Sunday Writing Discussion #13: Plotting Part One– Plot Development versus Incidental Action

The concept of plot is really a pretty simple one. It is the sequence of events in a story that starts at the beginning with the introduction of a conflict, revs up as the tension mounts, is addressed during the climax, and then resolves. For whatever reason, in my opinion, the element of fiction that is the source of many writers failing to achieve their intentions is plot. Plot can be made formulaic as in something like Lester Dent’s well known plot formula, but even with this plot formula as a guideline many writers still cannot write a piece of fiction that is a satisfying read.

Plot formulas aside, there are some basic aspects that need to be included in a plot to make a piece of fiction work. Some of these may be self-evident and some are not as simple as they sound. I think plots need the following:

1. tension/conflict that sparks plot
2. real opposition that cranks up tension– the difference between plot development and incidental action
3. change of some sort needs to be the point of any piece of fiction
4. include only material that is important and relevant to advancing the plot
5. make the “causal look casual”
6. leave out divine intervention or too easy resolutions that feel like a cheat to readers
7. make sure that the main character is actively at the center of the resolution of the conflict during the climax

I think what might happen quite often when novice writers sit down to write is that they haven’t really put enough thought into what they are going to write. The writer gets an idea for a story or character and sets off full tilt. It is fun to write some scenes! And then those scenes have to get wrangled into something resembling a whole. And then an ending needs to pop onto the page. Etc. The whole composition is not so much an intentional piece as a bunch of bits thrown together mish-mash and trying to take on the semblance of a story. Some folks can do this and make it all work by revising and revising and rewriting and rewriting. Others can’t. Further, beginning writers are notorious for not being able to view their work with a critical eye or to be able to take criticism.

Writing is fun! And it takes pushing oneself to further understand how good fiction comes together, requires thought to figure out how to use one’s understanding of how good fiction is assembled, and one must make make some very determined choices in order to write a piece that comes together as a whole and be able to do this consistently. A half way decent story should not be a happy accident.

Today I have spent all afternoon assembling a quilt (metaphor for pulling together a plot?) and thinking about the difference between plot development and incidental action. In a short story, only action that integrally moves a story forward towards its climax and resolution should be included. Incidental action needs to be left out. What’s the difference?

For example, if a story is about a boy whose village is raided by a violent warlord this might provide an initial spark of conflict, but it is only a conflict of the moment. There needs to be more. It isn’t enough to advance the story forward solely on this one plot point of action. However, if the boy’s village is destroyed, he is left behind because he is too scrawny to even be made a slave, this sparks him to take on the challenge of turning his scrawniness into some form of physical fighting ability, he finds a mentor and learns martial arts, discovers he has talent but cannot advance to the next level until he can become focused, overcomes his internal conflicts caused by the violent warlord so that he can be focused, and proves himself in some action against the warlord– well then the action of the warlord destroying the village moves from incidental action to action of the plot development sort. The character is challenged at every plot point by the sequential action. And there is character change! Woohoo!

For another example, a character just walking through a door with a gun because the story is flagging and needs to be livened up is incidental action. It sparks something in the moment, but unless it is integral to the plot no matter how sensational the action is it isn’t going to add to the tension in any real way or advance the plot. It actually detracts and erodes the tension by pulling attention in too many directions. The same goes for a seductive female character, well described and cool sounding alien, or that something that “suddenly” appears wandering through.

Conflict at the start of a story may be of the incidental type, but it needs to lead to a deeper conflict that is more integral to the main character of the story. To write a story that will hold together and be satisfying as a piece of dramatic fiction, the action and subsequent tension must not remain at surface level. The action needs to reflect a deeper conflict that the character needs to resolve and cause change or be changed by. The mounting tension needs to be as a result of investigating the character of the point of view character going through the plot crisis. Incidental action does not do this and if a story is a series of incidental bits of action, it will feel like it is lurching from scene to scene and any character change presented will feel contrived. It’s not enough to have action that sets a story in motion, the action must continually test the character and move towards the resolution.

This is just one part of thinking about plot. I have thoughts on some of the other aspects of plot, how plot, character, and theme have to work together, and how creating background information can possibly provide a map of the story terrain to develop plot. More next week!

Sunday Writing Discussion #12: Critiques and Beta Readers

It is important to get feedback on one’s art or writing. When I was an undergraduate I spent two years in art school. I studied all the basics and focused on textiles. I participated in many art critiques. One of my professors was very hard core. Her critiques included all her students ranging from first years through graduate students. She was notorious for sending students out of the room crying because her critiques were so brutal. I had a work study job as the lab assistant to this professor, I asked her why she was so blunt in her critiques. She told me that she did it intentionally. Her rationale included many points: 1. once an artist puts their work out to the public, anyone can say anything and the artist needs to be toughened to take it; 2. art is a craft and the artist needs to have distance from their art and not perceive criticism as a critique of themselves; and 3. an uncouched, direct, and honest critique of one’s work is not always available– it is a luxury and it needs to not be misinterpreted. She believed that artists need to know what was what in order to learn what they were doing wrong in order to improve.

A several years ago I returned to doing artwork and took classes in 2 dimensional and 3 dimensional design, drawing, color, and a survey course. One of my instructors I admired greatly. Her approach was very different and very gentle. She allowed work to be redone after a critique to improve one’s grade in order that the student could learn from the feedback that they had been given. She spoke about how artists needed to both develop their own intuition, their inner critic, that could guide them in the production of their work and to have trusted people that could give them honest feedback. She believed that people needed to hear what they were doing correct in their compositions initially so that they could build confidence and knowledge and as they advanced in their artistic studies they needed to refine their knowledge and learn more about what needed to improve. All of this was to gradually build one’s inner critic because being an artist is a solo endeavor. But she always maintained that having someone else who could give feedback was an essential.

Writing is also primarily a solo endeavor. The writer writes their manuscript on their own. It is quite easy to become taken with one’s words and not be able to evaluate easily if one has accomplished the writing goals that one set out to initially accomplish. I have been reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It is a useful book. In the book the first thing that the authors mentioned is that time helps writers to gain some distant from their writing that will help them to edit their work. They say that this is one of the most helpful things a writer can do for themselves. The book goes on to talk about various aspects of fiction writing and gives checklists of things to consider and be aware of to improve one’s writing. The book is partially a manual to help writers to develop their inner critic that they can trust to guide their writing.

Two other things can help writers to develop their own inner critic and the trust to listen to its guidance. One is simply to practice, practice, practice. It is an old adage that the first million words a writer will write are garbage. This isn’t an adage that I entirely buy into because I think writing rules always have exceptions. Further, I am a teacher and people learn at different rates and in different ways. Some writers may need to write that million words. Others may not because they can read and analyze literature and think of how to apply writing techniques, they can learn faster from their own writing, they may have an innate genius like Harper Lee, etc. But the essence of the advice I think is sound. The more one writes, the better they typically get.

The other thing that can help writers to improve is receiving critiques from beta readers. I have received hundreds of critiques on my work at this point. Not all beta readers are equal. Sometimes it takes either getting many critiques from many beta readers and interpreting what themes come out of all the critiques OR having a few very trusted people who understand one’s writing and can provide useful critiques.

When one is interpreting critiques, it is important to look across the themes of what comes up in those critiques. Very often critiques are provided by other novice writers who do not entirely know what to say about a piece of writing but they are reacting to certain parts. Also, most people do not want to risk offending a person that they are critiquing for and they will often tone down what they are saying or phrase things euphemistically. This means that the writer needs to in some ways decipher what the critiquer has said. For instance, a critiquer might say that they loved a particular character and that the short story felt like part of something larger. On the surface this comes across as a compliment. It doesn’t help the writer who needs honest feedback to improve their writing. This kind of statement needs to be thought about because the critiquer was giving feedback on a short story and what they are expressing is that the story in its current form did not work for them. It might not be that expanding the short story into a novella or novel is appropriate or would be good storytelling. It might be that the character was compelling, but the pacing of the story was off and it did not hit the plot points strong enough to provide a satisfying ending to the story. It might be that the story had an interesting central character but there were too many other elements crammed into the story, it lurched from scene to scene, and then rushed to an ending. That comment that it felt like part of something larger could apply to many different scenarios.

If a critiquer comments that a scene or line really stood out and was well-written, this might not be a compliment to be taken at face value. The writing should not stand out above the fabric of the story as whole. One dynamic scene in a story that gets compliments from critiquers is just that. It does not make for a good overall short story. Same with that one beautifully turned phrase.

Even straight forward comments in a critique need to be thought through. For instance a beta reader might say that they didn’t believe a character would act in a certain way. The character might act in that way, but the writer might have failed to effectively tell the story and “sell” why the character would do that particular action. The character’s motivation may not be apparent. The problem might be with characterization, the described action from a previous scene, or a slight logic problem in the world building. It’s up to the writer to think through what went awry and rewrite the story to make it work.

Beta readers or critiquers that one knows and trusts to be honest and thorough take time to find. If an author is asking for their feedback, it is important to honor what they have to say by contemplating on it. It is still the writer’s decision and responsibility about where to take their writing or how to rewrite a particular piece. If the writer is getting defensive or making statements that the critiquers don’t understand their work or are just being mean, that writer should probably think about why they had people read their work in the first place. Was it to get compliments or to get feedback so that they could improve their writing?

Very few of us start doing art work and produce gilded masterpieces. Very few of us write prose that is magical straight off. Few of us are “special” in that we can skip developing whatever talent we have and go to instant success. Feedback is important. It helps not only with the piece that one is currently working on but also to help develop one’s sensibilities and ability to evaluate one’s own work.

Reaching One’s Personal Best is Rarely an Individual Effort

Recently I had the good fortune to participate in a think tank about coaching, in particular about coaching teachers. We were asked to read an essay by Atul Gawande titled “Personal Best” that had appeared in The New Yorker. Dr. Gawande who is a very talented surgeon came to the conclusion that he wanted to improve his surgical skills. He had the opportunity to hire a tennis professional and in the short lesson with the tennis pro improved his serve and his game. This inspired him to ask a former medical professor to observe him during his surgeries and give him feedback. Dr. Gawande talks in the essay about how his former professor was able to watch him and take notes. The professor made suggestions about small things that could improve the surgeries and Dr. Gawande saw his complication rates edge downwards. He also talked about how by opening up to this type of coaching he made himself vulnerable and how people questioned his competence if he was bringing in a coach.

I have been an artist and a writer for over 25 years. A great deal of learning how to do visual arts or writing simply comes with actually doing the work. Over time one learns how small amounts of bright primary colors can lead the eye across a painting, how to create surface movement with line and contrast, how to create subtext with the minimalist amount of specific details, how to use one character as a foil for another and highlight themes and conflict, or any of the other hundred elements that can make or break a piece. All of this is not enough. No one can look at their own work entirely objectively. It takes time for an artist or a writer’s inner critic to develop and out of necessity the process must include other people.

When a writer or artist first begins to pursue their craft, words and images come quickly and easily. It is all a great deal of fun, but those first critiques of one’s work can feel brutal. While critiques should not be personal and should be about the work, sometimes at first they do feel personal. One’s baby and talent are being scrutinized at the same time. It can be hard to take and an artist or writer needs to find a teacher, class, or critique group that they feel comfortable in and trust. Creating art or writing is a risk taking endeavor and trust is essential. Trust has to be built up first in what the teacher or critique group says so that it can be used to learn and guide the production of new and better pieces. With this feedback from other people, eventually over time one’s own internal critic learns criteria to be able judge the work and the artist or writer learns to trust their inner voice. The inner critic must be trained to do this and other people are needed to make this happen.

Even after an artist or a writer has been creating their work for awhile, there is always room for improvement. Humbling oneself, making oneself vulnerable, and asking for feedback is a way to push one’s work farther and make it better. Artists and writers mainly do their work in isolation but they need community if their work is to become their personal best. This does not make them entirely subject to the opinions of those that are giving them feedback, it gives the artist or writer information to think about and to base decisions on. Writing and the creation of art are thoughtful acts and the decisions to be made about where to take a piece are those of the creator. Just because a teacher or a critique group says that something should be done a particular way does not mean that it must be done that way. It is information to be analyzed and the decision is the writer or artist’s to make. Critiquing can be a dialogue meant to spur thought and discussion. The community of artists that were known as the Impressionists would not have created the movement that they did if they had not had all of the members contributing their individual thoughts and commentary on one another’s work, general philosophy, and techniques.

Whether a person does art, writes, races bicycles, teaches small children, etc. all of us need other people to reach our personal, individual best.

Pretty Good vs. Great and Hopefully More Sellable Writing

I have been frustrated with my fiction writing for quite some time and recently wrote about the Fearless Act of Writing in another blog post. A few weeks ago I was reading an article in The Writer titled “Create Your Own MFA in 5 Steps” by Rachel Eddey. I have repeatedly thought about applying for a masters of fine arts program in creative writing because I enjoy academic settings, would like the time to focus exclusively on my writing, might enjoy teaching writing which an MFA in writing would qualify me to do, etc. However, the cost of taking an MFA program causes me to pause. Also I have concern over the idea of MFA programs because while it gives the student a chance to focus on the writing and make contacts and has many other benefits, it is no guarantee of being published and there is no promise that a teaching job will be available at the end of the course.

I liked the way that Eddey in her article presented the idea of creating a program of self study so I began working on my own writing self study program. It includes the following components:

1. I write daily. Sometimes it is only a post on this blog. Sometimes it is only poetry. Sometimes it is a character study. It does not matter. The point of this is to just get comfortable and in the habit of writing something daily.

2. I read. I have been reading and studying a novel by Graham Greene titled “The Heart of the Matter.” Greene was a master and as I am reading I am both enjoying the book and analyzing his methods of characterization, subtext, and scene setting. I have also been reading short stories and last month one of my writing groups discussed two short stories to identify what made them work. One was by Nancy Kress titled “Act One.” I learned a great deal from reading and thinking about “Act One.”

3. I specifically read books on writing, consider elements of fiction, and study various aspects of how to construct a good piece of writing beyond mere mechanics.

Today a friend of mine posted on a forum that I belong to a link to a post titled “Pretty Good v. Great–and Sellable” written by Carrie Vaughn. In this post she discusses that she believes that three areas that a writer must engage with to make the fiction better are: structure, voice, and having something to say. I agree with her that these things are important elements and Vaughn’s blog post made me stop and consider what I think of these elements.

In regards to structure, I have been struggling with ideas of plot. I have been studying the hero’s journey and considering the 3 act structure. I have been thinking about questions to ask myself to make all the plot elements in a story fit together in the best possible way to concisely relay the story and have the structure add to the meaning of a story. For instance, a story can be unfurled in a chronological order or it can be done in a series of flashbacks. A story can be told from the first person point of view or from the deep third person. Either of these decisions make a difference in how the plot elements will fit together. I also think that stories where the plot unfolds very naturally from the decisions that the characters within the story make makes the story feel more effortless and anytime that a story is a struggle the reader is pulled out of the story and this diminishes the story.

What Vaughn in her blog post calls “voice”, I call word choice. I think some writers do have their own distinctive voice and this can be cool. Roald Dahl always sounds like Roald Dahl. I see word choice as making every word count and be the right word– true to conjuring the feel of the story, adding to the subtext, relaying a character’s voice, etc. I drive myself nuts with this. Words are relative to one another and this fascinates me.

I have debated with other writers about whether or not it is a good idea to have a theme in mind when writing a story so that the theme will come out. I don’t think it is a good idea to preach on a soap box. I do think that ambiguity and having many possible views on a theme is a good thing. I try to include a relevant idea/commentary in the stories that I write that does come through. I think stories that make an impact and are remembered are those that risk stating a position and also let the reader think through the aspects of it for themselves. That may seem contradictory, but I think that it is possible to entertain people by challenging them with ideas and letting them think things through for themselves. The very act of putting the relevant sides of an issue with some depth in a story is presenting a theme.

I will continue to think on writing and will probably post some of my ideas from time to time. Both Eddey’s article in the February issue of The Writer and Vaughn’s blog post at: http://www.genreality.net/pretty-good-v-great-and-sellable are worth checking out just for stimulating thoughts.