"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."


—Muriel Rukeyser

The History of Plot

Let’s start from the beginning (the Western beginning, anyway).


PREHISTORY TO 500 BCE:   The Creation Story (the Hebrew Bible, Sumerian tablets). How we first started to explain the world, relying mostly on supernatural explanations.

2100–400 BCE:  The Epic Poem (the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad). Episodic narratives in which the gods interact with people, with man at the center of the story.

500–400 BCE:  Classical Tragedy (The Oresteia, Oedipus the King, Medea). Murder, incest, revenge, and the tragic flaw. Aristotle wrote in Poetics that they ideally preserved “the three unities” — of action (one story), time (one day), and place (one location).

1350–1450:  Framed Vernacular Stories (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales). With the breakup of Latin and the very beginning of “modern” Europe, writers began compiling often bawdy, irreverent stories under baggy framing devices.

1450–1550:  The Chivalric Romance (The Death of Arthur, Amadís de Gaula). A marriage of heroic saga and earthy romance, these were the first stories written mostly in prose.

16TH CENTURY:  The Picaresque (Don Quixote). Technically, this loose structure of roving misadventures was born with the anonymous novella Lazarillo de Tormes; Cervantes popularized the style (while also satirizing the chivalric romance).

1590S: Parallel Plots Shakespeare didn’t invent modern drama — or really most of his plots — but he pioneered the practice of moving several stories through the same place and time.

1700–1750:  The “True” Novel (Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Tom Jones). The first fully coherent realist plots — rise, climax, and fall — often pretended to be even realer than they were.

MID-18TH CENTURY:  The Comic Metastory (Tristram Shandy, Candide). Satire and experiment predated modern formal play by a couple of centuries.

1764:  The Supernatural (Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto).

1813:  The Marriage Plot Pride and Prejudice was the Ur–marriage plot — the winding tale of a woman’s road to saying “yes” — but Jane Austen’s entire body of work points to her larger (quite modern) project of capturing (and gently satirizing) the mores of the day.

MID-19TH CENTURY:  Urban Social Panorama (Balzac, Dickens, Hugo): Ambition was the primal drive and a core subject of capacious plots that traveled up and down the social strata of industrial cities.

MID-19TH CENTURY:   The Detective Story (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,”The Woman in White). Following Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins pioneered the mystery genre at novel length, and Arthur Conan Doyle later introduced the procedural with Sherlock Holmes.

1860S–1870S:   The Moral-Anguish Plot (Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina). Two very different thick Russian novels move the realist plot inward.

LATE-19TH CENTURY:  Science Fiction (Journey to the Center of the Earth, War of the Worlds). 1910S–1920S:  Stream of Consciousness (Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, In Search of Lost Time). A new avant-garde redefined plot as the not-always-linear progress of a mind as it processes the world.

1920S–1930S: Noir (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler). Hardboiled and noir fiction complicated Agatha Christie’s neat puzzles.

1930S–1940S:  Dystopia (Brave New World, 1984). Aldous Huxley and George Orwell helped bring the premises of sci-fi to bear on the question of how the individual interacts with society at its future worst.

1950S:   The Fantasy Quest (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings). The quest goes into worlds never seen before, though they may resemble medieval and ancient folklore.

1960S: Autofiction (Marguerite Duras, Karl Ove Knausgaard). This term for thinly veiled autobiography was only coined decades after Marguerite Duras wroteHiroshima Mon Amour and decades before Knausgaard made it his own.

1967:  Modern Folklore (One Hundred Years of Solitude). Jorge Luis Borges and other Latin American writers spent the preceding decades marrying supernatural native folklore to European realism, but Gabriel García Márquez’s best seller made “magical realism” a big thing.

1960S–1970S:  Metafiction (Robert Coover,Slaughterhouse-­Five, Gravity’s Rainbow). Postmodernism opened plots up to elements that winked at the reader in self-conscious ways.

1984:  Cyberpunk(Neuromancer): This subset of sci-fi juxtaposes the picaresque with the dystopian and sets up a world in which technology outpaces society’s ability to cope with it.

~ Sadie Stein

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