Finding Your Story

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, banned books


Whether you think of yourself as a plot-driven author, a character-driven writer, or one who relies on creating a compelling situation, stuff has to happen on your pages or readers will stop turning them. Stuff that truly tests your characters.

In an excellent recent online essay about plot, novelist and former literary agent Barbara Rogan cites Mark Twain’s advice: “The writer’s job is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” Think Huck Finn and Jim on the raft. In other words, keep the problems coming. Readers want to see characters succeed, fail, change, and grow, but, she says, “Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes.” I would append this thought “and overcoming a wildly unrealistic challenge doesn’t work, either.” It’s the author’s victory, not the character’s.” Some thrillers cross that line.

Maybe an author starts with an exciting, possibly (fingers crossed) film-worthy opening scene. That and its aftermath are dealt with, then there’s a slog to the skating-on-the-edge-of-disaster conclusion. What happened in the middle? Not enough, very likely. A saggy middle is the bane of new authors and people over 40 alike. Says Donald Maass, another widely respected literary agent and author, “For virtually all novelists, the challenge is to push farther, go deeper, and get mean and nasty.” Plot-driven novelists do it with incident, character-driven ones by ramping up internal conflict. Stephen King doesn’t rely on plot at all. He starts with a situation, a predicament, and then watches his character “try to work themselves free.”

Tellingly, King says, “my job isn’t to try to help them” free themselves, but to observe them and write it down. That’s such an important point. You can’t go easy on your characters, however attached you are to them. Rogan says when authors “smooth the way for their protagonists”—making clues come too easily or difficulties to easily overcome, giving them a midtown Manhattan parking place just when they need it (!), authors are behaving like “benevolent gods”—a trap my own writing sometimes falls into. I like my characters, even some of the baddies; but I cannot be their mum. What characters learn, they must learn at a cost in physical or emotional pain—preferably both. That makes readers care about them.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran FoerExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the protagonist, precocious nine-year-old Oskar Schell, has a mysterious key belonging to his dead father, and he want to find the lock it will open. He believes someone named Black knows what lock that is. Lots of people in the New York City phone book are named Black, and Oskar visits them all. If the key had belonged to Aaron Black, this would have been a short story.

As in real life, Oskar and other successful fictional characters have to work hard to find their answers. As do the writers who create them.


Guilty Pleasures: Plot

Dickens, writer

(photo: Alan Weir, creative commons license)

In this essay for The Guardian, John Mullan has laid bare a dirty secret I share with many of you. Why do we read fiction? Watch tv & movies? See plays? Plot.

“How we love plots—and how we look down our noses at them,” Mullan begins his essay. Sophisticates are supposed to prefer in-depth character studies, deep psychological explorations, wrenching perspectives on arid reality. I’m afraid I’ve never recovered from the childlike thrill of having a story read to me whose next installment almost made bedtime something to look forward to.

But in contemporary novels, says Mullan, “it sometimes seems that the delights of plot have been contracted out to genre fiction”—especially mysteries, thrillers, and the like. In other words, my favorites.

Of course, genre fiction with believable characters, plausible action, intriguing settings, and (my preference here) significant themes are more satisfying to read, for me it is still plot that makes them worth reading at all. “Yet nowadays we admit the enjoyment of plot as if it were a low kind of self-indulgence—irresistible but ignoble,” says Mullan. We recognize it is what makes us unable to put down certain books, “but not what we any longer expect of ‘serious fiction’” (my emphasis). However, as literary agent and author Donald Maass points out in Writing 21st Century Fiction, plots is more than “clever twists and turns [that] are only momentarily attention-grabbing.”

The many significant characters in the novels of Charles Dickens all turn out to be important to his ultimate plot, even when you don’t fully appreciate their role until the end. Though the drama may have been unfolding through a series of seeming digressions, every aspect is important to the ultimate outcome. This is quite different from presenting string of red herrings and random events. Or, as Mullan puts it, “Plot is what stops narrative being just one thing after another.”

The ending of the popular television series The Good Wife or, Mullan suggests, the evolution of Game of Thrones, appear to have abandoned the connecting thread of plot development for ad hoc-ery: “matters of ingenious improvisation rather than achieved design.” When viewers began to feel this during the six seasons of Lost, what was lost was their interest.

Must writers plan out every detail of plot development before they begin writing? Of course not. When I’m writing a story, I dump in all kinds of information that comes to me as potential plot elements. As I work toward the conclusion, some of these ideas are discarded and some minor points turn out to be essential to the final resolution. In that way, I retain the freshness of discovery, which I hope I can transmit to the reader, I have a rich array of clues and directions to draw upon, and I’ve laid the groundwork for the ending.

Sometimes that groundwork needs to be reworked and strengthened, the reader reminded obliquely of a particular point here and there, but the aim is to achieve a coherent whole in the end. And for some of those points to surprise readers, to smash their expectations head-on and veer off in a different direction, but one totally supported by the plot elements that have gone before.