CRAFT: plot, story, and the usefulness of words

Today I’d like to quote the late Lisa (LK) Madigan, via April Henry on her LJ. I didn’t know her and I haven’t read her books, but this rings true (from private e-mail).

“I would have to be presumptuous enough to class myself as a ‘good writer,’ when I have no verifiable evidence to that effect. But what the hell!! I’ll go ahead and own it. I FEEL like a good writer. But then I worry that maybe I’m like this character in a Wilkie Collins novel (“Hide and Seek”) who devoted his whole life and soul to ART . . . studying it, suffering for it, painting like mad. The problem was — he just wasn’t very good.”

Interesting bit of self-doubt. You can’t help but have this thought when everyone around you is rolling their eyes and saying your stuff is dreck.

“I don’t think good writing can be taught. I hate to get all New Age-y on you, because I am so NOT . . . but real writers are born with ink in their veins. They wake up every day anticipating when they can sit down and read, read, read, as if books are food. Words are so important to writers that they THINK about words all the time, the way some people think about sex. They cringe when people use the wrong words. They also fantasize about their next date with The Muse, mentally calculating hours and minutes when there will be time to spill their thoughts out on the page. AND they also don’t just wait for a convenient time for the Muse to strike: they demand time to write, like greedy toddlers.

“People can be taught to write in a clear, journalistic fashion, I believe. But the kind of writing that pours out like music – that can’t be taught.”

Truth! I DO BELIEVE that the kind of writing that pours out is better than the journalistic, no-style kind. Yes, even if it has *gasp* adverbs. Maybe it’s eloquent, and maybe it’s evocative, and maybe it’s cadenced prose; it could have a subtext that isn’t being recognized, and it could be tossing off a clue that the author is using to set up a major plot event later (instead of just “this can be deleted because I don’t immediately see its direct significance to the paragraph that it’s in and therefore claim that it has nothing to do with the story because I am shortsighted.”) That’s one of the differences between me and the carnival of young agents/editors who clamor for the no-style style and the concise EVERYTHING and the omission of anything that they don’t think “furthers the STORY,” when they don’t realize that the STORY includes more than PLOT.

Yes, STORY and PLOT are two different critters. A “plot” is a sequence of events that occur in a story: “what happens.” You’ve seen plenty of plot summaries that don’t get across the POINT or WHAT REALLY HAPPENED. “Story” is what the work is all about, encompassing the characters’ growth and change, all the themes (“Crime doesn’t pay” and “love conquers all” are two common themes, simplified here), the resonances (“It was like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘A Christmas Story,’ but also reminded me of ‘A Tale of Two Cities'”), the archetypes explored (“Gram is the moral compass of the story, the crone with the wisdom, but the Helper was Peter, and the Call to Adventure was really when she was cast in the play”), and the subtext (“That opening scene where she’s bespelled by Raz was really a virgin seduction”). It’s about evoking an emotional response in the reader or viewer (even if it’s only an adrenaline rush and a Beavis-type “wow!” that you’re seeing on the surface). You always hear that properties must have a good “plot,” but if you read those blurbs on the backs of even the most silly vampire books, you’ll see that there’s a lot of emotional action implied or expressed.

E. M. Forster (as quoted in Janet Burroway’s text on writing fiction) says that plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. This is more at what I mean by “story,” but not quite. The significance of the events and how they’re ordered or arranged isn’t really all of it.

Story encompasses so much MORE than just bare PLOT. It always amazes me when non-writers/non-“sensitives” come out of a movie or close a book and then recite a few plot points, thinking that is all they have experienced. If you vocalize some of the other things that must have come out of the experience for them, they’ll sometimes acknowledge that, but it’s mostly subconscious stuff, apparently. Notice, though, that when a film or book is LACKING in these other components of story–if characters do not grow and learn (“I learned something today,” as Kyle says in “South Park” episodes), or if there’s no causality or problems with causality (“She would never have done that–she only did it because it was in the script, but it wasn’t true to the character!” and “That was a HUGE plot hole, but the scenes were moving too fast for anyone to analyze it until afterward”)–you’re going to hear about it from the audience, and the book or film won’t have lasting value and will be a flash in the pan.

Often I find myself trying to explain why I value the experience of story. “It’s just dumb made-up stuff. Nothing but entertainment. Better than sitting and watching reality shows, or playing yet another computer game,” people will say. That’s not my reason for needing story. I believe human beings need story to help them make sense of this crazy world. I think there is a human need for stories. You’ll see drunks “swapping stories” in a bar, or people bull***tting in a locker room or at a party or around a water cooler. If what you have is nothing but a plot that doesn’t evoke emotions in the reader or viewer, then you won’t have a lot of lasting fans.

When the story is mostly just unadorned plot, as in the James Bond flicks and in other action movies, what do you remember when the final credits roll? Is there anything left out of your experience of the past couple of hours? Or do you feel a vague sense that something was missing? Do you remember the characters, or just the actors? (In films, very often the actor makes up for lots of deficiencies in the dialogue or plot events just by being a charming beauty or a very strong personality who’s basically playing himself and winking at the audience. Actors create a character that is far more than what was on the page. Deficiencies are more obvious in books.)

Perhaps the difference between the fiction that is now being termed “the kind we can sell” and the “other stuff” has something to do with this.

After all, words created the world.

And continue to do so, pretty much.

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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