Discussion Questions, Pt. 3: Story and Plot

Last week in this series, I suggested questions to ask about characters in the fiction that your book group reads. This week, I turn to a tricky element for discussion: the plot.

There are several reasons why discussion of plot is tricky. First, you must be careful that it doesn’t turn into dreary description of scenes. There’s nothing more tiresome or unnecessary than weak summaries of plot episodes that everyone present has just read, followed by a lame conclusion like “I thought that was so great!” Save that for friends outside the group who you’re trying to convince to read the book.

Second, books dominated by plot can be difficult to discuss. Your group may run out of content quickly. Take care to find books that also have strong characters, evocative settings, distinctive styles, or other elements that engender discussion and debate.

Finally, there’s the delicate matter of how much plot to reveal. Here’s a rule of thumb: If everyone was assigned the same book, then any part of the plot, including the ending, should be open for discussion. Don’t hold back just because one or two people didn’t finish. On the other hand, if the group is reading on a theme, or if members have read different books by the same author, then only a few general plot details from earlier in the book should be revealed to tease the interest of others. At the meeting’s start, a gentle reminder that participants should NOT give away the ending or important surprises or twists might be in order.

That said, it is possible to discuss the story or plotting of fiction successfully. Here are a few questions that I have found useful:

  • Was there a scene that was clearly intended by the author as the climax of this story? If so, was it successful?
  • Would the book have been improved or harmed if element X of the plot had been changed?
  • What will happen after the events of the novel or story? Why did the author choose to stop when he or she did?
  • Did the author ever surprise you with a plot development, or could you see the plot developments coming? Did you find the surprises or twists believable?
  • Why did the author sequence the events of the novel in the order that he or she did? (This is especially useful in discussing non-linear plots.)
  • What happened, exactly, in scene X? (Use this question when a passage is especially confusing or open for interpretation.)
  • Are there any scenes you would have added to this story to make it more cohesive? Any that you would have cut?
  • If you were to summarize this novel’s plot in a few short sentences, would that synopsis capture the essence of the book? Would it make the story sound plausible? Would it make the story sound original or overfamiliar?
  • How original is the plot of this novel? Does it remind you of other specific works?

I’ll continue this series next week with questions about settings and other framing elements.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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