This morning as I have been reading The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells and drinking coffee, I have been thinking about plot. I think there are a few ways to approach plot and I think for each individual writer they have to find what works for them. This might be why writing advice books are not always the most useful of things.
Let me state up front that plotting stories is not always my strong suit. And because of this I have been putting a fair amount of mental effort into thinking on what creates really good stories and good plots. To my mind there are two basic approaches to creating a story arc or plot. One is to create a character or two and plunk them into a situation and see what happens. In this approach the characters take over and as long as the author can maintain a sense of emotional honesty and integrity about who the characters are and how they would respond, the story does not lose focus with divided points of view. The main character remains the main character because the whole story comes from this character’s reactions.
Another way to create plot would be to take a story idea, create a situation, think through what the author wants to say, and create a character to enact the story. This type of plotting and preplanning can create a story where the author knows ahead of time what the ending will be and where the story is headed and thus avoids the pitfall of not knowing how to end the story. This type of story can be tough though because the characters still need to be thought through and complete. Anything less will lack authenticity.
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.
The art of fiction is the spinning of lies into a silver thread that can be woven into a fabric and solidified into a mirror. It is both falsehoods and the truth. A strange magic juncture where belief is suspended, reality is withdrawn, and meaning dances like blue firelight flickering over the far off horizon.
What is illuminated by that clear light?
As a writer sometimes I am surprised by what comes out in my stories. Sometimes my female characters have strength, but lack an active volition. They are not the mistresses of their own destiny. They frequently are caught up in situations that they must react to and their options are limited. They make choices that are morally ambiguous.
This afternoon I started reading a collection of stories of a friend who is a fellow writer. When I read his writing there is a certain male quality about his writing. I remarked on it to him and he asked me to see if I could analyze this aspect.
I think it is good to have these tendencies brought out into the light for examination. As writers we can write anything. We choose what elements make up our art– and we can choose anything. Becoming more conscious of any subconscious tendencies makes it possible to have much more direct control over the crafting of the writing and to more consciously choose what we want to say and to make the telling of the tale more effectively powerful.
Some fiction also captures the imagination of the time period in which it is written and reflects the important themes of that time period. Historical fiction is written about a time in the past and the details may be exhaustively researched and accurate, but the work is from our current time period. Science fiction may be written about the future and the time period may be so finely wrought that the reader can envision the nuances of that far off imagined world, but it is written by a person in this time period. Fantasy worlds that are created can be anything– future, past, alternative reality, the realm beyond the veil, or whatever. The writing must create a shimmering portal in any of these instances that transports the reader to the reality of the fiction, but there must be some grounding in the current time period. And yet a fierce flexibility that defies being dated in the work must also be present if it is to be timeless and have continuing relevance.
This requires examination on the part of the writer. Examination outward and inward. There must be a constant flow of information to the writer to provide stimulus to fuel the subconscious and conscious mind. There must be an examination of the writing for common themes to have conscious control of them to be certain of what the writer is writing and for the writer to determine if what is being produced is what they want to write and comment upon. Are the themes a statement that the writer believes is of consequence? Does the writer believe in the entertainment value of what they are writing? Could the writing be more relevant? Could it be more universal? Could it move into the wide expanse of unexplored territory with more conscious examination? How could the art be pushed and strengthened? How could the writing even more fully come to life and give more meaning to the reader?