A University of Nebraska English professor has crunched hard data from thousands of novels in the hope of answering two key questions: Are there any archetypal plot shapes? And if so, how many?
The answers, his data suggest, are “yes” and “about six,” respectively.
Jockers, it should be clear, is pursuing a different meaning of plot than the one we conventionally reach for—he conceives of it as an emotional concern more than a narrative concern.
This is an attractive approach to plot, in part because it allows us to ascertain—and to defend, if need be—the “plottiness” of certain books that tend to be regarded as plotless. It’s become conventional wisdom that plot, and the active enjoyment of it, are middlebrow pursuits, and that true literature is free from the shapely confines of narrative. This ignores that intricate, careful plotting is itself an art form, and that what makes so much “literary” fiction so ungodly boring is its inept or absent plotting. But by Jockers’s conception, even Waiting for Godot, which Vivian Mercier famously and favorably described as “a play in which nothing happens, twice,” is positively brimming with plot: chase sequences, surround-sound explosions, incestuous love triangles.