NaNoWriMo 2015: plot, structure, shape

I struggle with plot.

Freytag's pyramid
Freytag’s pyramid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In grade school, I learned that plot was just another word for story. Later, I learned a more mechanical version, that plot was the arrangement of events in a narrative. It is the order in which things happen, and it has a shape. Mostly it looks like an arc — often a sharp one, like two sides of a triangle, with a definite, pointed apex at which things come to a head and then begin their inevitable decline — though in college I saw Kurt Vonnegut give a version of his “Shapes of Stories” lecture and learned that the classic “arc” isn’t so classic, and it certainly isn’t the only shape a story can take.

Then in grad school, I began to learn the new-old lesson that the best literature is character-driven, not plot-driven, and I sighed with relief, because I had figured out by then that I was no good at plot. Where I got this idea, I couldn’t say — a workshop comment? a professor’s remark on a story I’d turned in? — but figuring out the sequence of events in a story scared me, and I was glad for the excuse to just focus on my characters and let plot sort itself out.

This let me forget my anxieties over plot for a while — even to pretend that plot was no problem at all. I remember having a conversation with a grad school friend of mine who’d gone into our creative writing program with an eye toward writing genre fiction. We were discussing the absence of plot from our curriculum, and I remarked that professors probably didn’t bother teaching plot because it was the easiest part of writing — if you craft well-rounded, believably human characters, you can simply let them behave as human beings do and your plot will evolve on its own.

My friend countered that perhaps professors didn’t teach plot because they didn’t really understand it — they didn’t know how to explain how it functioned. And I think she was perhaps onto something there. Plot is certainly something I have difficulty explaining, and every time I try, I find the explanation too thin or too formulaic, too focused on the insignificant progression of moment to moment and not enough concerned with the evolution of a consciousness. I remember my early lessons in responding to literature; I remember how often teachers would steer me away from simple plot summaries and toward more nuanced, critical analyses: don’t tell me what happened — show me what it means.

And yet, in narrative, things do need to happen. There are events in a story, and they should follow a certain order. It doesn’t have to be the triangular arc; it doesn’t even have to follow any of Vonnegut’s shapes. I know a lot of writers these days who vociferously eschew “linear narrative” in favor of a more emotionally or intellectually charged jumble of associations. And I’ve certainly played with breaking shape and violating order. But even disorder, crafted correctly and with purpose, is a kind of order, and the way we arrange those events, linearly or nonlinearly, is still plot.

For me, plot now usually comes down to questions geometery, of shape and pattern. I’m very much in that camp that sees possibilities in nonlinear narrative, and I’m not terribly interested in a mere sequence of events, but I have become attuned to the importance of order in narrative, to the power of a sequence of emotions or ideas. And these are what give shape to the stories I want to tell.

While working on this NaNoWriMo novel, I went in with only a handful of ideas — a few characters, a setting, a traumatic event, a powerful set of emotions — but no idea of plot. At the outset of the story, a character dies, and I was interested in exploring the grief of the other characters in the aftermath of that death. But to what end? I had no idea, and after the first week, with several thousand words all in disjointed scenes and meditations, I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to stick with the story long enough to discover where it was headed.

Then, while driving home the other day from work, I was thinking about the novel and dictating a bit of text into my phone, when I hit upon a connection between two characters that I hadn’t thought of before. The connection surprised me, and I stayed with it for a while, and I discovered another connection, and another . . . in the space of about 90 seconds, I saw the whole novel, the shape of it, the relationships between characters and events, the larger narrative arc as well as the small character arcs, the resolution, everything. Everything! I saw at a glance both the summary and the symbolism, what will happen and what it will mean.

I began to shout in the car. I looked around at the cars passing me — in my exhilerating creative vertigo, I’d decelerated considerably — as I searched for someone to witness the moment. I felt like I’d just finished reading my own unwritten novel, all in one sitting, all in one rush. I felt like I’d just jumped from a plane — I wanted to spread my arms, to increase drag and extend the freefalling giddiness for as long as I could.

Some day this will make more sense. When I’ve finished the novel and can talk more openly about its shape, its structure, readers will better understand this excitement I continue to feel about that sudden insight. It’s not that the structure is especially brilliant — it isn’t — but it’s the right structure, the necessary shape for this story. And in the days that have passed since, as I have started putting that structure into place and am blazing forward according to this new narrative map, I have begun to see not only that it works but also why it works. And here’s the trick, gang:

It’s about connections.

My teachers were right: great fiction is character-driven. But plot doesn’t evolve from crafting a strong character and then seeing where they go or what they do. Plot comes from building a whole world of characters and letting them interact with one another. Plot is about the moments where a character connects with — or fails to connect with, or refuses to connect with — another character. Plot isn’t Harry Potter discovering he’s a wizard; plot is Harry meeting Hagrid. Plot isn’t Holden Caulfield running away from school; plot is Holden refusing to touch or be touched by any other character, rebuffing everyone in a kind of antipolar magnetic repulsion that drives him through his story. Plot isn’t simply a gang of vampire-hunters out to stop Dracula; plot is Dracula invading — infecting, really — London, one person at a time, bite by bite, with all the problematic ethnic and colonialist complications that implies.

English: Spider web
English: Spider web (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Connections, as well as missed connections and disconnections, are what move a story forward and define when it must end. And this past week, folks, I saw the whole web of connections between my characters. I saw each path fork and intersect and ultimately tie off or drift out into another story, somewhere beyond the confines of this novel. I saw the whole thing, in one big spiderweb, one single image.

Now I just have to write it.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

3 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo 2015: plot, structure, shape

  1. Sam, in my time in the blogosphere I have found many ‘tutorials’ about ‘plot’, as indeed I have about many other aspects of writing. Most of the theories behind these tutorials regard plot in a highly structured, end-driven way. Writing in any other way, letting something other than the end drive the novel – the characters, for example – is not a particularly new idea. It’s about a hundred years old, if we take Modernism as the movement that sought to free us writers of the necessity of making the story depend on the end. Having written both end-driven and character-driven narratives, I find the latter wonderfully liberating. My most normal method of writing is rather like a jigsaw; if I do have some kind of ‘end’ in mind, I write the scenes, encounters, episodes, that I see in my mind, with the characters that I feel populate them, and eventually I see whether they reach the ‘end’ or somewhere else. At other times when, on a horses-for-courses basis such as the annual scary-story competition I go in for, I have to look to the ‘end’, and to fit the plot and characters to it; on those occasions I try to adopt Mary Flannery O’Connor’s dictum that the end of a story should be both inevitable and surprising.

    There’s a lot to bear in mind in your post, Sam, and I am going to spread it amongst some of my writing colleagues.

    1. Ha! See , I’m a hopeless poet! I enjoy nonfiction, but I find narrative nonfiction difficult for this same issue — my difficulties with plot get compounded when I’m confined to actual events and can’t just make stuff up! 🙂

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