How Does Plot Differ from Organization, Or Does It?
Etymology is always a good friend when wrangling over definitions — so I looked up "plot" to see where the word came from, and how it acquired its meanings. The Middle English origin is a term for "a small piece of planted ground" — or a site in cemetary. In other words a area of land demarcated for a special use — a plot of land, a burial plot. From setting aside earth for uses the term shifted to a plan for an area — an architectural rendering, say, and from there to the planning for a book. Then there is the whole other set of meanings involving cabals, machinations, and conspiracies. So in its origin, the term plot is exactly as Jonathan claims — the idea behind the arrangement of materials in a book — in effect, the rationale behind the Table of Contents. And yet as we use the term in kids books, we don’t mean this at all, in fact, we mean almost the opposite.
When people say they do not like NF that lacks plot, that is because they associate the term with the narrative propulsion of fiction. They want surprise, character development, the Hero’s Journey, the arc from set up to denouement which they have come to expect from fiction. An architecture that lacks these turns of what is often called "storytelling" seems precisely to lack, well, plot. Why?
Betty Carter has argued that kids get so much story, and so little nonfiction, in the first years of school, that when they get to content (in the horrifying form of textbooks) they have culture shock. They simply don’t know how to read what they are reading — or, to put it slightly differently, they don’t know where to look for pleasure in what they are reading. Where can they find any juice in the dry rinds they are served up? Friends that is where we come in — and not because we all know how to write those You Are There intros that give a touch of fictional-feel to NF. No, but because we know the juice in NF is knowledge, understanding, insight, depth, epiphany, connection, questioning..
The plot in NF is the strategy through which a clever author has 1) hooked the reader (and there those narrative NF devices of wind, temperature, scurrying animals, rustle of fabric may be useful) 2) mapped a journey that will lead that reader through the twists and turns of events towards the launching point moment where the reader can suddenly know, can envision, can picture, can connect to some knowledge he or she did not have before. You are building a trap to yield a revelation (or many insights that add up to a new world view, a new picture, a new sense, of reality).
NF is, in that sense, like those Greek mystery cults which conducted ceremonies in caves, where initiates experienced the descent to Hades, and emerged, wiser, with gnosis, with knowledge, seeing the old anew. Fiction imagines that journey — and is gifted with all of the spells and incantations of the storyteller. But NF must take you on the actual trip, the real steps through the real cave, so that you emerge with reality looking the same, and totally different. They get to to embroider plot to yield truths about being human; we plot a path to bring you to know human experience. Right?