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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds Plot is probably the most basic element of the novel, the aspect we think of first. A friend might ask you, what happened in that novel? Does it have an interesting plot? But, often, when we talk about plot, we’re really thinking about story and vice-versa, because there are actually a few differences between the two. Story is simply the chronological order of events. So if we were to relay what happened in a novel from beginning to end, that would be the story. But plot, on the other hand - which we’re focusing on here - tends to have more emphasis on causality, on the why rather than the what. Why did a series of events take place?

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 seconds How did one event lead directly onto another? There’s a famous example given by the novelist E.M. Forster to illustrate the difference between these two concepts. The king died and then the queen died would count as a story, a mere sequence of events. But the king died and then the queen died of grief qualifies as a plot. A degree of cause and effect has been added in. One thing has led onto another.

Skip to 1 minute and 6 seconds Another key thing to notice when we’re talking about plot is the order in which it’s conveyed to us, the reader, because whereas a chronological telling of events or story takes us from A to B or 9 to 5 in an orderly manner, a plot very often zigzags backwards and forwards through time in a less predictable way. That’s often what we find with novels. Authors like to create confusion or disorder as a way of provoking tension. So you might very well be told something out of sequence. An event that happens at a much later stage in the character’s life is revealed to us early on, and the plot itself is concerned with how this came to be.

Skip to 1 minute and 39 seconds We know the end result, but it’s not yet clear how we got there. And then there’s the issue of how much time or number of pages it takes the author to tell us about a particular event. Sometimes a number of years is compressed into a few sentences. On the other hand, an author might seem much less rushed with a whole novel devoted to just one single day. This section of the course is going to introduce you to some of the strategies and devices authors use when plotting their novels in order to play around with readers’ expectations of time.

Introduction to plot

Plot is often the aspect of a novel we think of first. In this introductory video, Dr Alex Lawrie outlines some of concepts we’ll be focusing on this week, such as chronology and causality.

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This video is from the free online course:

How to Read a Novel

The University of Edinburgh