The Power of Plot

05/16/2013 06:05 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2013
  • Evan Gottlieb Associate Professor of English, Oregon State University

Dan Brown's new novel, Inferno, has predictably shot to the top of the best-seller lists in America and Britain; equally predictably, it has been condemned by many professional reviewers on the same grounds as its predecessors. Look up any review of Brown's fiction, scan it for descriptions of his prose, and you'll likely find the adjectives "clunky" and "repetitive" playing central roles. What redeems Brown's novels -- or, at least, compels readers to buy and read them?

I should admit right away that I am not a Dan Brown fan. A decade ago, I listened to an unabridged audio version of The Da Vinci Code as I drove across the country; it was a fair way to pass the time, although the American male voice actor's rendition of the female French detective was distracting, to say the least. But if I was not inspired to read more of Brown's productions, that exposure was enough for me to recognize that his strength as a novelist lies in plotting rather than dialogue, character, or description. Certainly his novels have these elements too, but as even many of his fans acknowledge, they are not what keep readers turning his pages and coming back for more.

So why do novels with strong plots often succeed when their other elements are relatively weak? There are many ways to answer this question, but a bit of narrative theory and a little research can provide a few of them. First, we can draw a basic distinction between "plot" and "narrative:" the latter refers to how the events of a story are told and the former to the sequence of the events themselves. In many novels, plot and narrative are essentially aligned: whether the events are narrated by a character involved in the action (sometimes called a first-person narrator) or one who stands outside it (often called a third-person or omniscient narrator), we learn about what is happening at roughly the same time, and in roughly the same order, as do the characters themselves. But many mysteries -- including Brown's specialty, the thriller -- effectively exploit the difference between plot and narrative. In classic detective fiction, for example, the narrative generally begins with the detective arriving on the scene after the murder or crime has already occurred. In other words, some of the plot's events have taken place before the narrative begins, and the job of the detective is in effect to reconstruct those events: to figure out what happened or, more classically, "whodunit."

Brown's Inferno follows this pattern precisely. His protagonist, Robert Langdon, wakes up with amnesia in a hospital bed in Florence, Italy, and has to figure out how he got there and what has happened to him in the past two days. Astute reviewers have already noted the resemblance between this structure and those of the first two movies in The Hangover comedy trilogy, which also feature "heroes" whose quests involve reconstructing the plots of their own narratives. The distinction between plot and narrative, in other words, can be exploited for comic as well as for dramatic purposes. Of course, unlike Robert Langdon, the buddies in The Hangover movies don't also need to save the world; their quests are on smaller scales, if no less perilous to life and limb (and teeth). But I would argue that part of what keeps viewers watching those movies is the same as what keeps readers turning the pages of the novels of Dan Brown and his many imitators: suspense.

Etymologically, "suspense" derives from the Latin noun "suspensum," where it first appeared in the Middle Ages primarily in legal phrases like "in suspenso," which meant to hold a legal judgment in abeyance, or to defer it. From there, "suspense" migrated into non-judicial settings to indicate delay and then the state of mental uncertainty generated by putting off an expected decision or conclusion. In real life, such uncertainty is usually unpleasant, but experienced at a fictional or theatrical distance, anxiety -- as Aristotle long ago recognized about other emotions like pity and fear -- becomes pleasurable, desirable, even addictive. Reading a mystery or a thriller, we enjoy temporarily experiencing the same uncertainties as the characters about whom we are reading, without having literally to put ourselves in danger.

More, reading or watching a mystery-thriller provides another kind of satisfaction we are also often denied in real life: the chance to find out what it all means. Even as we begin a popular book or movie, we know that by the end everything will likely be worked out and explained to our satisfaction: obstacles will be overcome, mysteries will be solved, and conspiracies will be unraveled. As Oscar Wilde wittily put the case, "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." Of course, sometimes we are purposefully denied this kind of closure in the final chapter or scene. But that is what Sequel means.