I went on a writer's retreat, slept with one of the students, found out later she's my girlfriend's grandmother and now she tells me she's pregnant and wants me to marry her. Help!
I've always found it curious that everyone who writes to The Sun's problem page has such great writers' instincts. They open their letters with a teaser, like a movie trailer or the blurb on the back of the book. This gives you the bare plot of the situation but without the resolution. Which of course makes the reader want to get involved, to find out how anyone could be so stupid or so randy as to sleep with a granny, and how Deirdre is going to make everything all right again. Or not.
Then the letter takes us back to the beginning of the story . . . My girlfriend and I had been arguing a lot so I thought a week in the country with a group of quiet introverts would help me regain my spiritual equilibrium . . . etc.
And here is the fundamental requirement of a plot: that something interesting, exciting, different, startling is going to happen to your character. Because, let's face it, Deirdre isn't going to publish a letter about how you went on a writer's retreat, met some lovely people, cooked a nice tofu casserole that received lots of compliments, and you learned a bit about writing too.
So, today I'm going to talk about plot. Which is the main ingredient that separates a story you tell that complete strangers will pay to read, from a story that your mates will pretend to be interested in down the pub after you've bought them a round or two. It's a vast subject, however, so this article will be in two parts, and I suspect we'll come back to it again and again in future.
Here are two quotes about plot:
Writers are always grappling with two problems: they must make the story interesting (to themselves, if no one else), yet keep it believable (because, somehow, when it ceases to be believable on some level, it ceases to be interesting).
In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it.
Samuel R Delaney 'About Writing'
On the other hand, Jon Franklin, in 'Writing for Story' says:
Every writer of any merit at all during the last five hundred years of English history outlined virtually everything he wrote.
Which just goes to show how complex this subject is. So to begin with I'm going to keep it simply and look at the basic attitudes you need as a writer if you're going to produce great plots, whether you outline them first before starting the story, or write the story first to find out what the outline is. In the second part, we'll look at the mechanics and possible shapes of a plot, and we'll stick with short stories for now.
A short story goes for a single emotional effect, ideally felt at the climax where it will have the most impact. A short story plot is about economy - one main character and one Point of View, maybe two secondary characters, and probably no more than three or four scenes. A short story is like a single, punchy memory: short beginning, accelerating middle, dramatic end with short resolution.
Because of this, short story writers need to be ruthless with their plots. They need to be like the wife who's husband comes home late, smelling of strong liquor, face covered in lipstick. "What happened?" she demands. "Well," he says, "it was a fine, sunny morning and I got the 8.35 to Liverpool Street as usual. I even got a seat and -- ". "What happened!" she repeats. Of course, what she wants is for him to start this story as near to the end as he can get. Which will be to do with drinking too much at the office party and not realising the policewoman who'd come to arrest him was not really an officer of the law.
We're all too polite when we hear other people tell us stories about their day. We nod encouragingly when they go on about the cyclist who nearly knocked them over on the way to work, and their boss who gave them a really weird look, and how hilarious it was when they hid the secretary's miniature teddy bear but it's okay they put it back before she noticed . . .
Or when your mate tells you about how he slept with his girlfriend's granny on a writers' retreat and got her pregnant - you'll laugh like a drain for a bit then settle down to suggest ways he can keep his life on an even keel.
But a writer will do the opposite: he'll look to ways he can not only prolong his mate's agony but extend it. If he's a crime writer, for instance, he'll suggest wiring the granny's Zimmer frame to the mains then leaving the country before the police start their murder enquiries. If he's a literary fiction writer, he'll have his mate move in with the grandmother and parallel his struggles to write a zeitgeist defining novel with his spiritual torment at living with someone so close to death.
And if he's a science fiction writer, his mate actually went through a dark matter conundrum, thirty years in to the future to sleep with his girlfriend as an older woman, who then stepped back in time with him so he now has to keep the two girlfriends apart or risk destroying the universe and his sexual credibility to boot.
So, a writer has to go against her social, moral and physical instincts to live a life free of danger, pain and anguish. She has to find ways to make life for her characters worse, to push them to the very brink of destruction. And even then, she doesn't let them off the hook; instead, she makes them think they've succeeded - has them actually close their fingers around the staff of power which will restore their souls and destroy the marauding demons closing in on them by the second, only to find this one is a fake and powerless. All is lost; the darkness closes in . . . Then, out of the very depths of their despair, a possible solution is found - but it's risky and will cost them dearly even if it succeeds . . .
When you're writing a story, you need to actually torture your characters. And you torture them with plot. You make bad things happen to them. Then see how they react. All sorts of surprising things happen to people when they have plots dropped on their heads. They get angry and react and change, and then affect the plot in return. Suddenly, you have a real story on your hands.
But you need to be careful. When the plot controls the characters too much, the reader feels as if she's doing The Times crossword - intellectually stimulating but rather predictable. When the characters run amok without a plot to guide them, the reader feels as if she's reading someone's diary or blog and wonders why she's paid money for this story when she could be reading someone's blog or diary for free.
Here's another quote:
A plot, then, is a series of imaginary events designed to create anticipation at a high pitch, either in the form of anxiety (in a story of conflict or mystery), or of curiosity (in a puzzle story). If you can build such a series, you can plot . . . In a plotted story, the ending may take the form of a revelation, a decision, an explanation, or a solution.
Damon Knight, 'Creating Short Fiction' - also check out his 'Common Plotting Faults and What to Do about Them' (in same book).
This book is one of those essentials for any writer, by the way. Damon Knight was a great science fiction writer who also taught at Clarion for many years. I know lots of writers, from all sorts of fiction fields, not just SF, who say this is the one book they keep close at all times.
It helps to see the plot as a causal chain rather than a series of events.
Blake Snyder in 'Save the Cat' says:
The basis of the 'Turn, Turn, Turn' rule is: The plot doesn't just move ahead, it spins and intensifies as it goes. It is the difference between velocity (a constant speed) and acceleration (an increasing speed). And the rule is: It's not enough for the plot to go forward, it must go forward faster, and with more complexity, to the climax.
Now, I don't think it would be too controversial for me to state that the plots of the second and third films in the Pirates of the Caribbean series were rather light on causal effects. Why? Well, my theory is that they'd struck accidental character gold in the first film with Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. In that film, he wasn't the main character, which meant the plot could progress without depending on him being affected by it too much. But by the time of the later films, the studio had decided he was the main selling point, so of course they did the subtle thing and built both films around him. However, because his character was clearly a brand he was not to be tampered with. The solution? Was it to sacrifice him as the main character so the story could develop around someone else; was it to change him anyway on the basis that he'd still probably still be popular? No, much simpler to just dispense with the plot. Hence, there are lots of chases, fights, monsters, comedy characters, etc, but virtually no story development in the later two films.
To round off this section, here are a few more ways of looking at plot:
The main plot of any story is like the strings of a violin, carefully made to bear the weight of the bow and to transmit sound accurately. But a violin gets its timbre from the music box under the strings. Timbre, the resounding box in literature, is cultural allusion.
Carol Bly 'The Passionate, Accurate Story'
The plot is the alignment of progressively developed actions - conflict or instability, climax or crisis, resolution, showdown action - with the theme or focus of a story. It is the development of events and character.
Ndaeyo Uko, 'Story Building'
Characters caught in a crucible won't declare a truce and quit. They're in it till the end. The key to the crucible is that the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away. Or they can't run away because they're in a prison cell, a lifeboat, the army, or a family.
Sol Stein, 'Stein on Writing'
* * *
Finally, I feel compelled to do some straight talking about getting into the science fiction/fantasy short story market as a writer.
In the latest edition of the Science Fiction Writers of America's Bulletin, Mike Resnik talks about how he puts together an anthology of short stories. He emails award-winning writer friends and says, "Give me a story of X thousand words by Y date," and they do. And these stories make up two-thirds of the anthology. The purpose of these friends, he says, is to "be trumpeted on the cover and produce the stories their fans know they can produce, so I can give a shot to some new writers whose names can't be used to sell the books."
So, what does this actually mean? I think it means that you the new writer has to produce stories that are actually better than the established pros'. Their selling point is their reputation; yours is just the quality of your story. So, if yours is only as good as the pros', guess who's going to get into the book or magazine.
Now, it's often said you need to read, read, read, if you want to be a writer. Which is true; but what's not so often said is that you need to read and learn to write better than the people you're reading.
For example, established writers can get away with some Tell instead of Show, or Point of View inconsistencies - and not because they mean to do it; just because the editor will make allowances for them. But if you make those sorts of mistakes the editor will be only too delighted to have a reason to reject your story. Is this fair? It doesn't matter: it's just the way it is.
Last time, I talked about the need to be enthusiastic. Yes, but you also need to be confident of your unique abilities. Alan Shearer the legendary Newcastle footballer was once interviewed after a game in which he'd played very well and had come to the notice of the wider football public for the first time. The interviewer said, "Alan - are you the second Gary Lineker?" Shearer said, "No, I'm the first Alan Shearer."