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.)