The debate continues about how many plots fill our literary coffers. Most high school freshman would be able to list you seven. Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, etc. Structuralists have gone to great and complicated lengths to reduce all stories to two simple plots: “the hero’s journey,” and “the stranger comes to town.” Georges Polti argues for thirty-six plots in The Thirty-six Dramatic Situations. But let’s be honest, all lectures and theoretic debates aside, adult fiction (and perhaps YA fictions as well) hinges on variations of two simple plot questions: “When’s he going to fuck her?” and/or “When’s he going to die?”
Death and sex are the plot elements that drive fiction and are as vital to narrative as carbon dioxide and chlorophyll to the growth of every green thing outside my window. Vulgar? Lowbrow, you say? Try ubiquitous. Try quotidian.
Sarah Water’s Fingersmith: “When’s she going to fuck her?” Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivalgo: “When’s he going to die?” Charles Dickens’, Great Expectations: “When’s he going to fuck her? Marilyn Robinson’s Home: “When’s he going to die?” The Canterbury Tales: “When’s he going to fuck her?” The Bible—must I say?
The universal utility of these two questions lies in two facts. First, the questions need not be answered to be effective dramatic forces. He neither has to fuck her nor to die for the very possibility to compel us through a story. And that is to point, after, all, to compel a reader through a story. When we open the cover of a book, we may rest our hats on higher themes–loyalty, love, equality, justice, but in the back of our primitive (and lets be honest, our dominant) minds what we really want to know is, “when’s he going to fuck her,” and/or “when’s he going to die?”
The second fact which explains our questions’ utility is this…The word when has never been entirely free of its clamoring cousins: how, where, why, what? Suddenly our simple question, “When’s he going to die? Has multiplied into how, where, why is he going to die? How, where, why is he going to fuck her? Answering any one of these questions gives breath to a cousin. And if you answer them, suddenly you’ve got a plot. Suddenly you’ve got story.
Now fiction writers might hum and har about higher arts, about abstract purposes, political messages, cultural enlightenment. Indeed, these higher purposes might well be what drives us. But let’s face it, in the end, all unread arguments and all unread statements–brilliant or not–fail. We should have been writing philosophy, or history. Fiction must be consumed. 19th century moralist knew it. For what moral story was not packed with enough salacity keep young impressionable Eliza reading? Kafka new it. Bug or not, we care if, when, where, how and why, our transmogrified hero croaks.
Hats off to Kafka. Hats off to Mr. Pasternak. It is not my intention to diminish the Bible or the efforts of Upton Sinclair, only to acknowledge the widely known and stubbornly overcomplicated questions that drive all stories. Death and sex are human inevitabilities, necessary to the continuation of life on earth. We need not pretend the subjects any more course, vulgar or immoral than photosynthesis. Thankfully, in narrative, they happen to be a lot more fun.