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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

Chapter 5 - Plotting the novel


“If you judge by appearances in this place,” said Mme de Chartres, “you will often be deceived, because what appears to be the case hardly ever is.”

Madame de Lafayette, The Princess of Clèves (1678)

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

Graham Greene, Brighton Rock (1938)

These lines from two very different novels remind us, first, that a “plot” is a conspiracy as well as the organization of a narrative, and, second, that fictional plots, like their criminal counterparts, depend on secrecy and withholding. Although it takes the form of a declarative statement, the crisp opening of Brighton Rock works only to elicit questions; it doesn't so much inform us of what's going on as it reminds us of what we don't know yet: Who is “Hale”? Who are “they”? And why do they want to murder him? One of the pleasures of reading novels is the detective work of piecing information together to see below surfaces (“what appears to be the case hardly ever is”), with the confidence that we will end the novel having achieved some form of clarity and revelation. When critics speak of readerly investment, they're describing how we are motivated to keep reading, how we “invest” in a novel in the expectation of a later reward. This chapter describes the tactics through which novels ask us to defer our gratification, to give our time and attention in the assurance of future disclosure.

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