Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thoughts On Plot 1: What Is A Story And How Can I Steal One?

Here's a contour drawing of a reproduction of a Velociraptor mongoliensis skull. I need to do more like this -- get my draftsmanship back in shape.

We all have our creative strengths and gifts -- and we all have our weak areas. Plotting and storytelling are not my gifts. In order to function as a writer I've had to develop a seat of principles and approaches that you may find useful.

Here's how I view plot. A plot is a sequence of related events in which expectations are raised in the audience and then addressed. It's a form that's pretty fundamental to organisms like us -- it mimics things like appetite and the sexual experience. Anticipation grows in intensity until satisfaction is achieved and the greater the anticipation, the greater the satisfaction.

Okay, that's the easy part. Now we've got a basis for judgment. But how do you tell a fucking story?

I went through years where I filled a lot of pages without telling a single story. Finally I took a creative writing class where the teacher called me on this in no uncertain fashion. (She had it in her head that I was a poet along the lines of Richard Brautigan while I wanted to write -- well, the kind of crap I write now, neo-pulp with literary pretensions.) She told me that I had everything but story -- and without story there was nothing. No one was going to be able to read my fiction unless it had a story.

She told me this any number of times. It really bugged me. Because she was right.

Finally I snapped. "Okay," sez I, "if she wants a fucking story I'll fucking well give her a fucking story. The Three Little Pigs is what I'll fucking well give her."

So I just took the sequence of events in The Three Little Pigs and laid it out. I was raised on the originals of these folk and fairy tales (never a good idea to teach a child to use a library) so I knew I was dealing with what was more-or-less a slasher movie. I was into Jim Thompson real big around that time so I decided to steal two of his tricks -- the shifting first-person POV and the first person death scene. I took it as my goal to make every death in the three little pigs happen on-screen in the first person. It was nice and ugly.

And the teacher loved it -- and when I sent it out to Cemetary Dance magazine the rejection slip was a form letter with two words written on it in green Sharpie -- "Came Close." So I learned a lesson. As another teacher once told us, "Don't hide your eyes -- plagiarize!"

In other words, there's no reason not to take a good look at the world of traditional stories, folklore, and mythology to find patterns for plots.

In writing the novel I took a number of characters from both classic and Scandinavian mythologies and just plugged them into the narrative willy-nilly. At first this seemed to solve all of my narrative problems but it soon became appearant that adhering too closely to the myths sucked. However, by the time I figured that out many of those borrowed characters had started to take on a life of their own. I kept the characters, dumped all extraneous mythological elements, and the story rose naturally from what remained.

Here's an example. I knew my story was leading through a bizarre afterlife so I brought Hades and Persephone into the story. When Zeus, Ares, and Charon all arrived afterwards the novel went off the rails. But the Hades and Persephone characters had made themselves at home -- Hades was a mentor figure to the lead character, Persephone had become his romantic interest, and the resulting triangle seemed to have some real narrative traction.

So I dumped all their connections, rethought the nature of the afterlife and rebuilt the characters to fit the new mythology. Hades became the Deacon, a civil war soldier turned preacher and weapon of the Lord. Persephone became Corrie, who has been living in the afterlife since childhood.

The myth of Hades and Persephone was propaganda in a way -- the goddess Kore ruled the underworld before Hades came along, dethroned her, and changed her name. I dumped Persephone's rape (I wouldn't handle it well enough to make it worth doing) but kept a lot of the dynamics of her relationship with Hades -- only married for part of the year, he took her power away from her, etc.

It was a bass-ackwards way of working and it no doubt took a lot longer than it should have -- but it worked. I was able to come up with a decent plot. The thing to keep in mind is that in both of these cases I wrote the stories. I didn't turn them over in my mind, I didn't make an outline and then put it in a drawer. I wrote the stories until they read like stories. That's the real secret.

Next time I'll let you know about the two best tools for plotting that I know.

They're both pistols.


LunchBoxxx said...

I have a box with about a million random phrases senteces and half written words(no joke). When no insperation can find me I often dump the box place a bunch of senteces phrases and words together write it down and have a story. The stories are often long strange and dare i say deep? Its a preety neat tool However I recomend it only if your insane.

Sean Craven said...

That is a most excellent idea -- and now I've got another plot post to write. "Where do you get your ideas? or The Quest for Inspirado."

Spoiler Alert -- you don't get ideas unless you're looking for 'em.