Sunday, April 25, 2010

Plot vs. Story - A Reader's View

I recently finished reading It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville, the Newberry Award winner for 1964. I was motivated by curiosity (and the need for an "I" book for my A-Z reading challenge).  Back when I was a kid, I read this book, and I couldn't remember much about it, just that there was a boy and he adopted a stray cat.

Sad to say, after reading it again, I can't say much more about it now.

That's not entirely fair to say, I guess.  There were some stories about Dave's relationship with his father, and about how Dave's family sort of adopts a young man who was like a stray cat, and about the "crazy cat lady" who wins a fortune from her estranged brother, and about Dave meeting a girl.  As I sit here trying to piece it all together, though, it seems to me that something was missing.  I think that something is a plot.

Maybe I'm sensitive to plot right now after reading an entry on agent Janet Reid's Query Shark blog. In that entry, she advises a writer that his/her query has "a series of events rather than any kind of plot."  That made me wonder, what's the difference? (I'm sure Mrs. Richardson, my high school English teacher, would be groaning about now if she read that!)  I won't delve into my thought processes in answering that question here (since I've already done that on my other blog), but suffice it to say a plot is more than just what happens in the story.  The plot is about how the events of the story change the protagonist. If a character is dynamic (and the best ones are), then somewhere along the way in the story, external events have an internal counterpart. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for example, when Harry gets to the Department of Mysteries and finds the visions of his godfather lying injured were only a lure to bring him there, he realizes his own responsibility for endangering his friends and that he really doesn't know everything it's going to take to battle the powerful evil of Voldemort.  It's a humbling experience for him, one that makes him better in the end.  That's plot.

Back to It's Like This, Cat.  I like Dave Mitchell as a character, really. And if I stretch myself, maybe I could argue that the stray cat is a metaphor for the stray people that Dave accumulates over the course of the story.  A metaphor isn't a plot, though. The novel is a collection of entertaining episodes, but at the end, I can't really put my finger on how Dave is different for going through those episodes.  Maybe he doesn't fight with his father as often?  Maybe he has a wider view of the world? I just don't know. At the end I found myself asking, "It's like what, Cat?"

I do have to say one other thing - I can't imagine parents today letting a teen do the things Dave got to do in this book.  Riding a bike from one borough to another in New York City????

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