February 19th, 2010 / 3:26 pm
Craft Notes

Michael Kimball Guest Lecture #4: Story and Plot

“Fuck the plot.” Edna O’Brien says that in a Paris Review interview. She then goes on to say this: “What matters is the imaginative truth.” I don’t know what she means, exactly, by “imaginative truth,” but I can imagine what she means.

It reminds me of something that somebody told me Rick Whitaker said: “Plot tells you how their life turns out. What the fuck do I care about how their life turns out? I want to know their heart.”

And that reminds me of this quote from Andy Devine: “We all know how the story ends. If you have the baby, then the baby will die. If you fall in love, then the love will end.”

In spite of my affection for those three quotes, I still like to think about story and plot. I still like it when things happen in fiction. In fact, I have always thought that one of the great things about being a fiction writer is that you can make anything happen.

Before this goes too far, here are a couple of definitions: story is what happens in chronological order; plot is the story—however it is arranged in the work of fiction. The Russian Formalists call these two things the fabula (“elements of action and event in their natural chronological and causal order”) and the sujet (“the rearranged manner of their textual presentation created by artistic compositional patterns”).

Here’s some more on plot: As Aristotle is said to have said (in another language), there should be a beginning, a middle, and an end. Gustav Freytag tried to improve upon that and broke plot down into five parts—exposition (background information, setting), rising action (conflict, complications), climax (crisis, turning point), falling action (anticlimax), denouement (resolution). Freytag’s thing is usually described as a pyramid or triangle.

There’s a revision of Freytag that is in the shape of an inverted checkmark. The inverted checkmark has the same five parts as the pyramid, but the falling action and resolution take place much faster, which I like. I hate it when the ending takes longer to end than it needs to. If it starts to take too long for a story or a novel to end, then I begin to feel manipulated by the writer and I never want to feel that (even though I know that is what is happening).

OK, I’d like to create some new structure or shape that cuts out the exposition and shortens the ending (does anybody have an idea for what shape this would be?). The fiction has to begin somewhere, but I like beginning with the conflict or the complicated situation. I want to get right into it and let any information that we need to know come out when we need to know it. This is a bit of a jump, but that;s why I like this quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “Start as close to the end as possible.” And this nearly identical quote from Chris Offut: “The secret is to start a story near the ending.”

Let’s move on. As readers, we are mostly conditioned to receive narrative in chronological terms. Most works of fiction are chronological, though, of course, there are plenty of exceptions. And even if the fiction isn’t presented in chronological terms, the reader will generally put the story in chronological order in their reading. Generally, the reader can’t help it. I don’t know how much chronology matters, but it always makes me think about flashbacks. I had a writing teacher who said that a fiction writer should never use a flashback. She said that a flashback’s darker purpose is exposition or explanation, which stalls the narrative. She advised this: If you need what’s back there in the flashback, then start the story back there. Janet Burroway doesn’t say that the fiction writer should never use a flashback, but she almost does: “Dialogue, brief summary, a reference or detail can often tell us all we need to know, and when that is the case, a flashback becomes cumbersome.”

I needed to get flashbacks out of the way. I want to talk about the narrative moving forward. Connie Willis (via Opium) says this: “Every sentence should set the tone, define the character, and advance the plot. If it’s not doing all three, fix it, or cut it.” Kurt Vonnegut (from Bagombo Snuff Box) says something similar: “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

Vonnegut also said this: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away — even if it’s only a glass of water.” Now a character getting a glass of water may not be enough to keep the reader reading, but there’s still a useful idea there, especially if it’s combined with this quote from Ernest Hemingway: “Never confuse movement with action.”

I often tell writers that they have to make the reader want to turn the page and there are plenty of ways to do that. It can be because the reader wants to find out what happens next or because the writing is so funny that the reader wants the next laugh or because the writing is so amazing that the reader wants the next amazement. That is, there are plenty of great books that have been written without using story and plot in traditional ways—Stanley G. Crawford’s Some Instructions and David Markson’s late quartet of novels are good examples of that. That is, what is on the page can be anything, but it has to be something.

Lots of writers and teachers tie that something to a character. Here’s Janet Burroway on that: “In fiction, in order to engage our attention and sympathy, the protagonist must want, and want intensely. The thing that the character wants need not be violent or spectacular; it is the intensity of the wanting that introduces an element of danger.” That is, I think, a riff on a quote from Aristotle’s Poetics, but I couldn’t find it. Anyway, Luke Whisnant says it pretty simply: “Plot arises from the character’s pursuit of her desires.”

Doug Lawson says something similar from a different angle: “Often I’ll find clues to where the story might go by figuring out where the characters would rather not go.” That makes me think of this Don DeLillo quote (via Lee Klein): “I feel that a novel tells you what it wants to be . . . It’s really the purest sort of impulse — a question of what the novel seems to want — and this novel demanded economy.” And that makes me think of this from Joseph Scapellato, which maybe says it best: “The story is smarter than you.”

How do you think about story, about plot, about a character’s desire, about books that work without using story and plot in traditional ways, etc.?

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