12 Winters Blog

Thoughts on plot for Pharmacy-VLA workshoppers, and more

Posted in June 2012 by Ted Morrissey on June 10, 2012

Throughout this summer my writing compadres — Lisa Higgs, Meagan Cass and Tracy Zeman — and I are leading a series of workshops at The Pharmacy in Springfield, Illinois, co-sponsored by the Vachel Lindsay Association (of which Lisa, Tracy and I are board members, with Lisa being president of the VLA).  We’re having six sessions all together:  introductory and concluding sessions, and alternating in between sessions devoted to fiction and poetry.  Just this past Tuesday, June 5, Meagan and I led the session focused specifically on characterization and plot.  Not surprisingly, two hours was barely enough time to express anything meaningful about characterization, and plot received very short shrift indeed.

So it occurred to me that I should use the private discussion board set up for the workshop at Google Groups to share a few thoughts about plot — or risk being charged with false advertising by the intrepid workshoppers — but I also recognized that it’s been some time since I’ve posted to this blog (due to a plethora of other events and obligations); so I’ve decided to kill the proverbial pair of birds with a single stone.  I’ll jot down some thoughts on plot (followed by a few updates, etc.), and I’ll post this entry’s link to the discussion board.

Here goes, then.  Having taught creative writing for a number of years, and having been a part of innumerable workshopping sessions, either as participant or leader, it seems to me that the most common plot-related problems that inexperienced writers of fiction (and, I suppose, creative nonfiction) encounter have to do with where to begin a story and where to end it.  Certainly there are problems related to conflict and resolution, especially when it comes to plausibility, but those tend to have to be worked out on a case-by-case basis; that is, it’s difficult to offer any general sort of advice regarding how plausibly one has worked out a narrative’s plot and resolution.

When it comes to starting a story, most novice writers begin their tale too far away from the conflict, in terms of narrative temporal distance.  For example, the conflict in a story may be that the protagonist’s prom date and presumed girlfriend, Julia, dumps him (Bobby, short for Robert because no modern American male name sounds much like Romeo) the morning of the big dance (tux rented, limousine scheduled, dinner reservations booked, and beautiful courtship, engagement, marriage, family and retirement in their golden years with Julia obsessively fantasized).  However, the novice writer begins by telling us about Bobby noticing tanned and golden-haired Julia in study hall three months earlier; then we get several pages of (what we would term) his stalking her at cheerleading practice, at the pizza place where she’s a part-time hostess, at church youth group (Bobby miraculously has been born again), etc., etc.

Finally, on page 10 of the manuscript (printed, incidentally, in 9-pt. Calibri with 1.5 line spacing), Julia dumps Bobby via an emotionless text message, coupled with an inexplicable and unceremonious unfriending on Facebook.  In such a story, only the most dedicated of instructors and fellow workshoppers would ever make it to page 10 to experience Bobby’s heartshattering disappointment and profound confusion (perhaps summed up via a scribbled note in the margin of the writer’s manuscript by another workshop participant: “wtf?”).  wtf indeed — heck, I just made all this stuff up, and I’m reasonably curious as to what happened with Julia.

With such a story, my most basic advice to the student would be to begin with the text and the unfriending — the rest of it (who Bobby and Julia are, how they met, how Bobby was so in love that he followed her around, just two steps behind an order of restraint, how Bobby spent his life savings — earned by cleaning the kennels at the local veterinarian clinic [I just made that up too] — on his tuxedo, the limo, the flowers, and so on) should be parceled out to us after this teenage boy’s heart is shattered in the first few lines of the narrative:

Bobby McFarland was overjoyed when his phone alerted him to Julia’s text — she must’ve been as anxious and happy as he, sending him a message before six a.m. the day of Prom, the day he’d been looking forward to since he’d summoned the nerve to ask Julia Gunderson, the prettiest girl on the Wakefield High School varsity cheerleading squad, the girl, he could barely admit to himself, he intended one day to marry, and, impossibly, she had said “yes,” nearly bursting his 17-year-old’s heart with utter happiness. . . .  Still lying in bed, smiling at the thought of his beautiful girl, he pressed the icon to read her text:  i cant go with u 2 prom. sorry 

Even when we think that we’ve begun as close to the conflict as humanly possible, there’s an old workshopping experiment (perhaps invented by Aristotle — I’m kidding) that newer writers are encouraged to perform, and that’s to look at the third paragraph and see if perhaps the story would be stronger if it began there, with the third paragraph; in other words, the writer should try to determine if the first two paragraphs are superfluous fluff best relegated to the cutting-room floor.  Also part of this old experiment is to look at the next-to-last paragraph of the story and see if perhaps it should be the final paragraph; that is, the writer should try to figure out if the current draft’s final paragraph actually weakens the emotional impact of the story.

The reason why the second part of this workshopping experiment is often successful is due to the key word in the sentence above: emotional.  What often happens when we first start writing fiction (and, likely, creative nonfiction) is that we feel duty-bound to conclude the narrative, just as we are taught in school to conclude an essay or report or analysis, and in the act of concluding we explain to the reader what she or he is supposed to have gotten out of the story.  Commonly we knock the reader over the head with the theme we believe we’ve been developing throughout.  When it comes to theme, my best advice — and it took me years to believe in this advice myself — is that theme is the reader’s prerogative.  The writer’s job is to write a compelling story; the reader’s job, should she or he be so inclined, is to judge the story’s theme.

Many years ago I reached a beautiful place as a creative writer:  I don’t care at all about what my writing means.  And the moment I reached that place, the quality of  my writing improved exponentially — and, frankly, it became a lot more fun.  Therefore, the reason the workshopping experiment about the next-to-last paragraph works is because very often the action of the story ends there, and, subsequently, the emotional pitch of the story is wrapped up in the protagonist’s final action (that we’re allowed to see):  Bobby’s picking up Julia to drive her to an LGBT conference, for example (your brain’s already filling in the narrative in between, isn’t it? — brains are wonderful things that way).

To clarify a point, however:  Just because I don’t worry about meaning and therefore try to achieve a particular one, it doesn’t mean that my work is without meaning.  As the master, William H. Gass, said in a 1978 interview:  “You hope that the amount of meaning that you can pack into the book will always be more than you are capable of consciously understanding. . . . You have to trick your medium into doing far better than you, as a conscious and clearheaded person, might manage” (Conversations p. 47).  What is more, in his classic and widely anthologized paper on the literary merit of the monsters in Beowulf, “The Monsters and the Critics,” first presented in 1936, J. R. R. Tolkien said that if the anonymous poet’s theme had been “explicit to him, his poem would certainly have been the worse.”  In sum, then, writers shouldn’t be too concerned or, even, concerned at all about their own theme(s) because thinking about meaning is counterproductive to creating a meaningful piece of work.

That’s it; had we had more time last Tuesday I would’ve said some things like I just said here.

The heading of this entry claims there will be “more,” so let there be.

I have a couple of short stories floating around out there that will be a bit challenging to place — one is highly, highly experimental (“Season of Reaping”), and the other is very, very long (“Figures in Blue”).  Meanwhile, my story “Crowsong for the Stricken” came out in the Noctua Review this past month.  Incidentally, Duotrope’s Digest also recently posted an interview with the journal’s editor-in-chief, Meg Cowen.  Speaking of “Crowsong,” I’ll be reading it this weekend, June 16, in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, at Wirepalooza, a semi-private festival put on by Ft. Wayne Metals, where my brother Mike works (his band, Plastic Deformation, will be performing too).  In addition, my story “Beside Running Waters” is due out soon in Constellations.

The manuscript for my novella and story collection, Weeping with an Ancient God, is finished and in the hands of my publisher, Punkin House.  More about this, I’m sure, at a later date.

tedmorrissey.com

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