Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Andromeda: plot?

It’s getting close now: starting Thursday Feb. 23, Andromeda is teaching a short course about that dirty word and subversive subject: plot. This will be a small, focused class that will cover lots of fertile ground. Sign up at

“Psssst. Let’s talk about plot.”

No, I didn’t say pot, I said plot.

So why am I whispering?

I once heard a sharp writer and really good teacher talk about visiting an MFA program and having an older, dignified teacher inform her: “We don’t talk about plot here.”

Which is why the writer wasn’t entirely surprised when a student approached in the hallway, wanting to talk—furtively—about this untalked-about thing called plot. The student knew she needed some. She just wasn’t sure how to get some.

Even writers who plot very conventionally try to distance themselves from the word and the subject. Stephen King, of all people, says “plot is shifty … and best kept under house arrest.”
More elitist writers don’t even want you to ask them about it. As I’ve blogged here, one very successful author recently told me, “I have no interest in plot or character.” Wow, not plot or character? If that leaves only artfully selected (but possibly unarranged) words ripped free of any sense of development or arc, I already own some great dictionary and thesaurus sets, thank you.

Readers love plot—by which I mean a story that is organized into a sequence of causes and effects, generally producing some sort of meaning and hopefully an intellectual and/or emotional experience.

Yet some writers are threatened by it.

They are threatened most, I think, because of a misunderstanding. When people hear “plot,” they think “pre-plotting”: coming up with a rigid and formulaic game plan, perhaps sketched out on a series of note cards. (Of course, there are successful literary writers—and many screenwriters—who do exactly that.)

But learning about plot doesn’t always mean pre-plotting. It often means reading for plot, as a way of training one’s brain to have a better intuition for structures our culture has honored for thousands of years. And also revising for plot, in other words, looking back at where a story implodes or just sags, loses tension, or fails to satisfy, and seeing if the plot or a related aspect of character development is to blame.

I’m always on the lookout for metaphors that relate to writing. My favorite is the one credited to E.L. Doctorow: Writing is like driving a car on a foggy night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but that’s enough to get you there. So true!

And yet, in that metaphor, the road already exists. That’s why you can just hug the yellow line and keep the gas pressed down. Whoops. When we write, we usually don’t have a road in front of us. We have an unpaved landscape stretching in all directions, with way too many options and lots of obstacles and hazards in our way.

Let’s say, then, that novel or memoir writing is more like hiking up a mountain, over the tundra. We’re talking an easy, leisurely hike – not a technical fast climb, not something requiring special equipment and lots of people who will need to collaborate. (That would be screenwriting.)
First, let’s admit that most of us can at least, usually, see where we’re aiming: a peak or ridgeline. If it’s totally fogged in, we may have some trouble. But generally, I hike when I can see at least part of the way and glimpse some landmarks that correspond with either map or memory.

When we write novels, most of us have not figured out “what it’s all about” (thank goodness)—but we may have a revealing scene from the middle or the end or some sort of image or central tension guiding us. I often have a scene I’m really itching to write that doesn’t come at the very beginning. Someone else might just have a feeling, a question, an indecipherable symbol. Something. At the very least we have our own taste: a preference for the way some other novels or memoirs are ordered.

If you have that place or feeling for which you are aiming—and even if you don’t, but are well stocked with food, water, patience, and time, you can pretty much get to the top putting one foot in front of the other.

Once you’re there, open up the granola, share the cheese and crackers. Hooray!

Now look back, and look down, and you see what you did. There is that patch of thick brush you hacked through not realizing that if you’d just walked further west, you could have found flatter, easier terrain. There is that spot on the ridge you aimed for, thinking it was the peak, not realizing that it was just a trick of perspective—a false peak. There is that creek you crossed, soaking your pants to the thighs (and now you really are quite chilly), not seeing that off to the side of the valley, there is a bridge, or a shallow braided area.

Your route was not ideal. Your path was illogical or unshapely. As a hiker, you can make a mental note and try a different route next time. As a writer, you realize that route and plot (also called suzhet by the Russian formalists) are related—they are the way the material is ordered, the way a place and story are experienced and perceived. And they are in your control. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

You realize, because you have read a lot and even learned about three-act structure and some other things, that you better not waste so much time in the alder mess of that first fifty pages. Slash-slash-slash. Delete. Is the conflict clearer now? Is there a conflict at all, perhaps an outer and an inner one? (I hope so.) Do we care from the beginning? Does the structure itself communicate a level of confidence to the reader?

You realize that the middle is where a lot of energy, time, and readers get lost. It sags because of digressions. On the way up, you were just route-finding; you didn’t realize they were digressions. Now you do. Be more selective. Also look for opportunities to sharpen up symbol and theme. If you stumbled into a discovery (what a beautiful little lake hidden away between those rocks!) then clear up your signaling; make that discovery feel more purposeful, or at least frame it better by getting rid of all the dull stuff.

The end, also known as the part that people will remember even more than the beginning: does it feel like an arrival? Has the ending spoken to and overturned the beginning? Do we have a clear new view we’ve never had before? And if not—why all this climbing? I could have stayed home! Show me something surprising or spectacular! Make me weep, or rejoice, or puzzle—but at least puzzle meaningfully, in a way I couldn’t have puzzled before! (Ambiguous endings are still endings.)

This is plot. It isn’t anti-literary. It isn’t threatening or scary or antithetical to art, any more than a musical melody is. We are pleased for a reason. Our brains crave order and meaning, also known as -- you got it -- plot.

Join me on the comments page or in the Feb 23 class to continue this conversation.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Detour, a novel set in 1938 Italy about art, adventure, and second chances, due out on Feb 14. She'll also be appearing with Eowyn Ivey in a Feb. 22 49 Writers Crosscurrents event called "Fantastic, Historic, Unconventional: Crossing Literary Fiction Boundaries," at the Anchorage Museum at 7 p.m.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Very thoughtful and well-organized. Thanks.

Deb Vanasse said...

Terrific analogy - one I hope to remember and borrow when teaching on this tricky topic.

49 Writers/49 Alaska Writing Center said...

I really enjoyed reading this thought-provoking post - thank you!

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Yes, we need plot and character! That is what makes up a story. (And a few other things, I know I'm being simplistic here.) Experimental writing is fun but it doesn't satisfy that universal need as much as a well-crafted novel or short story does.

Tam Linsey said...

Love the analogy - and I appreciate the new view on the one about headlights. I prefer to plot my novels out, myself. My brain does not yet intuitively follow a route that makes sense, and I end up in the valley on the other side of the mountain rather than the peak if I don't make sure I know landmarks along the way. Thanks for the refreshing view.