Sunday Salon: Following the Plot

In our post on Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Jenny and I both remarked on how confusing we thought the plot was. In the comments, CB James remarked that this kind of confusion has become common in crime fiction and that it doesn’t bother him (or at least didn’t in this book). That got me to thinking, and following James’s suggestion that some of our thoughts about Smilla were worthy of a full post, I decided to pull the idea out, kick it around a little, and see what others think.

I agree with James that a lot of crime fiction is confusing, and I can think of times when it didn’t bother me at all. In the case of Smilla, the confusion just added to my frustration with other elements. However, when a book has great characters or a compelling atmosphere, I don’t mind so much if I don’t know what’s going on. It’s not crime fiction, but Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter is a pleasure because of its characters; even on a second reading, I couldn’t make heads or tails of some of the politics, but it didn’t matter. In Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching seems deliberately confusing; readers are not supposed to know what’s going on, even after finishing the book. But the writing style and the ambiguity itself make the book compelling. In the world of theatre, Sleep No More is designed to keep the audience on its toes; it’s not even possible to see the whole thing, much less put all the pieces together. The atmosphere, however, makes it a stunning experience.

So it’s true that I can enjoy a book without being able follow the plot. I can even lavish such a book with praise. But there has to be something else there for me to enjoy, and I have to be confident that there is deliberation behind the confusion. If I’m not confident that the author knows what’s going on—or at least is aware of the different possibilities—then I’m less likely to be satisfied. (See, for example, the difference in my reactions to White Is for Witching and There Is No Year by Blake Butler, the latter of which I was a little skeptical about in the end precisely because I suspected that the author was throwing stuff in because it was cool, not because it was meaningful.)

Although I can get past some confusion in fiction, I usually do prefer to be able to follow the plot, to know what’s going on from one moment to the next. In my reply to James, I noted that this preference might be why I often prefer psychological crime novels to whodunits. In the former, you might be inside one killer’s mind; in the latter, you might have a large cast of suspects to keep straight. The potential for confusion tends to be greater in the latter. Thrillers that rely on surprise often leave me cold because the plots have to get convoluted to keep readers guessing. I’d rather be less surprised than to be handed twists that make no sense.

What do you think? How important is it for you to be able to follow the plot? Are there times when you don’t mind being confused? Are there certain kinds of confusion that you can’t stand?

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18 Responses to Sunday Salon: Following the Plot

  1. Deb says:

    Your statement, “I have to be confident that there is deliberation behind the confusion,” sums up my feelings about confused/ambiguous plots precisely. I don’t mind being confused or misled, but I have to feel that the author knows where everything is going even if I don’t.

    One type of confusion I dislike is when characters have very similar names. I know that in a few books (Christie’s A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED springs to mind) similarity between characters names is an important plot point (Christie used this technique regarding diminutives and nicknames in other books), but when it’s not, it drives me crazy to have characters with very similar names and I find it hard to keep them straight.

    • Teresa says:

      I hear you on the similar names. I was just telling a friend recently that I’d like there to be a rule that characters’ names can’t start with the same letter because I just mix them up. (And yes I know it’s an unreasonable rule, but it would sure make things easier.)

  2. Aarti says:

    Oh, I CERTAINLY can enjoy a book without understanding the plot because I often have the feeling that many plots are way over my head. A lot of the politics in Middlemarch, for example, are over my head (even though I really DO understand the bill they keep referring to! Just not how it pertains to the interactions of people in Middlemarch). But as long as it feels like the author knows what is going on, then I have trust :-)

    I think I’ve told you before that King Hereafter is a book I’ve owned for years and am just too intimidated to open (especially with the crazy small font that is in my edition). But I WILL, some day. If you ever want to do a re-read of it and want to discuss it with someone, let me know and perhaps I will join you!

    • Teresa says:

      Middlemarch is a great example, or anything by Trollope and sometimes Dickens.

      King Hereafter is so worth it if you can power through the first 150 pages or so. I only just reread it last year, so it’ll be a while before I’m up for a reread, but if I get a hankering, I’ll let you know. I’m craving the Lymond books these days.

  3. Lisa says:

    Dorothy Dunnett is a perfect example for me in this discussion. With the Lymond Chronicles, and with King Hereafter, I sometimes lose my way in the convolutions of the plot (even after many re-readings), but I care enough about the characters to keep going. With the Nicholas books, I don’t – so I lose patience with the story and my own confusion.

    For me, strong compelling characters can carry me through a weak plot – or a confusing one – but even a strong story lacking those kinds of characters can’t hold my interest.

    Like you, though, I’d prefer to have at least some idea of what’s going on!

    • Teresa says:

      Oh I love Niccolo–he got me hooked right from the start. It took me longer to warm up to Lymond. But with Dunnett it is all about the characters for me. I know Dunnett knows what’s going on, and I love the characters, so I roll with it.

  4. Victoria says:

    I think confused plotting is different to plots that force you to question your own perceptions or understandings by confusing you. That made a lot more sense in my head! So, I think a crime novel which is full of plot holes, unexplained coincidences or pointless twists is just plain confusing or poorly thought out. One of the reasons I don’t enjoy crime often is the way I feel manipulated and disoriented by the plot, just so that the revelation of the truth at the ending will appear clever. What a relief to get out of a maze like that!

    But novels where the plotting is playfully obscure, which force you to question your own perceptions and interpretations, are different altogether. The book I read this week – Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man – was like this. It is told by four voices, and the connections between the four are only vaguely hinted at as the book unfolds. There are lots of points of ambiguity when you can’t be sure what has happened: was someone raped or murdered? Is someone pregnant or not? And that type of confusion I love, because it exercises my mind, makes me feel like I’m in conversation with the writer.

    And then there is the type of confusion that comes with reading Dorothy Dunnett; a kind of happy, aspiring confusion. In her case I simply feel as though I’m in the presence of an intellect which is subtler than mine and am awed. :-)

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder whether you’d be more inclined to enjoy the more psychological crime novels, since the plots are often less labyrinthine. I’m thinking especially of Barbara Vine, whose plots are wonderful but don’t feel manipulative (at least not to me). I don’t mind being manipulated to some degree, but I like it to serve the plot and not feel too tricksy. I’m listening to an audiobook now—A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin—that walks the line perfectly IMO. It’s manipulative all right, but it doesn’t feel like the author is cheating.

      And I love the phrase “happy, aspiring confusion.”

  5. Michelle says:

    Interesting question. I do think deliberate confusion can be a great plot device, but the rest of the novel has to be absolutely superb to make up for it. Many classics, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers come to mind, involve such detail and unfamiliar politics that it requires a special class to understand everything. Yet, they remain classics because people can enjoy them without understanding everything that occurs.

    • Teresa says:

      I think a lot of classics are like that. I found Brothers K too confusing overall, yet there were parts that I liked a lot. I can see why it’s a classic.

  6. Jenny says:

    I am often content to have the plot of a mystery wash over me until the end, not trying to figure out the solution for myself, but I need to be fairly sure the mystery is all there. Chandler did have big plot holes, but made up for it with atmosphere and style. Very, very few mystery authors are so good at style that they can get away with this. I disagree with James if he’s saying that deliberate imitation of Chandler has become common, leaving out chunks of plot or whatnot, but I do think that deliberate confusion has become common. Like, “Then she said a single word, and he understood everything. He reached for the phone.” And you don’t hear what she said until five chapters later. Argh!

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t put a lot of effort into solving the mystery either. It’s just not important to me, but I do like to understand how the bits of plot fit together. Why is the detective going to this bar now? What piece of evidence is the killer trying to hide here?

  7. softdrink says:

    I was talking to Dawn today about something similar. She asked if I’d say Memory of Love was a READ IT NOW book, and I said I wasn’t really sure. While I loved the characters, there wasn’t a good sense of the time period and setting…so I was a bit confused about where in Africa the book was set, and what exactly happened in the civil war that was frequently mentioned but never described. It was weird to say I’d recommend the book if characters were important, but I wouldn’t if the confusion would bother you. I haven’t been so conflicted over a book in quite awhile…kind of a love it/not love it reaction based on different elements of the book.

    • Teresa says:

      I just finished a book set in Africa (Petals of Blood), and I had a similar experience. I didn’t understand much of the politics, but I could fit it into a pattern of how such conflicts tend to play out and not sweat the specific details of who was who in 1970s Kenya. I ended up liking it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to people who do like to understand the historical background because it’s never really explained.

  8. I don’t mind being confused whilst reading a book, but I do like it all to come together at the end. White is for Witching is the perfect example of a book that is too confusing for me. I didn’t enjoy finishing the book and having little idea about what had happened. But I do enjoy the challenge of trying to work out what is going on in the earlier stages of a book.

    • Teresa says:

      I can definitely understand why the resolution (or lack thereof) in White Is for Witching would annoy a lot of people. I loved that there were multiple possibilities left open–it all just made me want to read it again.

  9. amymckie says:

    Oohhh how interesting and so true. There does have to be some theme or idea that draws you in. With Smilla I do think it was the interplay between Danish and Greenlandish customs and life and etc.

    • Teresa says:

      I can definitely see how those ideas would off-set the confusion problems with Smilla. It didn’t quite do it for me, although I did genuinely enjoy the first half, when the cultural tensions were more of a focus.

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