Friday, November 10, 2017

Story versus Plot: Titanic versus Voyager

Webster's Duchess of Malfi: Lots of weird things
happen, then everyone dies and goes crazy is story.
In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster distinguishes between story and plot--story is a series of events: this happens, then this happens, then this happens...

Shaggy dog stories often fall into this category: one thing happens, then another, then another. It can great fun even if it leads nowhere other than the final scene.

Forster considered story the most basic and uninteresting of fiction elements, however necessary. In a rather funny--though typically somewhat pompous--definition, he accuses story of relying on mere curiosity, "the lowest of the human faculties." A story's entire goal is "of making the audience want to know what happens next." He presents the image of "Neanderthal man [listening] to stories . . . the primitive audience . . . gaping round the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they neither fell asleep or killed him."
Hamlet: Why and how should I act on the
ghost's instructions? is plot. There's a reason
Shakespeare outclasses Webster.

Plot, on the other hand, includes mystery, which Forster rates higher than curiosity.

Forster writes, "'The king died, and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died, and then the queen died of grief' is a plot . . . 'The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king' . . . is a plot with a mystery in it."

Story versus plot is ultimately the difference between Titanic and Star Trek's Voyager.

Both works use an underlying structure to keep the narrative running--if the narrative takes place on the Titanic, then the story runs as follows: this happened, then this happened, then everybody died (except maybe one person). It is surprisingly useful, but only to a point. Going with the "hate-at-first-sight" trope, a story on Titanic goes as follows:
An enemy queen meets an enemy king on the boat, which then runs into a iceberg, which then sinks. At some point they decide to get along. And he decides to die for her (unnecessarily since the raft could have held both). Oh, and some people are rescued, but most of them die. 
Season 4: "The Killing Game"
Titanic as story is the reason that so many movies have been made about it and also the reason that so many movies about the Titanic end up being, in the long run, rather forgettable.

The underlying structure of Star Trek Voyager is, as with much episodic television, basically story (but): this happens, then this happens, yet everybody gets home. The "yet" allows for the introduction of plot from the characters' points of view, not only within each episode (which have arcs) but within the Voyager universe:
A ship gets lost and has to get home; four years in, the crew is taken over by an alien race that forces the crew members to take on new personas; seven years in, the crew is taken over by an alien race that forces the crew members to work on a planet; yet the ship gets home.
Returning to the same trope:
The enemy king and queen get lost on a ship that then prepares to return; four years in, they are placed in a situation that requires them to work together; after that event, they reconsidered their prior behavior; they grow closer followed by total reconciliation at seven years; when they return to "ordinary" life, they must decide whether or not their "fantasy" relationship can continue. 
Season 7: "Workforce" and James Read!

Not terribly profound. Yet it involves mystery and payoffs rather than simply resolving itself on the side of an indifferent geological phenomenon.

Will they get home together? is a story question.
Why and how will they get home as a couple? is a plot question.

No is Titanic's answer to the first question.
Maybe . . .if we can work something out is the answer in Voyager. 

In the long run, human agency/vulnerability is always more interesting than inevitable fate.

At some point, a fan-fiction alien story will follow, using Voyager's underlying plot . . .