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 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!