One of the most challenging things I struggle with as both a writer of
fiction and a student of literature (yeah, they always go together) is
which tool to use when. I believe that while reading and writing
are intricately related–you must be well-read to be well-written–they
don’t use the same mental tools.
The term plot (my archenemy when it comes to writing) appears in both
toolkits, and I think that is terribly confusing.
I believe that good stories almost invariable need a good plot. But I
also believe that there’s a difference between plot as used in literary
analysis and plot as used by writers. Plot as a complex tool of literary
analysis does me little good as a writer. I don’t want an analysis of an
end product, I want guidelines for creating something new.
Ansen Dibell shows us in Plot that she
understands the need for this distinction. She opens chapter one with:
The common definition of plot is that it’s whatever happens in a
story. That’s useful when talking about completed stories, but when
we’re considering stories being written, it’s about as useful as
saying that a birthday cake is a large baked confection with frosting
and candles. It doesn’t tell you how to make one. (pg 5)
What she does is offer a clear working definition of plot and supplies
relevant material to help any writer in the struggle to develop and
create plots that work. “Cause and effect: that’s what makes plot.” (pg.
Dibell provides a breakdown of plot in terms of cause and effect, and
leads up to a list of four questions a writer can use to test a story
idea, which I’ve dutifully tacked up on my bulliten board:
- Is it your story to tell?
- Is it too personal for readers to become involved with?
- Is it going somewhere?
- What’s at stake?
The rest of the chapters address various elements a writer should pay
attention to when working on a story to help craft the plot: openings,
point-of-view (POV), exposition, middles, scene building, melodrama,
patterns, pacing, and endings. In all of her discussions, she
provides excellent supporting examples, some from the original Star Wars
trilogy, which I think takes her advice from academic to practical. I
recommend the book to anyone interested in writing. Here are a few ways
she helped me.
The chapter on POV, titled “Would You Trust A Viewpoint with Shifty
Eyes?”, is particularly relevant to me. My thesis novel has a problem
here, and it happened because I wasn’t paying enough attention. I shift
between the viewpoints of… crap, I just added it up: three major
characters and six minor characters. That’s nine viewpoints across 400
Dibell suggests sticking with a single POV, and tells us that, “A story
with too many focuses can become a story with no focus at all.” (pg 12)
I panicked, but not for long. She concedes that a writer may choose to
use multiple POVs and provides practical advice to reduce reader
distraction, such as building in connections, keeping things simple at
the beginning, and never switching in the middle of a scene. But above
all, she reminds us that it is the writer’s eyes that matter the most,
that the writer must have a coherent vision of the story. Whew. I think
I’m okay then.
I also found the chapter on melodrama enlightening. It made me realize
that I often avoid melodrama in my scenes, tending more towards
understatement and subtlety. But she tells us that melodrama is critical
to creating a good plot:
Melodrama is the technique of revealing reality by concentrating on
the ends of the spectrum rather than the middle, the remarkable rather
than the ordinary. (pg 81)
She calls it lightning, and she’s right. In fiction, particularly in
genre fiction, readers look for the remarkable and a writer can’t
fulfill that need by writing strictly in ordinary scenes. As writers we
must break out from the ordinary and show the extraordinary, and what’s
more, the writer must make it believable. Dibell provides guidance on
tackling melodrama, which she embodies as a curse for example, and
making it believable with two sets of techniques, the straightforward
and the sleight-of-hand.
Straightforward (pg.84 - 89)
- Show that it works right away
- Show that the curse has worked in the recent past.
- Establish a reasonable character, and have him take the curse
- Surround your curse with tangible everyday objects and activities,
described in detail.
- Use just one curse at a time (and don’t cross genres).
- Don’t undercut your curse.
- Especially at first, don’t talk about the curse yourself, in
- Don’t let the curse either take over, rendering the whole story
weird and uninvolving, or become commonplace.
Sleight-of-hand (pg. 90 - 91)
- Introduce the melodramatic element by the back door in a scene
ostensibly dealing with something else.
- Have one or two previews, or false alarms, before the real curse
- Have a character expecting something even more extraordinary, so
that when the real curse comes, it’ll seem credible by comparison.
- Have a character expecting a smaller and more credible version of
the thing you actually intend to spring on him.
She closes the chapter by suggesting that novel-length fiction should
use multiple techniques throughout, which seems like a given to me. But
she’s provided a practical list of tools that I can use to strengthen my
current work, which deals with some pretty extraordinary events.
Other chapters of note for me were on patterns, and of course, coming
to the end. Ending a story is always a struggle for me, I think in part
because I’m afraid I didn’t say enough–which is a very bad fear for a
writer to have–or maybe because I’m just not sure when I got there. She
emphasis that we must stop at the end, and provides two “shapes” for
endings: circular and linear. I won’t go into details on each, the names
are pretty self-evident, but I suggest that anyone who struggles with
coming to a stop as I do will benefit from her guidance.
I think I stated in my last post on a how-to book that I hate them.
That’s still true–mostly. Dibell’s work on plot has given me hope,
however, that there’s more how-to literature on writing out there that
isn’t just a rehashing of the same old advice. It’s practical and
refreshing, and though I found myself reluctant to get engaged in her
book, in the end I did just that, and I feel that my writer’s toolbox
has grown considerably for it.
If you want to write, and the idea of plotting makes you cringe, give
this book a read.