I find myself thinking of a good plot as a kind of TARDIS. Partly because it’s a vehicle for time travel, but mainly because the inside is bigger than the outside. There’s no mystery about how to get in – the doorway’s staring you in the face – but it leads to something unexpectedly capacious.
Five people on a daytrip to Margate to scatter a dead friend’s ashes in the sea. That’s the neat exterior of Graham Swift’s Last Orders. You can walk all round it and take in its scope at a glance. But open the door and you get all these entangled life stories, decades of love and conflict and betrayal. Time travel is crucial in this case, but just as important is the capacity of the plot to open up and lead you in many directions without just sprawling shapelessly.
I realise this TARDIS image might have a potency for me that not everyone can relate to. I can’t say where I was when President Kennedy was assassinated, but I know that the following evening I was glued to the first ever episode of Dr Who. I think it was mainly exposition – no Daleks – but something gripped the childish imagination. Two schoolteachers follow one of their students home, a strange girl who is causing them concern, and they watch her walk onto a piece of waste ground and slip inside a police box. I remember their amazement when they followed her through the door and saw the style in which she and the Doctor were living (the white-haired William Hartnell, of course, before Who went hip).
I was hooked for a year or two. Then I probably just grew out of it. But I may have sensed that the plot was destined to be a sprawling mess because it lacked the most basic element, which is an ending. You can wander limitlessly inside, but there’s no outside to contain the journey.
I've just seen the new film of Great Expectations. I particularly enjoyed the young gentlemen Pip mingles with when he comes into his money. Those drunken dinners with the Finches of the Grove reminded me of the Bullingdon Club where I used to hang out with Dave and Boris in my student days (not actually). Dickens’ plot, necessarily stripped of peripheral material, shines through. The twists, revelations and reversals that punctuate Pip’s life provide the containing structure. What opens up inside is the whole of society from its wealthiest heirs to its most abject criminals and the secret networks of personal relationships, financial interests, and moral responsibilities that bind them together.