This summer, a large number of people have been reading (and seeming to enjoy) my essays on prose style. I’m very grateful to everyone who emailed me, commented, liked, and shared those posts. Given the popularity of that series, I thought I would begin a similar series on plot and narration.
Do you worry about plot? Do you suspect like you could be better at it? And — or — do you have readers who seem to give you lukewarm praise, saying how they like a particular character, or they thought your writing was really beautiful, but they don’t seem to love the story as a whole? Or, alternatively, do readers seem confused by the things that happen in your stories — confused in ways that surprise you?
With any luck, these posts will be helpful.
Writing about plot, however, is a more tricky undertaking than writing about prose style, for a couple of reasons. Firstly: it seems like prose style can be discussed and explained, to a large extent, on its own, as a distinct set of methods and outlooks. Plot is not like that. Once you start talking about plot, you inevitably begin talking about meaning, and narration and point of view, and the whole idea of “sympathy” or reader-management. Plot is the whole deal, the big thing.
Secondly: in the time that’s passed since I wrote those pieces on prose style, my views about learning, teaching, and skill acquisition have changed a fair bit. I don’t want to be unfair to the Daniel who wrote those style pieces, but re-reading him, he does seem to have believed that explaining a technique is all that’s necessary. Present the technique, and give examples — let the reader figure out how to adopt and use them on her own.
These days, I feel like improving one’s writing is, to an extent, similar to learning to ride a bike. Hearing someone else talk about good bike-riding is useful only to a limited extent: what matters is to get on the bike and start riding. To be useful, teaching has to focus on what the student does. And if I can’t already balance on two wheels, then a more experienced person can run behind, holding on to the back of the bike, so that I can experience what it feels like to balance on two wheels. Once I know what I’m aiming at, I’m most of the way there.
Studying with another person can be more useful than solo practice because we humans tend to be creatures of routine. When we find a pattern that seems to work, we tend to stick to it, even if it doesn’t actually get us what we want. And we can be actively hostile to people who don’t seem to conform to that pattern, even if that other person is Jane Austen. The teacher’s job, therefore, is not simply to point out where we are falling short, but to re-arrange how we work so that we discover a bigger, grander way of looking at things.
This teaching problem is made particularly acute, in fiction writing, because the mechanics of storytelling are often kept hidden from us. With riding a bike, it’s pretty clear whether the bike is balanced or falling down. But in fiction, and in literary fiction in particular, plotting, whether good or bad, is frequently concealed behind a whole range of other writing techniques. It’s hard to simply read a Henry James novel and absorb how he has made the story work; it’s even harder to do that with Toni Morrison or Virginia Woolf. Great authors are like magicians hired for a birthday party: they distract us with their right hand while the actual trick is being performed quietly in their left. It’s easy to think, therefore, that becoming a good writer is only about developing a wild and exciting right hand.
Plus, when we sit down to write, we have to think about so many challenges. It takes so much effort, for instance, to convey in a few pages of prose a fictional setting and a character who appears in that setting. When we or a writer friend of ours succeeds in doing this, we might naturally feel that they have also succeeded at telling a good story. Only, when we show it to people and they seem confused (if it’s a short story), or we get a certain number of pages written and it doesn’t feel anything is working, (if it’s a novel) — then we begin t0 sense that something is missing.
To make matters even worse, creative writing workshops do not excel at teaching storytelling. It’s hard to learn those left-handed skills from taking workshops alone. I’m not bashing the MFA experience here — I think MFAs are great. I’m making a specific point about workshops: they tend to be poor at getting at a story’s “story-telling” problems.
In part, this is because fiction workshops, generally speaking, encourage participants to offer the minimum correction possible. It’s usually bad form to tell a classmate: “This story would be better with two additional protagonists,” or “I would like your novel more if it had a werewolf.” This is because the writing workshop, despite what everyone says about treating submissions as rough drafts, as works in progress, is, in reality, a form of publishing. We type up our work, put our names on the top, and give it to people to read, and whatever we tell ourselves, we intend for those readers to experience our submitted work as a complete piece of fiction. We want, when they read it, to be taken seriously as artists. As a result, it’s very difficult for a workshop to propose sweeping changes: we tend to treat the writer’s apparent choices as the starting point of discussion.
And yet, what a newly drafted story often needs, most of all, is more. More stuff, more structure, more interlocking parts. Can I give you an example?
Take a tale like “Silver Nose,” from Italo Calvino’s collection of Italian Folk Tales: I can retell the story to you, here, and its structure is so compelling, even my Spark Notes-esque summary will be enjoyable to follow.
In a poor and remote corner of the Italian countryside, an old woman lives with her three daughters. They work all day doing washing for the rest of the village, and they are so unhappy and impoverished that one day, the eldest daughter cries out, “I would work for the Devil if he would take me out of this house!”
The mother scolds her: “Don’t talk like that or he’ll hear you.”
The next day, they are visited by a tall man with a silver nose. He explains that he lives alone in a huge house, and he needs a cleaner. Would one of the daughters be willing to work for him?
Despite the mother’s worries, the eldest daughter gladly agrees, and Silver Nose takes her to the house, shows her the rooms, and warns her that there is one door she absolutely must never open. He points out the door and orders her to keep it locked, always. She privately resolves to look in that room the first chance she gets. Silver Nose says that he is going away on business the next day: the eldest daughter goes to sleep, but while she is sleeping, Silver Nose creeps into her room and places a white rose in her hair. When she wakes, she doesn’t spot the flower, and goes immediately goes to the forbidden door.
She opens it and sees thousands of souls burning in the fires of Hell. Flames rush out and singe the white rose in her hair. She screams, staggers back: now she knows that Silver Nose is the devil, but she is too frightened even to run away. And when Silver Nose returns, he sees the burned rose and knows she has unlocked the forbidden door. He opens the door and throws her into hell.
The next day, Silver Nose returns to the old woman’s house. Now he asks the middle daughter if she would also like to help out. When that daughter arrives in his house, the exact same things happen: he again warns her about the forbidden door, and while she is sleeping, he again slips a carnation into her hair. Again, she opens the door: now she sees her sister screaming in hell with all the other sufferers. Again, flames burn her carnation; she is found out as a result; she too is thrown into hell.
The next day, Silver Nose returns to the old woman’s house and asks the youngest daughter to come with him. This daughter is, Calvino mentions, “the most cunning of them all.” Just as before, Silver Nose gives her a tour of the house, explains about the forbidden door, and while she is sleeping, slips a jasmine into her hair. However, when this daughter wakes up, the first thing she does is take a moment to fix her hair in the mirror, and so she spots the flower. She takes it out, and puts it in a glass of water to keep it safe.
This moment, when the youngest daughter takes the flower out of her hair, signals the turning point in the tale. That’s where the pattern breaks, where we know that something new is coming. Because of the story’s repetition and structure, we know exactly what this action means.
Now, when the youngest daughter also opens the door to hell, and also sees her sisters suffering in the flames, she makes a plan to rescue them and to deceive Silver Nose. The same flames rush out, but there is no flower in her hair to ruin. Now, when Silver Nose returns, she has already replaced the unblemished jasmine, and so he believes it when she says she never opened the forbidden door. From then on, she is free to put her rescue plan in motion.
It’s my suspicion that most of the short stories we aspiring writers bring to workshop or send hopefully to magazines are deficient in structure. There just isn’t enough significance in them, because there isn’t enough storytelling.
Here’s what I mean: imagine that the original writer of “Silver Nose” had brought that story to a writing workshop, but in that first version, there was only one daughter, the youngest. The story, therefore, has only one iteration: we see the daughter arrive at Silver Nose’s house, be given the tour, and be warned not to open the door to hell. She wakes, discovers the flower, and takes it out of her hair. In this trimmed-down version of the story, when we see her remove the flower, we probably sense, vaguely, that the writer means for this act to be important. It certainly bears hints of significance, of weight. But we aren’t sure how to interpret it, and so we register that absence of emotion like the twinges of a phantom limb, rather than experiencing the charged relief and pleasure we feel in the actual fairy tale.
Plus, in the student’s version, Silver Nose just seems like a fool, and we aren’t sure why the writer has chosen to make him that way, so perhaps our feedback involves telling the writer to “explain” Silver Nose’s decisions more. Or perhaps we just want the flower-removing scene to work better, so we advise that the writer should “change the pacing a little bit.” Or perhaps we mistake the source of the problem, and think that our emotional distance from the story is caused by the setting being insufficiently developed, so we suggest that the writer fills in the socio-economic condition of poor Italian villagers, or perhaps we insist that she should describe Silver Nose’s house in more detail.
I’m pretty sure no one in the classroom would say: “You need to add two more sisters, first. Neither of them notice the flower.” I know I wouldn’t.
This series of essays will offer methods and tips for getting your stories to the point where they have three sisters in them.
The posts will be practical, I hope, more than theoretical, and will make most sense if you write along with them. The first piece is coming early next week, and its about using the methods of contemporary pop music to plan out the story-ness of your stories in advance. It’s about using models, templates, to guarantee, as much as that is possible, that when you write your next story, it will have a lot of plot in it.
I hope you enjoy these posts.
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