Jul 262010

#4:  Use Caution When Exiting the Bathtub: Shy and Retiring Plot Problems.

Why is writing a good plot so difficult?  Shouldn’t crafting a solid plot be almost mechanical:  A leads to B which leads to C which ends with D?  But it never turns out this way for me.  My A leads to Q which turns into a 6.4, which leads back to J.  I’m not trying to be complicated, but it always seems that when I write, plot quickly gets away from me.

I found, perhaps through a twist of karma,  that even writing this blog post was elusive.

I tried half a dozen times to write this entry.  I worked on three drafts that compared plot to the game of golf.  All three attempts failed miserably.   I tried ignoring this post, hoping it would go away.  I spent an entire weekend watching DVDs of Mad Men to avoid thinking about it.  I’ve even considered switching topics.  Who would notice?  Why should I chronicle my personal struggle with something so basic in writing?

Most of my previous posts have come easily.  The lessons I learned seemed clear, the application straight forward (though not easy) and my posts on NC were quickly dispatched.

Not so with this topic.

I’m still lost on the elements of how to move a story forward.  I’m still trying to understand plot, and it seems to be the most basic, most elemental part of fiction writing.  Oh, I’ve read all the books and I’ve tried all the exercises.  I’ve not ignored it by any means.  I have books on master plots and I’ve read countless essays on structure and the importance of plot.  I worked with Glover, for crying out loud. Shouldn’t I get this by now?  Shouldn’t this be a lesson so deeply ingrained in my neocortex that stories just coming flying off the keyboard?  How the hell do I talk about this on Numero Cinq?

I suppose I should start with my own struggles.

From day one last semester, Doug hammered me on story movement.  The first two stories I submitted were bona fide ‘bathtub stories,’ a Gloverism which has driven me mad ever since I learned it.   I’ll let Doug’s words explain: A bathtub story is “a story which takes place almost completely as backfill in the mind of a single character (who often spends the whole narrative sitting in a bathtub—I am only being slightly facetious).” (Glover, “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise,” p. 166.)   Thankfully, none of my characters were ever actually in a bathtub, but they did mostly sit around thinking about events that happened off the page.  Lots of lyrical rumination but no drama.

Okay, that was easy enough to fix.  Make something happen.

By packet three, I had more or less remedied the bathtub issue, but then a new problem arose.  Now Doug told me to “stop PLANNING quite so much.”  He said that I seemed to have a more dramatic story, but that I had simply put my characters through their paces with the end in sight.  He urged me to be less structured with my plot.  Doug wrote, “I’d be even more pleased if I felt you letting go of the reins a little bit, surprising yourself, not seeing the ending before you get there.”

I began with over-written bathtub stories.  Then I planned, had more drama, but I over-planned.  Was this madness?  Was my advisor screwing with me, trying  intentionally to confuse me?  I didn’t know.  When I finally let go (in my last packet), the result was predictable: I drifted back into the bathtub model.  Too much backfill, not enough drama.

I submitted a revised version of a story for workshop this summer, the packet 3 story I had worked on with Doug, the first non-bathtub one.  The workshop participants told me they wanted more context, more backstory and depth.  They said I was going too fast.

To me, these are plot problems, pure and simple.  No matter how many times I sit down to write a story, I end up wandering off into digressions that aren’t useful, backstory that isn’t dramatic, or over-contemplative characters who sit around and do nothing.  Conversely, if I achieve a dramatic story, it becomes too thin, too quick, and the story glosses over the deeper, more salient points of character, setting, theme, etc.

What is the solution, I keep asking myself?  What balance of dramatic action and interior access will result in a well crafted story?

The conclusion I’ve reached in finally writing this blog post is that I still don’t know.  Perhaps that’s why I struggled for so long to write it.

One of the great things I learned from Doug last semester was the importance of keeping the story’s present forward moving action dramatic.  Something has to be at stake in every scene.  Desire and resistance.  There has to be vertebrae for the story, a dramatic skeleton, as it were.   (Another great Gloverism is the “broken backed story,” in which a timid writer loses confidence in the central conflict and switches to another conflict…I’ve been guilty of this, too.) Without this underlying structure, the story can’t move.  Robert Olen Butler (among others) calls it ‘yearning’.

With this desire/resistance motif in place, the character returns again and again to situations in which the drama is played out.  When there is a resolution to this central conflict, the story is over.  It sounds and seems so simple, but the execution has continued to prove elusive.  I see how dramatic stories work  now, when I read, when I watch Mad Men, even when I begin to write a story, but somewhere along the way I still get lost.  They say the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem.  Well, there you go.  I have  plot problems.  Now someone give me a twelve step booklet to solve it.  I’ll yield the floor for a more eloquent explanation.

John Mortimer, an English writer, says this about plots:

Plots are essential, but plots are the hardest part; at any rate I find this to be so.  Everything else about writing can be done by turning up regularly on the empty page and starting the performance.  Plots are notoriously shy and retiring. With luck they may visit you in unexpected places, in the bath or while waiting in the doctor’s surgery.  Very often they stay away altogether and are always out in a meeting and don’t return your call. Then it’s no good sitting and waiting for them, you have to start writing, you have to begin to create characters.  And then, as a character begins to talk, or comes into conflict with another, the plot may start working; because it’s important that the characters perform the plot and the plot doesn’t manipulate the characters.  This process is a mysterious one and the most exciting part of writing fiction. (Mortimer, John.  “Plot Luck,” as found in The Agony and the Ego, ed. by Clare Boylan.)

Up Next:  What I Learned About Desire:  (The Return of Paris Hilton)

-Rich Farrell

See previous posts in this series beginning here.

  9 Responses to “#4 of The Top 10 Things I Learned This Semester: (Invitation to a Re-shredding)”

  1. Nicely plotted!

  2. Like a one armed man building a chicken coop in a hurricane…so sayeth Billy Faulkner. 🙂

  3. Wow, this left me a lot to ponder as I finish up my very first packet… seems to distill a lot of what the VCFA learning curve is about!

  4. Oh, dear. “Stop PLANNING quite so much.” That’s what I was told: that I was writing to a preconcieved ending. So, I submitted a story to workshop that I had begun without having a clue how it was going to end. When I asked the workshop members if it seemed as if I was writing to a preconcieved ending, they said it did. I give up; it must be taking place in my subconscious. I’m not in control of this apparent inability to relinquish control; does anyone have any advice on the topic? (Don’t say Natalie Goldberg. I’ve Goldberged myself to distraction, to no avail. A year ago, I even took one of her weekend seminars–sitting zazen and everything.) HELP!

  5. Philip Graham sent this link to his advisees this week. It’s not advice, but it does discuss ideas about endings.


  6. I worked with Doug at VC during my last semester (2006). The farther I am away from that experience that more I appreciate what he was telling me about plot. What I really love is his idea that “literature is a way of thinking in which you think by pushing your characters through a set of actions (testing that character in a series of scenes which involve the same conflict).” I find myself quoting him a lot to my current students.

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