All Possible Plots by Major Authors
May 11, 2022 3:01 AM   Subscribe

 
Metafilter: Nothing can ever be right again. Here’s a horse cat.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 3:36 AM on May 11 [15 favorites]


I feel like the way they've framed it, while understandable from a reader attention point of view, sort of undermines the jokes, which mostly aren't attempts to riff on the plotting habits of the authors named. They also do vary rather wildly in quality. The first one is great (and does reflect about all I can remember of Trollope's plots). Some are accurate but don't make me laugh, but quite a few fall completely flat for me. The Austen one, for example, is both astonishingly wrong (Austen is arguably the greatest English writer on the strong correlation between how deeply we love someone and how much they get on our tits: Emma/Knightley, Elizabeth/Darcy, etc) and just not funny to me. And sometimes they amuse me but pretty much ignore the brief. Like, I love the Stoppard one (possibly mainly because I am in its precise target audience), but I think it's more of an inside joke about a particular British millennial experience of education than any real attempt at riffing on Stoppard plots.

So yeah, it feels like it was probably an editorial mistake to use the prompt they gave the staff as the framing device of the article, because it was followed so loosely that it often makes it feel worse when the gags don't land for a reader.
posted by howfar at 3:53 AM on May 11 [8 favorites]


Pynchon: Gerbera Ganglion goes out drinking and debauching with friends, all the while unseen sinister forces conspire to
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:57 AM on May 11 [13 favorites]


thefence.com: let's just pump up the font size in that title aaaaaaaaaallllllll the way
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:37 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


You're not wrong, howfar, but I'll forgive that article everything for that D. H. Lawrence joke.

The Sagas of Icelanders were summarized by a 17th Century Icelandic scholar as "farmers scuffling", which I always thought was a pretty apt description.

Meanwhile, I feel most of the Greek tragedies could be summarized as, in the words of Chris Isaak, "baby did a bad, bad thing".
posted by Kattullus at 4:39 AM on May 11 [6 favorites]


It sort of gives a drive-by highlight to my kind of sort of dislike for Shakespeare's comedies: with rare exception, they are the same story, again and again. Pretty language, definitely funny, but at their barest, Act I is "here's why everyone is going to mistake everyone else's identities, possibly with some women dressing as men" followed by Acts II-IV "hijinks ensue" and Act V, where the unpleasant character is shamed, and all the identities uncovered, true loved is declared, and everyone marries their true love.

I mean, yeah, it's the very picture of "all happy families are the same."
posted by Ghidorah at 4:47 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


Shakespeare could also have been “You fall in love. This turns out to have been a very big mistake.”

Stephen King seems an easy target for this treatment; perhaps not in the same category as most of the writers on the list, but if they can include that hack Dan Brown, then why not?
posted by TedW at 5:32 AM on May 11


Dan Brown - here's a badly edited load of old bollocks ripped off from a wildly speculative historical book of some years back so that even more fools will believe whatever it's proposing simply because it's in a book

Also whatever about periods earlier in his career when he was drinking or on coke Stephen King is emphatically not a hack.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 5:36 AM on May 11 [7 favorites]


Stephen King: You have come to a small town in Maine. That was a terrible mistake.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:42 AM on May 11 [41 favorites]


No, that's a small list of plots.

Here you can find ALL possible plots. discussed previously
posted by dmd at 5:43 AM on May 11 [10 favorites]


Dean Koontz: The airport book store has no Stephen King.
posted by Splunge at 5:56 AM on May 11 [24 favorites]


Different writers write for different reasons; Stephen King is more likely to write slightly repetitive plots because he writes bestsellers/potboilers and has the real possibility of making millions of dollars if he gets it right; Doris Lessing was more likely to repetitively work out her political ideas until she moved on to something else; etc. I mean, not that anyone is indifferent to money or totally uncaring about the ideas that they express, but the emphasis varies.

Do we in fact praise writers for their boundless imagination? Like, I've never heard anyone praise Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble or even Virginia Woolf for boundless imagination. I mean, if one is writing a mimetic novel about humans, there's only so much boundlessness that makes sense. <>Invisible Man is boundedly imaginative; aliens, stellar vistas, delicate sentiments, deep dive historical writing, etc are not going to put in an appearance.

Does a novel need to be imaginative to be good? What is "being imaginative"? LEM's novels are very imaginative but also pretty dull unless you really, really like that kind of thing.

Why did Monet paint all those haystacks? Why do artists repeat? I'd always assumed that they had ideas that they needed to work through to their own satisfaction, and that this was good, actually.

~~
I guess that politically I have to support the debunker's impulse - "lol this novel is really just about some guy saying his opinions" or "ha ha the whole plot is just because people are uncomfortable about sex" - and I suppose it's good because it's really about more people having read the "great books" and it being all right not to like them very much.

At the same time, I've been doing a bit of a Great Books reading group with a relative (relative is a bit pickier about books than I am, so we read more Great Books than not since we'll both enjoy them) and you know what? A lot of those great books really are staggeringly great. Are they all politically appealing? Not at all! People on the left tend to like Moby Dick, politically speaking, but it's actually rather politically sketchy if you pay attention.

I add that a lot of the time when a widely admired book seems boring to you, that's because you're not ready to read it yet, and you should put it down. Like, I tried to read Invisible Man when I was sixteen or seventeen, surely old enough to understand it - lots of people read it in high school but my high school was retrograde and we didn't. Anyway, I couldn't get on with it. But I read it last year and it blew me away - surely one of the greatest US novels, just astonishing.

Like, a book can seem boring and trivial if you haven't had the life or readerly experiences to get into it, and that's okay. No one has to like some bullshit that they find boring, but that's not the same as "lol Virginaia Woolf was scared of sex".
posted by Frowner at 5:57 AM on May 11 [22 favorites]


there are exactly 55 possible dramatic situations, and they have been elucidated by Mr. John Hodgman.
posted by logicpunk at 6:11 AM on May 11 [5 favorites]


The "_________. This turns out to have been a very big mistake" construction works for a significant proportion of literature, particularly so-called 'genre fiction.'

Sci-fi/Horror: "Humans do something or go somewhere new. This turns out to have been a very big mistake."

Mystery: "Someone gets involved in something that promises to make them rich. This turns out to have been a very big mistake."

Spy fiction: "Our hero begins a new assignment. This turns out to have been a very big mistake."

Romance: "The protagonist meets someone new. This turns out to have been a very big mistake, for a while, but then everything turns out OK."

It pretty much writes itself...
posted by googly at 6:13 AM on May 11 [6 favorites]


H. P. Lovecraft: you don't even know
posted by glonous keming at 6:13 AM on May 11 [10 favorites]


Does a novel need to be imaginative to be good?

If a novel doesn't contain a novel idea, to me at least, I'd argue it isn't a good novel. It may be enjoyable, thrilling, sentimental or some other kind of experience. It may be proficiently done with the words and the paragraphs. But for me, the central experience of reading a great book is a sense of your worlds expanding.

I won't even say that that needs to be done with plot or story ideas. I've frequently read authors for their ability to shape words on a page alone. I don't think, for example Hemingway or Wolfe can be understood as great writers without admitting that their imagination in terms of style was as important as any of their contributions. Plot is only one thing that's important and sometimes not even the third most important thing in a piece of writing. Sure Shakespeare wrote a lot of similar plays. He had a lot to say about those things, and liked using a familiar structure. So what? Plot isn't the most important thing in a Shakespeare play, not even close.

One need not read "good novels" all the time, indeed I probably only read a few year year that hit this bar. There's a lot of other kinds of reading---which is in no way a "problem".

Indeed one of the problems of this kind of newness chasing is that the reader may have encountered the idea elsewhere or worse, found it obvious on their own. So Great Books often come too late as well. I've more than once had the experience of reading a Great Novel to come away less than impressed (a sensation of that's it?). In some cases, it's because I've read works influenced by the Great Book and already internalized those innovations.
posted by bonehead at 6:22 AM on May 11 [5 favorites]


Stephen King: child evil, or child hero? [flips coin]
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:25 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


I would like to propose combining John Hodgman's 55 Dramatic Situations with Harvey Ismuth's Essential Third Act Twists as the path forward for narrative inspiration.
posted by mhoye at 6:27 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]


This put me in the mind of Book-A-Minute, which is a pity, because Book-A-Minute was quite a bit funnier.

Here's their collected works of Stephen King.
posted by giltay at 6:35 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


There's an old trope that there's really only two plots: I went on a trip, and a stranger came to town. Perhaps the plot isn't the thing that makes literature interesting.
posted by touchstone033 at 6:36 AM on May 11 [11 favorites]


Now do it for artists. And musicians. No surprise: creative people tend to focus on a thing they do well, and especially when they get paid for that kind of thing will make more of it.

I'm glad we're not mocking these authors for being successful by mining their ownsome profitable trope, because that would just be kind of shitty.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:38 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the plot isn't the thing that makes literature interesting.

touchstone033 is correct here. This sophomoric article is supposed to diminish the status of canonical novels by simplifying their plots to the point of absurdity. It's dorm room wisdom, like, "Life's a bitch, then you die".
posted by Modest House at 6:49 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


There's an old trope that there's really only two plots: I went on a trip, and a stranger came to town.

Which is actually just one plot, told from two different perspectives.
posted by grog at 6:55 AM on May 11 [50 favorites]


Is this a parody of a McSweeney's post?

Or is it unintentionally showing that, yes, brilliant authors through time have found unique ways to explore the human condition and more often than not, once they find a particular lens, tend to stick with it?
posted by gwint at 6:57 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


After all, KISS has made 17.. 18... 19... 20! Albums that all sounds exactly the same.
posted by Jacen at 7:01 AM on May 11


It's not the Tale, it's the Teller.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:08 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


Wodehouse achieved his effects through a combination of flawless diction and fastidious plotting. Not that there is anything original about his plots. On the contrary, he tells the same handful of stories over and over again. Even many of his characters are interchangeable. In his preface to Summer Lightning, Wodehouse mentions “a certain critic” who “made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.’ ” Wodehouse cheerfully owned the charge; that critic, he wrote, “has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”
posted by SPrintF at 7:22 AM on May 11 [21 favorites]


Metafilter: For reasons never fully explored, they have resolved to make themselves unhappy.
posted by Mayor West at 7:28 AM on May 11 [10 favorites]


This sophomoric article is supposed to diminish the status of canonical novels by simplifying their plots to the point of absurdity. It's dorm room wisdom

I feel like it's a necessary stage, if you were raised with some sort of middlebrow reverence for the Greats. Usually you get through it by your mid-20s.
posted by praemunire at 8:00 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


(The better, funnier version of this is How to Tell if You're in a [x] Novel series from the Toast, by Mefi favorite Daniel Lavery.)
posted by praemunire at 8:03 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


Neal Stephenson: There is a huge problem that a bunch of nerds feel only they can solve without involving businessmen or political leaders. They spend a lot of time (like months, years, or even centuries) getting all the pieces in place, detailing the history of every concept and artifact encountered. Ultimately, there is a climax which resolves the immediate situation, but a larger conflict continues and a new battle is imminent. There is no sequel to address the latter.
posted by MrGuilt at 8:15 AM on May 11 [11 favorites]


For some reason I'm reminded of an extremely old joke:

A man on his first night in prison is lying there, thinking about his life when he hears someone in another cell yell "Twenty three!" There's a chuckle from a bunch of the other cells.

A minute later, he heard someone else yell out "forty-eight!" followed by some raucous laughter from all over the place.

So he asked his cellmate, what's going on here? And his cellmate says, "we've all been here so long , we've all heard all the jokes so many times that we've just given them all a number to make it easier."

So our guy says, "huh. Can I give it a shot?"

"Sure."

So, he yells out "A hundred and three!" and the place goes explodes with laughter. People are hootin' and hollerin', his cellmate's holding his belly with tears in his eyes from laughing so hard. So our guy says "Pretty good joke, eh?"

And his cellmate replies, "Yeah, we never heard that one before!"
posted by mhoye at 8:25 AM on May 11 [17 favorites]




There are only 7 story plots:

1) Weird sailor tells you a story
2) Deity has kinky fetish
3) Giant robots, but also FRIENDSHIP
4) Child becomes adult & brings down Empire
5) Who did all this murder? Was it me?
6) 1,000 pages of Feelings
7) Why is our gold under that monster?
posted by kyrademon at 8:54 AM on May 11 [22 favorites]


An author can exhaust their own ideas and basically just run out of oomph (Late Wordsworth, amirite?), or get obsessed with something that they aren't working out well or do not, themselves, understand.

It's really interesting when a writer gets new impetus and does new work after exhausting something - like, Doris Lessing goes through stages of intellectual obsession (moving further to the right as she goes) and each stage energizes her anew and enables her to do new stuff. With Lessing, I think that in some of her last books her bitterness and anger at the left was not something she understood or controlled and those books are crude and obvious - she had a theme that drove her but that she couldn't successfully make into art.

~~
I suppose it depends on what one reads for - I tend to like working through a set of books which work out one theme over again because I like comparing things. I'm an anxious and easily confused reader, so when I have a broad sense of the writer's concerns it is much easier for me to focus on the finer and more subtle stuff. Sometimes I have to get to this point through re-reading, but thematic familiarity also works.
posted by Frowner at 9:10 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


Shakespeare: you are completely unable to recognize your own twin or the person you have the hots for, just because they put pants on.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:19 AM on May 11 [4 favorites]


oversimplifies Gaskell because it’s sticking to the novels that make sexy movies. Poss Trollope also. OTOH funny was the point, not fairness.

{%1} This turned out to be a very bad idea - and then the murders began.
posted by clew at 9:25 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


1,000 pages of Feelings and then a Moment of Clarity about an attractive young person Who Doesn't Care About You.

So much of modern lit.
posted by bonehead at 9:40 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]




just because they put pants on

To be fair, they are such pants as dreams are made on.
posted by flabdablet at 10:03 AM on May 11 [5 favorites]


oversimplifies Gaskell because it’s sticking to the novels that make sexy movies

That one was basically North and South and...North and South. The bit about "sympathy" was spot-on, though. Now, as someone who has made it through all of Richardson, that was pretty accurate.

The Trollope summary does even better for Frances Burney, whose plots I've described on more than one occasion as "a character has infinite scruples for an infinite number of pages. The book ends."

Isn't the problem in Shakespeare's tragedies more likely to be "someone else became king, you're ticked" (Hamlet) or "someone else has been named heir, you're ticked" (Macbeth), or even "you wanted to retire and make someone else do your job, they're ticked" (Lear)?

Surely the Wilde doesn't quite meet the brief for the assignment?
posted by thomas j wise at 12:34 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]


How many of these still worth digging up if you're not in school or academia? Most of the folks I googled turned out to be old farts from the 1900s or worse, mainly affluent people writing about how annoying shit was in their day or how they couldn't have their own feelings or whatever. The past seems awful, especially around the times most of these authors were from. I did look up Atonement and read the synopsis and had a chuckle that it has the same lame ending as Roseanne tv show had.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:46 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


Is this a parody of a McSweeney's post?

From 1989 I give you SPY Magazine's Novel-O-Matic, from their SPY Notes parody of Cliff's Notes, as detailed on the other site.
posted by rhizome at 12:48 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


After all, KISS has made 17.. 18... 19... 20! Albums that all sounds exactly the same.

Speaking of McSweeney's, also going way back!
posted by rhizome at 12:51 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


I call dibs on “ownsome profitable trope” as my next Metafilter handle. Or as the secret title to my next act of scheming. I don’t know. Whichever comes first.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 1:11 PM on May 11


To be fair, they are such pants as dreams are made on.

... on?

On?!
posted by mhoye at 1:25 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]


How many of these still worth digging up if you're not in school or academia? Most of the folks I googled turned out to be old farts from the 1900s or worse, mainly affluent people writing about how annoying shit was in their day or how they couldn't have their own feelings or whatever.

With that mindset? None.
posted by praemunire at 1:32 PM on May 11 [8 favorites]


On.
posted by flabdablet at 1:48 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]


fools in old time hats and coats
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats
posted by clew at 1:56 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]



With that mindset? None.


I felt fairly certain that GoblinHoney was, uh, shitposting - although there is something compelling about complete negation. They're all old farts! About a century ago! Bram Stoker, Mrs. Gaskell, Virginia Woolf, Emile Zola, Thomas Mann - old farts in bad times who whine a lot! Probably a pretty good description of metafilter, of course.

Tangentially, you know what is a really, really good novel and totally underrated? Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett. I'm trying to get more people to read it because it's so good. This is the same Bennett that Virginia Woolf writes so negatively about in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown", and her essay really illustrates that you can sometimes be too close to a thing to see it, because Clayhanger has a lot of the same concerns with interiority and material culture that Woolf writes about. Clayhanger is really good to read alongside Woolf, in fact. The other novels in the series are interesting but not as good.

But anyway, probably if you read this post you like many famous novels, many mimetic and bourgeois, so I recommend this one as well.
posted by Frowner at 2:56 PM on May 11 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: old farts in bad times who snark a lot
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:15 PM on May 11 [4 favorites]


I felt fairly certain that GoblinHoney was, uh, shitposting - although there is something compelling about complete negation.

OK, they did post the One True Height comment which made me laugh today...
posted by praemunire at 6:48 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]


Not my best constructed reductionist goof, but please understand I live in Dan Brown's time and things are awful here.
posted by GoblinHoney at 7:25 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]


Is this a parody of a McSweeney's post?

That was my first thought too, followed by, it's a weak one, at that.
posted by bassomatic at 9:59 AM on May 12


One of my favorite books about writing is Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story. She's writing about creative nonfiction, but I think it has wider application. To oversimplify her thesis, it is that the "situation" is what exists—the setup, the facts, the big messy collection of ideas and events and so on—and the "story" is what you make of it. My own formulation of this is that there are no inherently interesting stories or events, but that everything depends on how the writer crafts it into a story.

When you think about how many similar-to-identical plots or story setups there are, and how the resulting work, whether fiction or nonfiction, a book or a movie, can be either excellent or otherwise, it seems almost obvious. I just watched a mediocre miniseries recently whose basic set up was "member of Parliament is discovered to have had an extramarital affair." If we took three minutes to brainstorm a list, we could come up with dozens of movies, books, and real-life situations that have that same set up—that are the same situation. So what makes another reworking of this plot worthwhile? How it's told.

I'm listening to a Ken Follett audiobook right now. I really enjoyed the Pillars of the Earth some years ago, but this is only the second of his novels I've read. There's a lot of plot in his books; a lot of characters who have their own wishes and desires and experiences, but based on my sample of two, "you live in Medieval England and want to build a cathedral" is one way to know you're in a Ken Follett novel.
posted by Well I never at 7:36 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


The intense and enduring popularity of ecclesiastical architectural ambition as a subject matter for fiction (e.g. the Manole myth, Golding, Follett, Alan Moore (also more than once), Peter Ackroyd, plus I'm sure countless others I'm missing, including at the very least one MR James story) both slightly baffles and entirely delights me.
posted by howfar at 4:11 AM on May 14


Reading through this thread, I am struck at the quite heavy analysis some Mefites are bringing to a pretty light hearted exercise. (Which isn't to say anything anyone has said here is wrong).

I just laughed at each of the recognisable foibles of each author, whether they were fair or fully representative of their plots or not, then subscribed to the magazine. Thanks @Pyrogenesis for bringing it to my attention.
posted by Probabilitics at 8:57 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]


I am struck at the quite heavy analysis some Mefites are bringing to a pretty light hearted exercise.

Well it is Metafilter. Simply reading us means getting struck by people overthinking overthinking stuff, just like the woods get struck by bear shit.
posted by howfar at 2:30 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


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