The Tyranny of Plot: A Rantlet (And I'll Probably Have to Take It Back Later)
Why is it that any discussion of plot makes me itchy, and not in a good way? Could it be because it’s my weakness? Could it be the word plot itself? Terrorists and saboteurs have plots. Why must I? Plots thicken. What if I prefer airiness to thickness? Plots have climaxes. What if you’re faking your climaxes (which many storytellers are guilty of, in my opinion)? What if real life doesn’t have climaxes? Does this mean stories aren’t actually connected to real life? What a depressing thought.
The reason I read and write fiction is to explore human feelings and experience, and to discover things I wouldn’t in my day-to-day. And to me, one of the most important human feelings is inertia. Depicting inertia is something I’m struggling with in one of my almost-done-but-not-quite-there stories, which, to make myself laugh, I titled “The Plot,” because it doesn’t exactly have one.
It’s about a garden plot, which I’d like to think is a better way to think about story plot. The protag is restless and a little lost after her youngest child goes to college, and she kills time in her community garden plot, where she cultivates stuff, but where weeds crop up too--she pushes them back; they broadcast their own seeds here and there. Maybe this is my kind of story plot. Plant a few seeds in the first page, then see what sprouts, and how it looks, and what takes over the yard. Seeds are natural containers of suspense. Maybe tying up loose ends isn’t necessary. Maybe “endings” are overrated. Gardens don’t end, after all. The flora and fauna keep things going, even when human characters stop making those “critical choices” we writers love to dissect.
Am I being a “passive” writer, resisting endings? Do my characters have no agency then? Are they more passive than me? Is this a cop-out? Is it possible to satisfy readers without endings? Is satisfaction even the right goal?
OR, is it important for us to resist the tyranny of our expectation of plot? Like resisting the idea that Jesus is Lord? Which He is, for some people (and I’m happy for them), but not me, any more? It’s the same kind of thing, resisting indoctrination. The war is inside yourself. It’s my own thought habits I’m challenging here. I’m trying to figure out my truth. Is this making any sense? Am I foaming at the mouth yet?
If you’re still with me, and feel any glimmer of recognition at my questions, I heartily recommend Liesl Schwabe’s piece in the February 2007 issue of AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle. The essay, entitled, “Leaving the Window Open: Refusing Closure and Avoiding an Arc in Nonfiction Writing,” is aimed at reportage, but equally applicable to realist fiction, in my view. Here’s where I started going nuts with my highlighter:
Nonfiction writing that refuses to tidy up the mess on the page can often force the reader into a very active place of considering the information, not in the way that we collect headlines and trivia, but in triggering an awareness of interdependency, be it of politics or history or memory, that necessarily locates the reader within the mystery and blessing of his or her own humanity. When this kind of responsibility manifests in some prickly combination of acceptance and discomfort, I feel it ultimately represents a much more accurate way to share and keep track of experience.
Amen, sister. She makes me want to write complicated, open-ended things, or maybe I wanted that already and she just named it. Schwabe uses the metaphor of architecture to discuss structure, instead of “arc,” that is to say, stories benefit from having some kind of internal logic holding them together. But they need not have the focus on forward movement and results/outcome/conclusion that we’ve been brainwashed to hold valuable.
Endings, arcs, the crap in Wikipedia’s definition of “plot,” these things do work on me. They keep me inert in front of the television, they keep me up all night reading certain bestselling books. But characters-serving-plot makes my eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, not deep emotion. And racing through a book doesn’t necessarily mean the book is good. Perfectly crafted stories sometimes leave me cold. Loosely crafted stories sometimes stick with me, even haunt me, if the characters and emotions ring true.
I’m reminded of Rick Moody’s talk with Michael Silverblatt, in which he holds his nose at the “stench of fiction.” The stench can be perfumey too, maybe even seductive. But a smell is a smell. I prefer natural smells over artificial ones--today, anyway.
Labels: Writing Fiction