On “Doing it for the Plot” & Other Narratival Notions

On “Doing it for the Plot” & Other Narratival Notions


I was sitting in my dorm with my roommate the other day talking about what was going on in the world and reading the news. She’s Jewish, and was putting up her Menorah when I told her my grandmother had grown up in Nazi Germany and had left at nineteen years old, in about 1956. My roommate had turned to me then and asked, “Do you know her story?”I wonder if my grandmother knew she would have a story, that she would have made decisions she would talk about to her grandchildren and live through chapters of history textbooks she could be a primary source for. She stands at eighty-six years old, an open book, her story being something she may have made unintentionally, but that is unequivocally hers. 

Joan Didion states plainly that “We tell ourselves stories in order to survive” (Didion, Joan. 1990. The White Album.) in her book of essays The White Album.  I agree strongly with that notion, and would like to further it by arguing that also, we become stories in order to live. Didion suggests a type of romanticization among people that allows us to accept certain parts of life, to console ourselves in chaos and clarify what we are experiencing. There have been similar concepts floating around the media today, fueled and nurtured particularly by my generation. We have begun to see ourselves as narratives, assigning moments in our lives as part of our stories, so that when we have the privilege of growing old, we may have stories to tell like my grandmother. 

“Do it for the plot” has become a common saying around social media. It ultimately means that we should make a decision that gives us a good story, perhaps something bold or unusual, and not necessarily smart. For instance, someone would show themselves having quit their job and moved to another country, and say that they “did it for the plot.” This can also be a moment of optimism should something unfavorable happen in someone’s life, they can look back and see it as a “plot point.” There was a sense of plotlessness in the pandemic that I personally experienced, and I turned to books for stories because mine had become stagnant. It was an endless cycle of waking up, going to zoom classes, and basically rotting away in my bedroom. I didn’t have the kind of liberty to make a “do it for the plot” decision, being at the restrictive ages of fourteen to about sixteen. It felt like when you’re reading so late at night that your eyes burn and you can’t focus so you just reread the same paragraph over and over and nothing quite sticks. It was a feeling of being on autopilot, and I had adjusted to this feeling of stagnancy and to having no expectations. When the time came, I didn’t want to go back to school in person, and kept to myself until senior year of high school, when I finally started to go out more. Perhaps there was a comfort in knowing what to expect, like rewatching your favorite show for the tenth time because you are in no mood for surprises. I sit with some regret over this, because if someone asked what I did in lockdown, I could only recite stories that I had read because I lacked one myself. Nothing bad or good had happened to me, creating an odd numbness and not a single plot point in my life, no distinct moment. 

“Do it for the plot” has become a genre. People across the media have begun to suggest all kinds of terminology that tells us to see our lives as narratives. My hypothesis is that these concepts picked up after the pandemic because my experience was not rare; as a generation, we may be catching up on our narratives after a hiatus in our crafting of them. To some degree, we lost chapters of our lives to COVID-19 and are frantically trying to pick up where we left off and fill the empty pages simultaneously. Some people hurriedly started dating, got married, and had children. Some people really did move to other countries, got new jobs, reinvented themselves. With not much else to do in lockdown, we picked ourselves apart, perhaps finding flaws and empty spaces, and yearned intensely, turned ourselves inside out. And now we can execute what we observed in our introspectiveness. 

This concept of our lives being narratives also comes from the idea of seeing ourselves as the “main character.” This has also stemmed from social media and can have mixed responses. On one hand, treating ourselves as the main character of our story can encourage us to do things for ourselves, and perhaps be a bit kinder to ourselves as well. It motivates us to consider things worth doing, even if it is small. Walking down the street with headphones on and your favorite song playing, running on the beach during sunrise or sunset. The idea is that it’s almost like you are in a film, where a little moment of a character’s life is put into a scene or montage. This contrasts from “doing it for the plot” just a bit because it doesn’t suggest a defining moment in one’s narrative, but rather, a time-filler worth appreciating, emphasizing the weight of what someone does in their spare time. 

While seeing yourself as the main character of your story can make the small things more fulfilling, there’s also the risk of contracting main character syndrome. Whether or not this happens just comes down to self absorption: rather than living for oneself, one would push their own feeling of being the main character onto others, and treat them like side characters in a sense. This is a very important distinction in how one sees their life as a narrative. It is yours, and it comes from an internal romanticization. We do not want to know that you actually perceive yourself as the main character in our narratives as well, please and thank you. 

“Villain origin stories” have also become a common saying. If something unfortunate happens to us, this is what we call it. Our villain origin story. This could be an excuse for having a negative emotional response to an event or a rationalization of it. A villain origin story is so commonly used in books, and this sits under the umbrella of our lives being narratives, our “do it for the plot” mentality, and then the idea of being the main character. To reiterate, narrative labels help us process things in our lives, allowing us to feel purpose and reason in the things we experience. 

After a night out, my friends and I debrief. We take turns telling each other our experiences of the evening, and what’s special is that we would be in the same room the whole night and have completely different stories to tell. One friend kissed a guy that didn’t kiss that well, one didn’t really remember anything from the night at all, another got a drink spilled all over them and they still smell like booze. I probably got to witness all this from my favorite corner of the room but it’s fun to hear them deliver their story nonetheless. Then we have our collective “bad decisions make good stories” moment of acceptance, and move to the next section of whatever chapter we are in. For a night we have witnessed each other’s individual stories because of our different ways of navigating the same setting. 

A narrative-driven life is also a form of control. There’s a quote by the American author Og Mandino that directly applies to this reach for sovereignty: “…most of us build prisons for ourselves and after we occupy them for a period of time we become accustomed to their walls and accept the false premise that we are incarcerated for life. As soon as that belief takes hold of us we abandon hope of ever doing more with our lives and of ever giving our dreams a chance to be fulfilled.”1 I think the pandemic created and nurtured a feeling of incarceration, and I also think that as a generation we did a good job of snapping out of it, hence the beginning of the story–like terminology taking over the media. The idea that what we do with our days is what we do with our life opens our eyes to the control that we really do possess. 

When it comes to the keyhole view of our lives that is our social media presence, there are also many elements of our narratives that become transcribed here. “Stories” on Instagram let  us provide others with a glimpse into our narratives for twenty four hours, and posts that go into our feed act as dog eared moments of our lives. Social media in general is multidimensional in the conveyance of our narratives. Depending on the person, it could either be tragically fabricated or criminally authentic. It’s ultimately the story of our lives, written, directed, and produced by yours truly. I think a factor that plays into this is people’s desire to be describable and distinct. Our social media presence is calculated, and we present ourselves in the way we want to be perceived. If we want to be labeled as adventurous, perhaps one would post themselves traveling or outdoors, or a domestic person, perhaps their home environment. And then when someone talks about them to another person, it is likely that the narrative they had set up for themselves carries on in others and there is a ripple effect of perception. So in a sense, social media acts as a sort of autobiography that you don’t have to be famous or of a certain age to compose. It moves with us, it shows the journey, and doesn’t take that much effort. 

It could be said that sometimes people who have a large social media presence feel a certain need to be perceived. The type of person to overshare online perhaps needs validation on their narrative, to feel like they are composing it right and that they don’t have to be the only ones discerning it. Or metaphorically, they are doing a reading of their narrative out loud as they work through it. Perhaps this comes from a fear of a lonely narrative in the end. 

I had a long college admission process. I applied to twenty schools a bit aimlessly. NYU was lingering in the back of my mind; I think hope is dangerous with these things, but I made it here in the end. I had figured that NYC was thick with plot, and I was tired of the conventional. I sit in my dorm and look across the streets into the apartments, seeing all of the little lives just outside my window. They go on in the same place at the same time very differently and it leaves you to wonder if they know they exist together like that. Within one of the many little lives across from mine a girl puts her hair up, then down, then up again, then yanks the ribbon from her hair and storms away from her mirror. In another, teenage boys meander from room to room and someone sits at their desk with their head in their hands and someone laughs to themselves while reading a book. Someone gets into bed when someone is only just getting up, someone turns off the overhead lights to put on a lamp and someone dances by themselves in their kitchen. There are about six hundred people in my dorm building alone, and that’s six hundred different narratives in such a small space. I have found that New York City is a library of living narratives in this sense. 

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”2 I could only advise anyone to do both, and could argue that this is the foundation that an internal narrative rests on. We are often self-concerned creatures, and it often comes down to how we perceive ourselves. Circling back to Joan Didion’s coined phrase, “We tell ourselves stories in order to survive,” it can be concluded that beyond this level of survival, we then look to ourselves for narrative, for purpose, to the ability to “do it for the plot,” and then, we begin to live our stories. In the end, what a metaphor.

  1. Mandino, Og. 1983. Greatest Salesman in the World. New York, NY: Bantam.
  2. Franklin, Benjamin, and Benjamin Peirce. Poor Richard’s Almanac for [1850-52]: As Written By Benjamin Franklin, for the Years [1733-41]: The Astronomical Calculations. Annual illustrated ed. New York: John Doggett, Jr., 1849.
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