• Caroline Ridgway

Distinguishing Between Plot and Meaning

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

Rarely do we long for the logistics of air travel, but if there is anything that can redeem a long plane ride, it’s a long book. Recently, I had a few trips scheduled in short succession, a prime opportunity to get lost in story. Reading has always been a sanctuary for me. The time now is harder to come by, which is why a few contained hours at thirty or forty thousand feet can be welcome.

If you’re like me, which is to say your love of books and stories far outpaces your available time, you have an extensive I’ve-been-meaning-to-read list. Nathan Hill’s acclaimed novel, The Nix, had languished on my bedside table for ages. Finally, I vowed to dive in.

It is, among its many characteristics, a definitively long book, so ideal for my present needs. Closing out at over 700 pages, the story meanders, with a multitude of characters and plot twists. We encounter love, and loss, and complicated family dynamics. So, all very familiar.

Usually, when I finish a book, I like to sit with it for a minute or two, replaying the high points, letting its meaning dwell in my mind. In the case of this book, I found myself wondering how you would, if someone asked, describe what it was about, considering the very breadth of what happens.

A likely way to answer that question would be with a plot summary. See, it starts with this kid and his mom, and then some other people show up. The story winds through the decades. A lot of things happen. And then it ends, like all our stories eventually do. Closure is one way to describe it.

But is that what it’s really about? I don’t think so. There’s a difference between plot and meaning, and meaning is what it’s about. The storyline is what we use to get to the meaning. It’s the vehicle, and an essential one. But it’s not the real reason we’re here.

To tell you what the book was about, to tell you what it meant to me, I would tell you it was a story of people. It was about the themes that unite us all even as they divide us. The ideas are what we’re after. Think about how you feel when you’ve read a compelling memoir or any kind of personal account. The facts of the person’s experience may be entirely unfamiliar to you, but it can still pull you in. It’s the relatability. It’s the underlying why.

The who, what, where, and when are all needed. You can’t tell a story without them. But without the why, your story won’t have a life beyond the simple structure of its words. What is your why?

#plot #meaning #writing #storytelling

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