Sunday Writing Discussions: Mucking Around in the Grey Area

I am behind this weekend in my posting to this blog because I have been working on other writing. I am still working on a couple projects but I decided to take an hour or so and write more thoughts about writing and plot development. I am trying to construct a way of considering the structure and composition of fiction to make the piece more complete as an integrated whole. Some of this falls to how the plot is conceived.

Currently how I am considering a story has different layers.

The first layer has to do in part with what some people would call “world-building” but I think this actually needs to be conceived of more completely. I call this the culture of a story. This includes any description of the exotic setting of a story, but it goes farther. It needs to include the world view or cultural mindset of the milieu being created. For example to make the distinction, the mind set or cultural world view of an Inuit living on a reserve is going to be dramatically different from that of a New Yorker. I once saw an interview with a photographer from New York who discussed how he felt that the world view of people from the American Southwest was dramatically different from the people of New York because people in the Southwest could not avoid seeing the expanse of the sky. This enormity of the sky stretching from horizon to horizon made a difference and he felt people of the Southwest were more in touch with the vastness of the universe. Reality encompasses everything. There is no way to write all of reality. This framing by consciously choosing a “culture of a story” narrows and focuses the fiction at a first level.

The second layer to creating fiction as I am working conceptualizing further narrows things. It is the choice of what I would call a moral system. This moral system may or may not have anything to do with Western Judeo-Christian morality. It is simply the core statement that defines the story one step further. To give an example of what I mean, the moral system of a story might be “crime pays,” “family is important above all else,” or “hard work rewards.” A story about a group of criminals organizing a caper and getting away with it to live in luxury would have the moral system of “crime pays” at its heart. Mario Puzo’s series of books about the Mafia illustrates fiction with the theme of “family is important above all else.” There are many examples of stories and movies that have as their moral system the idea of “hard work rewards.”

The third layer to creating fiction is to create an appropriate main character with a conflict that is central to the story and fits with the culture and the moral system. This is a further focusing of the piece. I will make the distinction that the main character is not necessarily the point of view character, but the main character is the character for whom the conflict must be resolved, whose actions and decisions directly influence the plot sequence, who must be part of the climax through their actions, and whose decisions bring about the resolution.

In creating a plot sequence, opposition is what creates tension. Fiction should not be about standing on a soap box. Opposing elements around a central issue can create opposition for the main character and hence tension in the story. For instance in a simple caper, the master thief cases the museum and sees that the security includes a particular type of alarm. She knows the best person for the job. Ok, but this is too straight forward it needs more opposition. What if that person happens to be her ex-husband who caught her in bed with his best friend? This ups the tension in this simple adventure story. The obstacle to overcome is the sourness of her past relationship.

Another way to increase the tension and bring in opposing elements to give the main character obstacles to their ease of solving their dilemma and finding resolution is to play in the grey areas around an issue. For instance what if a woman suddenly finds herself accidentally pregnant. This is a catalyst for the story. What if the culture of this story is one where abortion is legal but it is frowned upon? What if the moral system of the story is “every individual is responsible for the decisions they make”? What if this main character is from a poor Catholic family? What if the pregnancy is a result of her being date raped and having the child will remind her constantly of the rape and inspire shame? Perhaps she has just been accepted as an intern doctor in a surgical program and this pregnancy will make it so that she cannot do the internship in the highly competitive program she has been admitted to. Maybe she goes to speak to the family priest who tells her that abortion is a sin. What if she finds out that she cannot defer her admittance to the program but can opt for a less high prestige area of specialty? Maybe she talks to her mother who tells her to have an abortion to stay in the program and achieve her dreams because the mother had children before she was able to live out her dreams. Each of these opposing elements that complicate the issue of this woman and her decision to continue the pregnancy or not has the potential to add opposition and tension to the story. The key as a writer is to consider the issue at hand and bring in opposing ideas that explore the grey area of the issue. Sometimes to present a balanced approach, the writer should approach whatever issue they are raising from the opposite of what they believe because this will help in not pulling out a soap box. Ultimately, the resolution will come from the writer’s vision of what they intend to say with the story and what they want to leave the reader thinking about. The resolution must come from the combination of a logical sequence of events that follow in alignment with the intentionally created character and the character’s motivations.

Next time… resolutions and endings.

Sunday Writing Discussions #1: Plotting

As most of you know that have read this blog in the past, I write. I do part time freelance non-fiction writing in addition to my day job and I write fiction and poetry. I have been writing for several years now and I am still working on getting my fiction published. I am by no means an “expert.” This is meant to be the first of a series of Sunday discussions on writing fiction and poetry. Please feel free to leave your ideas in the comments and I will respond.

I can come up with ideas that might start stories quite easily. I am one of those people who can come up with hundreds of uses for a paper clip on the creativity test. Some of the uses will be practical, some obscene, some silly, but coming up with uses is not a problem. But just envisioning a good idea for a story is not enough. The idea may be the impetus for the story, but there has to be at least a main character, a setting, a conflict, and a reasonable plot.

I enjoy writing characters. I like people and most of my fiction is very character driven. Plotting is difficult for me. I recently read on a forum a comment from a woman who said she didn’t like short stories because she found them unsatisfying. The story would be going along and engaging and then in her opinion all too frequently the short story would simply end. I critique other people’s fiction in a few different writing groups and often I read stories where the world the story is set in is quite fascinating and the characters are interesting but nothing really happens. In my opinion both what the woman on the forum was describing and my experience in the stories that I have critted represent plot failures.

A long time ago Aristotle described stories as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Stories are episodic. Novels are too for that matter, they just happen to have more room to expand, have a greater cast of characters, and more subplots. One of the problems that I run into in writing my fiction is that I don’t always have a clear end in sight when I start a story, even though as Aristotle pointed out stories require a beginning, a middle, and an end. Also, often I will have an idea for a story that is character driven and only after the first draft is written can I see that it is an internal, character driven story, with a beginning, a climax, and an end. On the second revision of a story of this type, I have to rewrite the story to make those plot points stronger or the story doesn’t feel like a story, it feels more like a character sketch. Fiction is meant to be entertaining and working on making the experience satisfying for the reader is tantamount. Stories that feel like character sketches or feel incomplete in my opinion are just not satisfying reads.

At present I am writing a story that is an action driven story with political intrigue. My initial idea for the story was nothing more than a scene. At first, I saw this scene as the beginning of the story. I began brainstorming around this scene and what its significance could be. This lead me to two weeks of lots of free floating thoughts and little real plot. I shifted my focus and made the scene be the climax and near the end of the story. I began engineering backwards, suddenly a plot emerged. I still had to think of the whole of the story in Aristotleian terms and consider what the first act, second act, climax, and resolution would be. I had to think of turning points for the story, both internal to the main character turning points and external to the action turning points, that the story would logically progress through, but I was no longer in the fog of amorphous brainstorming. I am beginning to think that knowing and starting from the endpoint of a story or novel is more important that simply having a good central idea or stunning character.

What do you think?