Jan 122011

Gwen Mullins and her son Ben, Montpelier, January 2011

This is Gwen Mullins’ graduate lecture, delivered at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Gwen does a  fine job of laying out the theory and craft and then doing close textual analysis to show how the theory of plot works in practice. Readers are always having a difficult time parsing plot and separating it from ancillary material and devices, but Gwen goes a step beyond simply analyzing the plot by showing how some of the ancillary devices work in conjunction with plot. Since it’s a lecture, an oral presentation, Gwen actually planned asides (aside from the asides she spoke extemporaneously which were hilarious) and the asides appear herein in italics.



I never planned or desired to deliver a lecture on that most mundane of topics: plot. The very thought of talking about plot smacked of the self-evident, obvious, even amateurish. The word itself is dull. Plot. What could I possibly say about plot that you do not already know? To be honest, I did not actually know what plot was, or even, sometimes, how to see it skillfully threaded through a story I was reading, much less one I was writing. I have read novels and stories and loved them even without ever seeing the plot. Rather than checking my vision, I assumed the plot was missing, of secondary importance, or perhaps even unnecessary. I have heard literary fiction defined as “character-driven” and popular or mainstream fiction defined as “plot-driven.” In the end, I found those descriptions to be unhelpful ways to approach a story. I must begin my graduate school lecture the same way I began my first speech in junior high school, that is, with a definition. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms defines plot as:

the pattern of events and situation in a narrative or dramatic work, as selected and arranged both to emphasize relationships – usually of cause and effect {Here, let me note: Cause and Effect in plot is not like Cause and Effect in, say, physics or certain branches of philosophy. In plot, Cause and Effect may simply mean telling or showing your reader why the character is doing what she is doing … that is, what is the motivation (cause) that is causing the character to act or behave (effect) in such a way — so let me begin again:} Plot is the pattern of events and situation in a narrative or dramatic work, as selected and arranged both to emphasize relationships – usually of cause and effect between incidents and to elicit a particular kind of interest in the reader or audience, such as surprise or suspense …

Aristotle saw plot as more than just the arrangement of incidents: he assigned the plot the most important function in a drama, as a governing principle of development and coherence to which other elements (including character) must be subordinated. He insisted that a plot should have a beginning, middle, and an end, and that its events should form a coherent whole… (Baldick 195-6)


Some important phrases to note in the definition are “selected and arranged” and “a governing principle in which other elements must be subordinated.” In other words, character development is plot. Characters are defined by what they do, and that process of defining, of actions and reactions, grows out of plot. Yes, the writer may not know precisely what will happen and exactly how the characters are going to react until she writes it out, but clearly articulating what a character does, says, or thinks during a series of events pushes the fiction forward so that it gathers momentum and tension. Until I actually read the definition of plot, I thought character development meant rolling around inside the characters’ heads and writing what they saw or remembered. That part is important, sure, but development happens when the characters react to events or ideas or other characters and think and change as a result. In other words, “Shit happens, Susie and Jack handle it, and then it happens again and again until the shit is dealt with or not.” Along the way the reader’s understanding of Susie and Jack has probably changed.

Aristotle has been dead for a while now, so we might assume that plot and the ancient Greek ideas of drama are obsolete. They are not. In his essay, “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise,” in his book, Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing,  Douglas Glover defines a story as

a narrative involving a conflict between two poles (A vs. B). This conflict needs to develop through a series of actions in which A and B get together again and again and again.

He provides an alternative definition when he writes:

By a story I mean a narrative that extends through a set of articulations, events or event sequences, in which the central conflict is embodied once, and again, and again (three is the critical number here – looking back at the structure of folk tales) such that in these successive revisitings we are drawn deeper into the soul or moral structure of the story.

Aristotle talks about the “beginning, middle, and end;” Glover says “again and again and again.” It seems a successful story involves, at a minimum, a conflict hat trick.

I routinely observe student writers (including myself) demonstrate a reluctance to be too “obvious” about plot. I have news: We are not being too obvious. I have seen my own tendency to focus on characters, descriptions, or background information so much that I can overlook the point of telling a story — things happen. The development of plot is the story. In dissecting a couple of stories by writers I admire, I’ve finally begun to “see” the plot and how the “selected and arranged” development of a story includes characters in conflict rising to climax. I’m going to talk about a couple of short stories. I will provide a summary of each story and then walk through the way they each demonstrate plot point by point.

Tobias Wolff’s story “Bible,” published in The Atlantic and included in the Best American Short Stories 2008, is about a high school English teacher, Maureen, who leaves her friends at a bar to go home alone on a cold Friday night. As the slightly drunk Maureen walks to her car, she searches the faces of the crowd outside a dance club looking for her twenty-something-year-old daughter, Grace, who Maureen hasn’t seen for two years since Grace left college and moved in with one of Maureen’s former colleagues. When Maureen gets to her car, a man comes up behind her and takes her keys. He forces her into the driver’s seat and gets in the car with her. She doesn’t know if he’s going to rob her, rape her, or kill her, but she drives the car. The man directs Maureen to take a turn on a deserted, unplowed road. When she stops the car, the man begins to talk and Maureen figures out that he is the father of Hassan, one of her students whom she is failing for cheating. The man wants his son to become a doctor; Maureen informs the man that Hassan will never be a doctor and she is going to report Hassan for cheating. Maureen asks the man if he is planning to kill her, mocking him by placing his hands on her neck. Maureen realizes the man will not hurt her but she remains angry at being kidnapped even while she begins to feel sorry for the man. She drives back to the parking lot. The man apologizes. Maureen asks how he was going to make her keep her promise (if she had even agreed to make such a promise) not to turn his son in for cheating. The man pulls out a pink Bible he has picked up at Goodwill. She lets the man go and leafs through the Bible while wondering what happened to the long-lost girl who owned it and then the story ends. The story is about 3,000 words and is told from the point of view of third-person narrator, Maureen.

Tobias Wolff

In “Bible” most of the plot occurs in the car, where the two main characters are trapped together by the author. On the second page of this twelve-page story, nine paragraphs into the story text, shit really starts to happen. Maureen gets to her car in the dark lot with no parking attendant, drops her keys, curses, and a man comes up behind her saying, “Don’t curse!” (Wolff 314) The ensuing drama is played out in a series of conflicts between what Maureen wants (A) and what the man wants (B). She wants to escape, stay alive, be safe; he wants her to save his son. Remember Glover’s definition, “a narrative involving a conflict between two poles (A vs. B). This conflict needs to develop through a series of actions in which A and B get together again and again and again.”

Our Story Begins, by Tobias Wolff, with a version of “Bible” included (entitled “The White Bible” in this collection)

Maureen is approached in the parking lot by a man who demands her keys. The first thing she does is close her eyes. She hands over the keys but resists the order to get in the car. The man half-pushes, half-lifts her into the car. Maureen wants to escape but fails, and this is first in the series of conflicts between A and B which is resolved with Maureen’s failure to escape.

The man orders her to drive, and Maureen thinks about the self-defense classes she took when her husband left and she was alone with her teenage daughter. She cannot make herself fight, and Maureen feels the failure of this inaction in her bones, but this knowledge calms her and she drives. This is the second iteration of conflict; she doesn’t want to drive, but she does anyway. She slows down or speeds up when ordered to do so by the man. When she realizes how cold she is, she turns the heat up. She tells the man she has seventy dollars in her purse and that she can get more. He says, “This is not about money. Drive. Please.” (315) She keeps driving along Frontage Road, remembering picking strawberries with her mother and making out with her boyfriend by the pier. The man tells her to turn into a deserted, unplowed road. Again she obeys, even though she does not know if the man is planning to kill or rape her since it does not appear that he is planning to rob her. The plot in the car is played out through Marlene’s step-by-step growing awareness of who the man is and what he wants from her.

Maureen and the man are still in car as it idles on the deserted road. In a move that becomes a small parallel conflict, Maureen tries to turn the heat down but the man stops her and turns the heat up. She asks what he wants, and he says, “This is not about sex.” (317) His phrasing echoes his prior statement, “This is not about money.” Maureen thinks about running for the road and decides not to. The man tells her he was a doctor in his home country and that she has destroyed his family. Maureen says she does not know who he is or what he’s talking about. He refers to her scornfully as the “the great lady teacher.” (318) And finally Maureen realizes that the man is the father of her student Hassan. In a flashback, we learn Maureen had caught Hassan cheating on an exam after repeating warnings. The man continues to accuse her of hypocrisy, of lying and cheating but showing no mercy on others since she has threatened to turn Hassan in to the principal of the school.

Now that Maureen has placed her kidnapper, her choices change from obeying him to defying him. The plot and character {See how you cannot even separate them out? Is it character development when Maureen decides to turn Hassan in for cheating? Or is it background for the plot? The particular memories Maureen experiences on the drive must have been selected and arranged to meet the demands of the plot – to support, clarify, and help not just the reader but also Maureen learn what she will do next. The choices she makes in reaction to the kidnapping are forms of character development where the character must be “subordinated” to the plot. All of these character choices and reactions taken together constitute plot} okay, so the plot and character grows from Maureen’s new knowledge. Her desire and actions change as result of this knowledge. We know Maureen will reach a tipping point with what she will allow because she has told us during all the driving around that will be how she react. She had acknowledged, “She hated calling people on their offenses … all the rituals of grievance and reproach were distasteful to her, and had always held her back up to a point. Beyond that point she did not spare the lash. But she was always slow to get there.” (Wolff 319) Maureen remembers how she accepted the gambling of her husband, the recklessness of daughter, Hassan’s casual cheating, and then no longer accepted any of these things in turn. She divorces her husband, alienates her daughter, and chooses to turn Hassan in for cheating. Maureen’s interaction with Hassan’s father illustrates the way she behaves when being pushed around or taken for granted. In the story Maureen actually acts the way she always has when confronted with conflict, but it is played out in the car with Hassan’s father as a detailed microcosm of all that has happened before – as live conflict, as plot.

Maureen and Hassan’s father are still in the car, their conflict escalating, clarifying, but still remaining unresolved. Hassan’s father says he will not allow it – “it” being, presumably, the ruin of his son’s academic career by being accused of cheating. He talks of the woman’s place (in the home) and how she should have helped Hassan, not just warned him. He quotes what appears to be scripture and Maureen gets fed up, and the mini-conflict, the one about whether to turn the heat off or on, becomes the turning point in the story. At a deeper level, Hassan’s father wants his son to be successful and unmarred by a black mark on his academic record. At a more immediate level, he wants to stay warm and have the heat left on. The next mini-scene with the heater pares down the essence of the surface conflict.

“I’m turning the heat off,” she said.

“No. Leave it warm.”

But she turned it off anyway, and he made no move to stop her. He looked wary, watching her from his place against the door; he looked cornered, as if she had seized him and forced him to this lonely place. (Wolff 320)

In the next paragraph, the deeper conflict is brought out, and because of the mini-scene with the heater the stage is set for Hassan’s father’s larger conflict to end in a similar fashion. This is Maureen speaking: “‘Okay, doctor,’ she said. ‘You’ve got your parent-teacher conference. What do you want?’” Hassan’s father replies, “You will not report Hassan to Mr. Crespi.” Hassan and Maureen argue about whether or not she will report Hassan to Father Crespi, the principal. Hassan’s father restates that Hassan will be a doctor (remember the father was a doctor in his own country). Maureen states in clear, definitive words that Hassan will never be a doctor. She stares at the man and holds eye contact with him. The scene is the final forward action sequence, the climax of the story. Maureen asks if he had planned to kill her and he remains silent. She questions him – did he have a knife, a gun? Then, in the climactic moment, she places his hands, which he has been rubbing together in the cold car, on her neck. She asks if he planned to strangle her. He did not plan to strangle her and is anxious to remove his hands from her neck.

Remember the dictionary definition of plot? It should have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning occurs in the parking lot with Hassan’s father, and the middle occurs in the car as the A vs. B conflict is played out: she wants to get away (she fails), she wants to escape and to figure out what will happen to her (she stays but figures out who her kidnapper is), and then she gets fed up and is strong against Hassan’s father (she succeeds). Hassan’s father had brought a pink bible he picked up at a thrift store for Maureen to swear on when he thought he could convince her not to tell Father Crespi about Hassan’s cheating. The plot, that conflict between Maureen and Hassan’s father, is bookended by the opening of the story where Maureen is thinking about her own lost daughter. The story closes as Hassan’s father leaves in the dark while Maureen looks at the bible and the inscription and wonders where that girl, the one who owned the bible but also, of course, her lost daughter, has gone.

The lost daughter theme frames the story and ties in with the father and “lost” son story so that the scenes of conflict and discovery in the car are more than a struggle between a teacher and a deluded parent. These side plots (of Maureen and her lost daughter, of Hassan and his father) function not as part of the main plot but rather as resonating devices that give the bones of the plot extra meat and meaning. Without the main plot line that occurs in the car, the parent/child information would have nothing on which to hang. The scenes in the car could stand alone without the information from the ancillary plots. The side plots give weight and resonance to the plot but not structure or forward movement. Perhaps I should mention that I find in my own writing that the spark that begins the story may not end up as essential to the main plot, but rather only a bolstering device or background theme. Realizing that the character must be subordinated to the plot and, when necessary, editing away the fat of background information so that I can see the bones of the plot more clearly, help me ensure I am writing a story instead of a character sketch. I am still working on plot every time I write.

With the Aristotle and Glover explanations in mind, I re-read a story by Ken Smith, my first writing teacher. Smith’s stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, including the The Best of Crazyhorse edited by David Jauss. Tim O’Brien once said of Ken Smith:

Ken Smith’s stories are simply wonderful. Without tricks or gimmickry, Smith shows us the world of real things – trees and rivers and animals and human beings caught in crisis. The writing is clear, direct, modest, and always dynamic. What I liked best about these stories is the old-fashioned, or out-of-fashion emphasis on plot. Things happen. Event causes event, and the reader is pulled along by the question: “What next?” For me, at least, this is what story-telling should be. (Decoys, back cover)

This is a gorgeous accolade. I want things to happen in my stories. I did not fall in love with stories because of their beautiful, lyrical sentences; I fell in love with stories because something happened in them that made something happen in me. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some beautiful, lyrical sentences, but if I had to choose what to read next: beautifully drawn sentences or character-rich plot, I’d go with plot almost every time. Of course, I would never make it as a poet.

Ken Smith, 2003

In Ken Smith’s story, “Meat,” originally published in The Atlantic, {Incidentally, I had written a first draft of this lecture before I realized the both of the stories I’d chosen had a number of similarities and were both originally published in The Atlantic. I have since acquired a subscription to The Atlantic. C. Michael Curtis has been (and I believe still is) the fiction editor there for the past 30 years} a widowed old rancher named John Edward Walker sits at his table in the morning listening to gunshots some distance away in the hills. He is sick to his stomach and he knows that no one has any business shooting upcountry but Walker is too old, sick, and tired to go check it out. He remembers finding one of his yearlings butchered along the side of the road a few days previous and the police officer had remarked that it was because of the strikes at the copper mines. Walker has lived on the ranch for over seventy years. In the text of the opening paragraphs, he remembers an incident involving his brothers, his father, and his grandfather who once caught two rustlers stealing a dozen head of cattle. The Walkers had let the rustlers go but had taken back their cattle as well as the rustlers’ horses. This memory is all part of the preamble. Incidentally, this particular technique – that of writing backstory, especially a story within a story, before kicking off into present action — is one that must be used with full awareness and a measure of caution so that the story does not get sidetracked by background information that does not advance the present action of the story or support the plot. Smith makes it work for this particular story since the memory is interesting, relevant (it’s about cattle thieves and the protagonist), and actually tells the reader how the larger story will likely play out without taking any tension away from the main plot. This technique is similar to the one employed by Wolff in “Bible” when Maureen draws on memories of her past and her lost daughter.

The Best of Crazyhorse, edited by David Jauss

The actual plot of “Meat” begins on the sixth page of this fourteen page story. While Walker is sitting at his table with his coffee, two men pull up to the house. Walker goes out to greet them and ask if they had been the ones doing the shooting upcountry. The men, Arnold and Willy, join him at the kitchen table for coffee and Walker talks to them. He likes one of the men but is distrustful of the other. Walker learns that the men have been on strike and Arnold, the one Walker doesn’t like, says they came for meat. Walker goes to the bathroom, contemplates getting his gun, and when he returns the men are drinking whiskey. Arnold knocks Walker down then Walker passes out and wakes up tied to a chair. Walker works his way over to the door where he sees the men load up a fattened steer and drive it to the butchering shed. Walker imagines hungry people walking and driving up to his barn to collect the butchered meat. Walker struggles free, collects his .30-.30, and sights the pick-up where the two men have loaded his meat as the truck is driven up the hill. The truck begins to slide in the fresh snow and Walker hopes they make it. He does not shoot them. Later he sees they have left him enough more than enough beef from the butchered steer to last him through the winter. “Meat” is about 3,500 words and is told in third person from the point of view of John Edward Walker.

I mentioned that both stories originally being published in The Atlantic was one of several similarities I came to see as I fought my way through to seeing the plot lines of these stories. Another is that in each story the protagonist’s conflict comes from a source outside him or herself – a tangible, imminent threat to the physical well-being of the main character. In both stories the protagonist considers taking action (Maureen wants to run; Walker wants to get his gun), acquiesces, and then tries to figure out what the antagonist wants while simultaneously thinking how to defend him or herself. As soon as I understood the essence of plot and recognized that there can be a great deal of story material that is NOT plot, I realized I had picked two variations of the same story. I am not too surprised that I also ended up writing a couple of stories that played on these same themes while actively writing and revising this lecture.

In “Meat,” the plot seems to begin in the third paragraph. After two opening paragraphs that have Walker listening to the shooting upcountry, he decides not to investigate.

If I was any good anymore, he told himself, I’d get my rifle and go see about this. But he was cold, his guts churned and growled and threatened to grow beyond the boundaries of his skin and burst, like the stomach of a cow that had eaten dewy alfalfa. At that moment all he wanted to do was sit and wait for his coffee to cool. (Smith 38)

Rather than pitching forward with the tension introduced by something potentially dangerous going on outside, Smith writes a page of background information regarding illegal cattle slaughtering over the past weeks and then over three pages of a reflective-plot sub-story in which Walker remembers a time when he and his brothers, father, and grandfather captured cattle thieves but let them go free. By “reflective plot sub-story” I mean a fully articulated story that uses the main plot sequence (Walker handling cattle thieves) to tell a story that is made different primarily by virtue of it occurring in the past with different cattle thieves. Rather than come across as redundant, it serves as a mirror and a set up for the main plot. We also saw this in “Bible” where Maureen told us exactly how she would react to being pushed around and then handled the main conflict with Hassan’s father precisely the way she told she would. In “Meat,” the set up, background, and reflective-plot take about four pages of a fourteen story and runs a risk of derailing the tension, but in this case it deepens and enhances, and dare we say it, foreshadows, the plot, as does the mother/lost daughter references in “Bible.”

Angels and Others, by Ken Smith (includes “Meat”)

Regardless, the plot actually begins in earnest in Walker’s kitchen when the two men come to take his cattle. Walker wants to protect himself and his cattle; the two men want to steal meat. Like “Bible,” the story takes off when the protagonist finds himself in a compromised situation trying to figure out what the exterior, threatening force is seeking. After Walker has invited the men into his home for coffee, he talks to them and comes to like one of them, Willy. He realizes the other man, Arnold, is one “who would steal and kill his cattle. If he wasn’t the man who had done it already, he was capable of such things.” (45)

The three men continue to talk, and Arnold, the one Walker distrusts, even acknowledges that they came for meat. Walker brews another pot of coffee, then excuses himself to go to the bathroom. He passes his bedroom and sees his gun leaning in a corner. The first present-action plot point (second if you count the decision to stay inside and drink coffee rather than check out the gunfire upcountry), is revealed when Walker notes, “You could pick that up and go run them off, he told himself. But what would be the reason? You can’t just say, holding men at gunpoint, that they make you nervous and you want them to get.” (46) Walker does not wish to be rude or act strange since the men have not yet done anything to cause him harm, just as Maureen considers but chooses not to run away or act out when she is initially kidnapped.

As it turns out, the situation turns dark soon after Walker returns to the kitchen. The men are drinking whiskey with their coffee and Walker refuses to join them. They knock him down, knock him out, and tie him up. In the A versus B definition, Walker (A) wants to protect himself and his cattle, but the men (B) want meat. So far, Walker has failed to protect himself or it’s not looking good for his cattle.

When Walker begins to come to, he has a vision (at least I think it’s a vision) of hungry people coming by the hundreds for the meat from his cattle and how even if he tried to stop them he could not. Walker rests, then manages to untie himself. Once he has freed himself, he gets his gun and goes to the front porch to sight the men who have loaded the butchered meat into their truck. As Arnold and Willy drive up the steep hill away from Walker’s ranch, he watches the truck knowing he has plenty of time to get off several shots. It has begun to snow, and the truck begins sliding across the hill. One of the men gets out and jumps on the bumper to help the truck gain traction. Walker has the perfect opportunity to take a shot. “How easy, he thought, to kill these men. They had already forgotten about him.” (50) Although it’s too late to protect that particular steer, Walker can kill the men who hurt him and stole from him, maybe even prevent others from doing the same thing. Instead, he hopes they make it up the hill safely, as illustrated by the following passage:

The tires caught and the truck gave a sudden lurch, and the man on the back almost fell.

“Hold on,” he said to himself. “Goddamn it, just hold on.”

In a few seconds he heard the cousins whooping in triumph as the truck eased on up the hill. How easy, he thought, to let them go, to allow them to sit tonight with their grateful wives and children in a warm kitchen, the air dense with the smell of cooking beef. (50)

Walker lets the men go, and the truck makes it up the hill. When Walker tries to uncock the rifle, it goes off and shoots a hole in the porch rail. He realizes they have left him enough butchered beef to last him through winter and that he has been beaten and robbed and all he managed to do was shoot up his own place.

In “Meat,” the true beginning of the plot occurs in the kitchen with Walker, Arnold, and Willy. The middle occurs while Walker is alone in the kitchen and the men are butchering then stealing his steer. The A versus B conflict is played out like this: Walker wants the men to leave his kitchen (they leave, but only after knocking him out and tying him up), Walker wants to protect his steer and himself (he fails), and then the conflict goes interior and Walker has to decide to stop the men or let them go (he lets them go). The plot and the story and the character {remember how I talked about how character and plot could not be separated?} come to climax and reach their full potential at the point when Walker can choose to shoot the men or let them go. Rather than a sickly, mourning old man with more beef than he needs he becomes benevolent, or rather, he comes back to himself as a man with the power of wisdom and kindness. The plot, the conflict between Walker and the men, is mirrored in the reflective, pre-main-plot story of the Walker family dealing with cattle thieves. In that reflective-plot story, even though the Walkers take the thieves’ horses, young Walker is respectful when he hands a hat back to one of the men. The reflective-plot deepens the unveiling of Walker’s character so that the reader knows, even before Walker does in the text of the story, that he will not shoot the men.

It took me writing and re-writing this lecture to begin to see the plot in these and other stories. That conflict, that A versus B tension, was not, prior to this exploration, apparent to me in well-written stories. Rich, good stories have so many distractions – sub-plot, description, dialogue, reflective plots – that I struggle seeing the bones of the story for the other wonderful stuff that add to the story’s meaning and beauty. That struggle with identifying plot reflects itself in my own stories as meandering structure, meandering to the extent that I tend to shy away just when the story has the potential to become interesting, to become a story. Of course, now that I have put together a graduate school lecture on plot, of all things, it seems really simple. Plot – how can a writer overlook that? And then I try to write again, or I read a story and wonder how that writer managed to convey what she did, and A versus B doesn’t seem so simple anymore, so here I am, trying to explain it to you so that it makes sense to me.

—Gwen Mullins


  2 Responses to “Plot Structure in Short Stories — Gwen Mullins”

  1. Wonderful to be able to read the words. Thanks for sharing, Gwen.

  2. Very nice. This essay gave me a lot to think about, and I think Meat in particular serves as an excellent example.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.