Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Tyranny of Plot: A Rantlet (And I'll Probably Have to Take It Back Later)

Why do fiction writers love to talk about plot so much? Maybe because it can be the hardest thing to master, especially in longer works? Or maybe, because it’s fairly easy to identify patterns in classic plots, and conform to them?

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.



Blogger chris8lee said...

What comes up for me is T.S. Eliot's (any relation?) "Tradition and the Individual Talent", by that I mean when you throw your hat into the ring of any art form you have to reckon with a discourse already in force. By now as artists the terms "deconstruction, authenticity and realism" are themselves already established tropes. Godard in film, Cage in music, Pollock in painting, Dickinson and Cummings in poetry have already put up classic examples of challenging our notions of a "finished, contrived " piece.
The "Apollonian" view of art is to perfect and idealize reality. The "Dionysian" attitude is to give expression to chaos, disorder, incompleteness and the more chtonic dimensions of the "hooman" experience.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

been awhile since I read that Eliot piece.

>>you have to reckon with a discourse already in force

yeah, this is precisely the problem for me. I often feel more indoctrinated by the existing discourse than enlightened, and wonder why everybody isn't standing on the chair and freaking out. I know I'm not alone. It's something most of us think about at one time or another.

I've heard "plot" called the "and then" factor...I'm all for just renaming it entirely. The And Then.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Grace Talusan said...

I liked your piece about Lynda Barry--I also took her class. (Just to let you know, I mentioned you on my blog today.)

This here is also really insightful--I'm going to read the full article on nonfiction writing straight away.

Nice to meet you.

3:11 PM  
Blogger chris8lee said...

It's considered bad taste for an artist to talk about him or herself in terms of "talent". But in MY opinion YOUR talent is the creation and orchestration of AFFECT. In particular in poetry where you initially developed your audience if I am not wrong. You (and Janice) stood out from the cliche mannerisms of spoken word downtown fashion and really tried to move people and get across real feeling in poetry and prose. In longer fictional pieces that "knack" is challenged. Novelty in our generation and epoch has "already been done" and maybe people aren't just interested in innovation for it's own sake. It's an inquiry. The "play's the thing". We will see what you come up with.

8:18 PM  
Blogger chris8lee said...

"don't ask what is it..let's go and make our visit.."

8:24 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Chris: affect, yes, you hit the nail on the head, for me anyway. That's one reason I use text-to-speech software to listen to my prose. The computer doesn't "fix" it with a colorful reading. It's a helpful way to find problems. I try very hard in my prose to leave the affect behind. Some level of cadence is natural but a focus on imagery and clarity is far more important, in my current thinking anyway. Style has to become secondary to subject matter. I'm no James Joyce. Or Rick Moody, for that matter, who I find a brilliant stylist, but my imitations of him always fall flat.

And yes, innovation for its own sake never works. I'm not fully concerned with innovation, only with emotional realism, and how to achieve that on the page. Sometimes classic plot maneuvers, while they keep one reading, pull the story away from real emotion by enslaving the characters to the arc, to the necessity of a neat ending. I want to liberate my characters, that's part of my motivation. It's love of character that has me asking these questions in the first place.

Of course, I try to put such questions aside when I'm composing. I try to keep it a pure exploration. Maybe that's why I put it out here, in the blog, where I allow myself moments of abstraction.

Thanks for checking in! Hope you're well.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Grace: thanks for introducing yourself. I've enjoyed looking at your blog. You take acting classes! I haven't had the courage to take them, only to audit them. Maybe you'll inspire me...

7:42 PM  
Anonymous virginia said...

well you know what I'm going to say, Miss Plot Nazi here (Plotzi, if you will). In answer to this:

"What if real life doesn’t have climaxes? Does this mean stories aren’t actually connected to real life?"

stories aren't real life, thank god! Stories are shaped so that they're NOT AS BORING AND INCONCLUSIVE AS REAL LIFE. This is why we'd rather watch a movie than a surveillance camera tape or read a novel, not Overheard in New York. Not that the slices of life aren't fascinating, but they're not art.

yeah, I said it, I think plot is a major piece of art, be it Apollonian or Dionysian. And there is no shame in reading to find out And Then What Happens. I think it's snobbery to fault readers for that very basic human desire for a story.

Some playwright had a great example: Two men are heading down perpendicular streets toward the same intersection. So what? Suddenly we learn one of them is blind and, boom, we're in a story. We have an And Then.

And who's plot hurtin anyway? It doesn't take an iota away from beautiful writing or characterization or any of the other writerly things to have a plot. Usually it makes it better because all those beautiful things are serving a bigger thing, there's more levels for the thing to work on.

Plotzi And Then

10:25 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Plotzi, I was hoping you would chime in, because you are always the voice of reason on this kind of thing.

I wrote a huge apology/rerant and blogger ate it. Maybe that's a sign. Maybe I didn't plot my response well enough. I'll try again.

Anyhoo, it is snobbish to fault readers for enjoying plot, I'll give you that. I should be nicer. But do I actually enjoy plot? Maybe I do, maybe I don't. Characters without plot I enjoy. Plot without characters I consume, but don't enjoy. I'll admit it. I don't. So if it's one or the other, I vote for character.

The best plots are inevitable manifestations of character anyway. We can all agree on that.

The thing about the blind man on the corner--sure, that's a story, but it feels like a writing exercise to me. Or a trick. In my gut I want to wipe away tricks. I know, tricks are fun. Or they are the "existing discourse," or whatever. But this is a gut reaction to my own work and reading life, I'm not trying to tell other people what to like/not like. Or what to write, for that matter.

How about this angle--what do y'all make of contemporary novelists who throw in the towel and borrow plots? Zadie Smith (EM Forster), Jane Smiley (Shakespeare, Boccacio), Helen Fielding (Jane Austen), etc? I don't believe it's because "there are only ten plots," or however the saying goes. It's an act of hommage. Or, like Chris says, entering the existing discourse. Talking back to the dead predecessors. I think it's interesting.

Or, do we prefer hommage in the vein of Kathy Acker's Don Quixote? When it's literally talking back, with a little sass and confusion? Harder to read, for me.

What ends up staying with me is the language, above all. For the ones listed above too.

9:17 AM  
Blogger chris8lee said...

no disrespect to e.e. cummings or a master haiku-ist...but a novel or screenplay or whatever is a different animal. yes some people can say nothing or fail to move you in 5000 words just- like 500 -but as an art form it is a considerably different paradigm.
People LIKE conflict. Be honest, if there ISN'T a problem somewhere people will create one. Most literature is about "how I got ovah.." you know..I killed that that that spite of .."X" and you know it almost didn't happen until ...I did this or that.

9:16 PM  
Blogger chris8lee said...

"Identity" is a fiction.
jai guru deva om :)

9:43 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Oh, I love conflict too, and fiction without it is boring.

But does it have to be singular, central conflict? And need the conflict have resolution to "end" the story? This is worth playing around with, in my view.

8:51 AM  
Blogger chris8lee said...

"Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion... we aim at the point where everyone who is marked for death dies... Between 'just desserts' and 'tragic irony' we are given quite a large scope for our particular talent. Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as they can possibly go when things have gotten about as bad as they can reasonably get... The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means. " Tom Stoppard

It's a rich question. Good luck, eager to see what you produce with it. Party on.

7:54 PM  

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