Twilight, although it is very easy to, as we knew it going into the book. Stephenie Meyers was not given a Shakespeare plot or a Greek myth and told to write it in her own way, she completely made it up! And it is hard for us to remember that because for most of us, when we read it, the plot was a given. We knew what the plot was so we were just reading it see how Meyers handled it. But that is not how the book was meant to be read. The book was meant to be read with a set of fresh eyes, and it is unfortunate that we all heard the The Plot Game summary before we read the book. 

Spoilers are called spoilers for a reason.

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