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Silverberg on plot, part 2


In the three most recent issues of Asimov's, Robert Silverberg has been expounding his theory of plot. Here's a shortened version of his description of the "universal plot skeleton" (which he also calls the "basic plot" and the "standard plot formula"):

[An] engaging character ... faced with some immensely difficult problem that [they must] solve, makes ... attempts to overcome that problem, ... and eventually ... either succeeds ... or fails in a dramatically interesting and revelatory way.

The thing that bothers me most about Silverberg's argument is his claim that this plot is universal.

Silverberg essentially claims that this universal plot underlies all good fiction. Everywhere. Throughout human history. He cites several historical examples, such as Cervantes, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Apuleius. But the only example he cites that isn't from Western European culture (and hence eventually derived from Roman and/or Greek drama) is the story of Gilgamesh.

Which leaves out most of the world. He doesn't mention plot in stories from East Asia, South Asia, anywhere in Africa, the South Pacific, Australia, or the Americas. He doesn't even mention Eastern European stories. Calling a plot "universal" on the grounds that it's ubiquitous in the Western European storytelling tradition is much like calling a set of baseball games played in the US the "World Series."

Perhaps I'm nitpicking his word choice; I'll grant that his discussion is interesting and useful wrt the Western European tradition, so if he'd called it the "Western European universal plot outline" I'd probably be fine with that. (Though every one of his examples whose authorship is known was written by a man; I'd want to see more evidence that all Great Works by women also adhere to this outline. So maybe it should be the "Western European universal male plot outline.")

But I think he'd still be doing the issue a disservice in not looking at the wider question of whether that plot really is universal. It's an important question to me for various reasons, not least of which is that every now and then we receive submissions from authors who apparently come from cultures that don't have Western European roots. Often, the English in such submissions isn't very good; it would take a lot of work to make most of them publishable in an English-language publication. But I often also have problems with other aspects of the story, including the plot, and each time I wonder:

Is it that the plot of this story isn't a very good plot? Or is it that I'm so immersed in the Western European traditional plot paradigm, and I know so little about plots from other cultures, that I can't recognize a good rendition of a story that doesn't match what I expect from a plot?

I once read a workshop story in which the plot/structure/presentation didn't really work for me; after the critiquing, the author revealed that they were using a traditional Arabic storytelling style/structure. I'm guessing they probably did a pretty good rendition of that structure, but I was blind to its charms.

And I suspect a lot of other readers from Western European-derived cultures would similarly not recognize plots in unfamiliar forms.

Which comes back to one of the questions I keep coming back to lately: how does an author teach readers how to read their story? (And is it even the author's responsibility to do so?)

The question in this context assumes, of course, that the majority of the readers of an English-language speculative fiction publication are coming primarily from Western European-derived storytelling traditions. That may be a less accurate assumption as time goes on; perhaps one answer is to not make assumptions about who the audience is and what they need to be taught to understand the story. But let's set that answer aside for a moment.

So here are my questions for you (feel free to discuss them, or to just think about them, or for that matter to ignore them):

  • What are some storytelling traditions other than the "standard" Western European one?
  • In what ways do some of those traditions differ from the W.E. one?
  • What are some examples of valid plot outlines other than the "universal" plot outline, at roughly the same level of abstraction as the universal-plot description I quoted above?
  • If most of the likely readers of a given story are expecting a W.E.-style universal plot, but the story doesn't have that kind of plot, how can the author best guide the readers into having the right kinds of expectations to enjoy the story?
  • What can editors do to recognize (and edit effectively) good stories from outside their own cultural experience? Nalo posted some fascinating comments to a journal entry of Mary Anne's, talking about (among lots of other interesting stuff) having had an editor with "enough [of the right sorts of cultural] background to have half a chance at editing [Nalo's] work properly"; one part of the answer is to nurture such editors. But for those of us without the right background to be able to evaluate a given story, what might some good approaches be? (This is, btw, an open-ended discussion topic, not an "explain yourself to me" demand.)

Comments/discussion/thoughts welcome.


In one of the double-sized issues of F&SF there was a story by Ursula LeGuin that I would have called a vignette, or a mood piece, not a "story."

But there it was.

And I wondered: why do we accept such mood pieces from people like Bradbury and LeGuin, but not from beginning authors? How do we tell when someone has mastered the equivalent of the literary tone poem? I don't see anyone teaching this to beginning authors... why?

Wish I knew. I write a lot of mood pieces and vignettes, and I think they have power and a purpose that wouldn't necessarily be fulfilled by the short story form. :)


Is Silverberg aquainted sufficiently with the work of Joseph Campbell, who has studied myth in many cultures?

Seems to me that myth—both as told and our need for it (if there is such a thing; Tolkein thought so)—lays the groundwork for plot in fiction.

Metasilk: I'd say that Silverberg is acquainted with Campbell, yes. The last one of his essays I read seemed to be leading into myth, and he talks a lot about early greek plays in one of the sections already published. I'm looking forward to the end of this series to see his full argument. We might be tackling his view a little early-- it could change a bit between now and completion.

Jed, I've often wondered the same thing regarding culture. I've been watching a lot of old kung fu movies lately. They're often very hard to follow for various reasons, but I do think that they follow Silverberg's "universal" structure.

What makes them hard to follow is their use of characters tangential to what you or I would identify as plot, and cultural references that I don't have the background to get. But almost every one of these films culminates in a battle with the "bad guy" who is defeated and the credits roll almost as soon as he hits the dirt. There's not much of a denoument in the films I have seen so far, and I've watched about eight of these in the past month. (Hastings has a big sale going on, what can I say?)

I'm a neophyte asian film viewer so I'm sure someone will come along and clarify things--but to me, I don't see a tradition of plot that differs greatly from the "universal" one.

I guess my tenative position is that what differences there are, culturally, are not in the basic nature of plot. I'd really like to see examples of other plot structures though! I'm kind of bored with the "universal" plot.

I can certainly think of plenty of non-Western literary works that use something like Silverberg's "universal plot". The Ramayana fits that description, as do many of the tales, including the frame tale, in The 1001 Nights. I've also read any number of folktales from various parts of the world that fit that basic plot description, though all of them were tales that had been collected, translated, and in some cases "retold" for English-speaking audiences, which may well mean that they'd been prefiltered for conformity with the "universal" plot description. It may not be universal, but I think it could probably be fairly described as "real common".

The best example I can come up with off the top of my head of a story that doesn't seem to me to fit that pattern, and doesn't seem to be describable as plotless, is Akutagawa's "Within a Grove". (The inspiration for Kurosawa's film Rashomon.) I'm not sure that the story can really be said to have a protagonist, and most of the characters manage to be alternately sympathetic and unsympathetic. The person who can best be described as having a problem to solve is the reader, who has to decide which of several competing versions of events represents the truth.

I suppose one could describe the general plot pattern as something like, "An event is described from several points of view, leaving the reader to decide the truth."

There must be some other examples..will think on it some more.

We think that it would be more accurate to say that Mr. Silverberg’s skeleton could be interpreted so broadly as to apply to any story he likes. Now, we’re basing this on your excerpt, so we can’t be too cranky, but we were able to come up with more than one story that achieved some cultural currency that didn’t seem to fit his skeleton.
The first thing we thought of was the Monkey King story (one translation is here, which includes the first few page images, if you want to see the style), in which the Monkey doesn’t start off as “King”, and he doesn’t think that he has any problem that requires solving. In fact, he’s a creature of his appetites, and doesn’t go in much for problem-solving at all, unless it’s to assuage his immediate desires. The plot of the book involves, in the long story arc, his achieving the Daoist Heaven; we are aware of that story arc, but the Monkey is not but arrives at it as a gradual and repeated episodic process. Yes, you could massage the thing into fitting the skeleton, but then what can’t you.
Similarly, there’s one often referred to as the Greatest Story Ever Told (not the one about the couple on vacation who are robbed of everything except their camera and toothbrush, although that’s quite a good story, too, and doesn’t follow the skeleton, either) which doesn’t seem to have a main character who is “faced with some immensely difficult problem” that He must solve. At least, not in any narrative sense. Jesus isn’t aware, for the most part, of his mission through much of the story. Nor is it clear whether he succeeds or fails at the end (although it certainly is dramatic). In fact, the mission itself is up for debate (the nature of Messiah-hood being in flux, depending on who you ask and when). Still, the story does manage to stay popular.
While we’re on that topic, medieval saints’ vitae follow a story arc quite different from that skeleton. Again, you could apply the skeleton to individual episodes within the bio, but that’s not how they were told, nor how Mr. Silverberg implies the skeleton should be used. There is, we think, an overall story arc for your typical vita, but it doesn’t involve a problem that must be solved, as the person isn’t attempting to become a saint. You could argue that the problem is ‘stay alive’ and that the martyr fails dramatically, but the story is not of a failure but of a success. Again, these were very popular stories, and still are, although to a lesser extent. Now, we are more likely to just tell the Herring Story without telling the whole story, and the Herring Story does follow the skeleton (St. Thomas Aquinas wants ... a herring! But there are no herring! But Lo! A Herring is provided! A miracle! He dies.) but the St. Thomas story as a whole does not. (Which actually raises the question of whether religious/spiritual narratives really fit at all—if the problem to be solved is “existence”, isn’t the eventual end of the narrative “death” no matter how you fill the intervening story?)
And then there’s the King Arthur stories. The Morte D’Arthur doesn’t so much follow the skeleton, unless you are willing to skip all the bits that don’t fit. The popularization edits the full version to fit the story arc suggested by Mr. Silverberg, but they became popular long before (and because they illustrated abstract ideas like courtly love as well as following questing beasts).
And then there’s the Divine Comedy. Does Dante have a problem to solve? He’s pining for his lost love, but how does his understanding of cosmology change his problem? And if it does, who would be willing to accept that plotline as a skeleton for the story that is actually told?
This isn’t much help to you in terms of your editorship. We have no idea, for instance, how you would recognize that somebody was using the vita form (or why you would want to publish a modern specfic vita anyway, if you did recognize it). Besides, we happen to like plots of the kind Mr. Silverberg describes. We don’t think they are the only ones that exist, or the only ones that are valid, but we like ’em, and we don’t necessarily want to encourage you to seek other kinds. Just our 2 cents.

Fran & Ed

Great comments!

MCAH: Yeah, I think this is partly an issue of Author Points again; editors and readers are more likely to trust a known-good author to do a good job with a vignette than they are to trust an unknown author.

Metasilk: I honestly don't know the answer to this question: how good was Campbell's research in myths from non-Western cultures? ...I think it's a good point that storytelling traditions may be rooted in myth, but I've read translations of Native American myths that didn't feel very plotful to me, which is to say they didn't match my Western-European-descended sense of what a plot should be.

I'm gonna go read part 3 of Silverberg's plot editorials; more soon, no doubt.

Boy, I wish I knew enough to *really* answer this question.

My impression is that Mircea Eliade blew away Campbell in terms of real research into non-Western cultures with an eye to distilling general principles, so I would start there if you really want to know.

Much of the really freaky non-Western literature I've read, like the Popol Vuh and Six Records of a Floating Life, doesn't seem to fit the model.

Nor do many postmodernist stories.

Nor does much of the bible. Consider the story of Job, for one, or most of the Patriarchs. The story often has little to do with the efforts of a character to solve a problem: indeed, ultimately it's not the "protagonist" who has agency at all. Often they bear witness to the miraculous, suffer, are transformed, endure powerful and stirring events, without any "efforts" to solve any "problems" (though sometimes, of course, there are problems and efforts -- though it's usually the bad guys, like Saul and Pharaoh, involved in the problem/effort cycle, while the good guys simply follow God's instructions steadfastly [or violate them recklessly], which is much more interesting than it sounds to the modern ear).

Of my "Other Cities" at SH, only "Ahavah" and maybe "New (n) Pernch" really fit.

With "The Book of Jashar" I faced precisely this problem. The story sort of fits the model, if you think of David as Mezipatheh's problem. But the original version of the story felt really off -- people who were readers of the Bible liked it, everyone else loathed it. Charlie Finlay's critique -- possibly the best critique I've ever received -- identified the problem: the story followed an archaic set of protocols, and I needed to teach the reader the protocols.

That's why I introduced the cover letter (the letter to Susan) -- it acts as a gentle easing-in to the world of the story. The cover letter *does*, in a comic mode, follow Silverberg's pattern. The rest apes it as well as I could manage without distorting the story too much -- but really, the climax of the story is in the psalms, the ones Jonathan recites and the (real, from the Bible) one David sings at the end. It's really that lyrical resolution, one of the major modes of Biblical narrative, that matters, and not the plot resolution. Most reviewers, probably most readers, focussed on the frame tale and the high-concept gag; I don't think people not used to reading the Bible a lot parsed the structure the way I intended.

It is the writer's job to reach his audience -- by seducing them with the virtues they're trained to appreciate, he can induce them to also sample new modes, and perhaps acquire a taste for them.

cf. also Le Guin's "holding bag" (vs. pointy stick) theory of literature, in her essay collection "The Language of the Night".

I'm sorry to point this out, but the epic of Gilgamesh actually does follow the so called universal story outline.

Gilgamesh is saddened by the death of his friend which he perceived to be his equal in everyway. He goes on a quest for immortality in order to prove that he and his followers who dwell in his city can escape the fate of mortal men.

He fails in this quest, for a snake steals immortality away from him.

As for Ursula K. Leguin and other great writers having the ability to write stories outside of the Universal Plot, I suspect this is because they are extremely well read and have a definition of story that is so deeply ingrained and spiritual that it can't be expressed in a simple formula, but in the stories they write.

I think Neil Gaiman described story as being anything that keeps the pages turning, and satisfies the reader in the end.

Thanks for helping me analyze this topic; these questions have plagued me as well.

Thanks for the note, Bernard.

I should note that I don't think anyone said the Gilgamesh story doesn't follow the outline. Silverberg cited it as evidence that the outline is universal, and I don't think anyone contradicted that. I apologize if my phrasing made it sound like I disagreed with him about Gilgamesh; if so, that was unintentional. (Though fwiw, Wikipedia's plot summary suggests that the part you're describing as the plot doesn't start until around halfway through the total length of the story. But we could certainly look at it as two stories that each follow the Silverberg plot outline, and for that matter I don't know how accurate Wikipedia's summary is.)

If I'm understanding your paragraph about Le Guin correctly, I'm afraid I disagree with you about that. I don't think that there are certain people who have access to some deeper definition of "story" than the rest of us. I think that, instead, different people have different ideas about the importance of plot in stories. As Silverberg notes (see the entry before this one), there are lots of people who are writing stories that don't match Silverberg's plot outline; my interpretation of his real point is that such stories can't be good. I suspect that he would find a plotless piece by Le Guin nearly as objectionable as a plotless piece by a less-accomplished writer. Certainly Le Guin has written stories for the New Yorker that seem to match the kind of thing Silverberg objects to.

I think I just got schooled. Thanks though. Next time I post something I'll be sure to read more closely what I'm replying to.

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