Working out the plot with the Rejector, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and other friends

Over at the Rejecter, someone is asking whether an MFA program will teach her how to structure her novels. Actually, she’s asking about the professional and intellectual utility of MFA programs, but I want to focus on the plot issue, since that’s what the Rejecter doesn’t address. I had the same problems as the correspondent, but I don’t think I have them any more.

Specifically, the problem:

I have been writing novels since I was about seven. I literally think about it all the time. However, try as I might I have never been able to get beyond the 40,000 word mark before losing the plot and momentum of my story and deciding to start something else entirely. I’m a journalist on a big women’s glossy in the UK so it’s not getting the words down on paper that’s the problem, it’s rather getting my plot from A to B that stumps me.

That sounds really similar to me: the first two novels I actually completed are now, in retrospect, unpublishable, although I didn’t know that at the time and couldn’t have articulated why. Now I know: nothing happened. The novels had interesting premises but no action. There were a lot of bits of clever dialog and some good scenes, but nothing that held those scenes together. The novels lacked narrative tension.

The next two I wrote were and are publishable; they got a lot of agent activity and requests but no agents who took me on. Ditto for the latest, currently titled Asking Alice, which is still out. Look for my name in lights shortly.

One big thing changed between the first two unpublishable novels and the later three: I started writing outlines, which I’d previously considered unnecessary because I’m so smart that I can hold everything in my head (oops). Those outlines were and are pretty loose and fluid, but they’re outlines nonetheless, in which I asked myself essential questions about each chapter: what happens in it? Why? Why this chapter and not some other? What’s the central tension? What does each character worry about? These kinds of questions guided me toward writing better plots because I thought about how information was doled out and what kinds of things the characters are struggling to achieve. In addition, I thought about how drama works: is something important happening in this chapter? What is it?

If I can’t identify what’s important or why the characters should care, I’m probably doing something wrong.

This doesn’t mean each chapter has to end with someone getting shot, or the heroine declaring her love, or the revelation of a shocking fact, or an alien invasion.* But it does mean that I have to at least think about what the scene or chapter is conveying to the reader, what is happening to the characters, how it relates to the previous scene or the next scene, and, perhaps most importantly, what dilemmas it raise that have to be resolved in the future.

Every scene or almost every scene needs some kind of tension or uncertainty. Once again, this doesn’t necessarily mean a guy holding a gun: it could be highly cerebral. In Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze, the tension in some scenes concerns the interior dialog and sanity of John Clare: is he sane? Are we seeing the mind of someone else, or are we seeing his mind, which has assumed the shape of someone else? Those scenes can be quite tense but also quite subtle. Others can hinge on a piece of information, as when Randy Waterhouse realizes he’s actually building a datahaven in Cryptonomicon.

Over time, through reading and writing, you’ll learn where to end scenes and how the form of the novel works, and by “you” I mean “me.” You have to learn if you’re the kind of writer who wants to break that form successfully. I remember being on the high school newspaper and going to journalism contests. A lot of traditional news articles end with a whimsical or funny quote that’s not essential but does a good job of encapsulating the story. I’d read enough articles to have picked that idea up, and at one of the competitions I remember taking notes as a source spoke and putting a star next to something he said and thinking, “that’s my final quote.” I wrote the piece and later looked at what the judges had to say; I don’t think that was one of the times I won anything, but I do remember them commenting on the money quote at the end.

They did it because I’d successfully synthesized a principle no one had explicitly stated but that nonetheless made my article a little bit better.

Learning to write scenes is similar: you can’t enumerate all the principles involved, but over time you start to feel them. Once you become attuned to reading novels for what each scene does or what tensions exist in a scene, you’ll probably become better at plotting them for yourself—if you’re anything like me, at least. And you might start telling stories that build plots. I talked out a lot of Asking Alice, the novel making the rounds with agents right now, with a friend. It didn’t hurt and might’ve helped. Sometimes it’s also fun to make up a plot when you’re out. Michael Chabon portrays this in Wonder Boys, when the blocked English professor Grady Tripp and his gay editor, Crabtree, are in a bar:

‘Hey,’ said Crabtree, ‘look at that guy.’ […]
‘Who? Oh my.’ I smiled. ‘The one with the hair sculpture.’ […]
‘He’s a boxer,’ I said. ‘A flyweight.’
‘He’s a jockey,’ said Crabtree. ‘His name’s, um, Curtis. Hardapple.’
‘Not Curtis,’ I said.
‘Vernon, then. Vernon Hardapple. The scars are from a—from a horse’s hooves. He fell during a race and got trampled.’
‘He’s addicted to painkillers.’
‘He’s got a plate in his head.’

And they go on from there. They could be building a plot (telling the story of Hardapple’s rise and fall as a jockey) or they could be building the background. Either way, they’re doing something useful. Where do stories come from? Everywhere and nowhere. They’re not talking about plot, not just yet, but they begin moving in that direction.

The original querier to the Rejector has identified a particular weakness, which is a good start. My proposed solution: read some novels she admires; pick them apart and write outlines that focus on why characters do what they do, what information they reveal when, and so on. Some writers who I think do this particularly well: Ruiz Zafón, as mentioned; Elmore Leonard, especially in Get Shorty and Out of Sight, which I still think are his best; Anita Shreve in Testimony; Graham Greene in The End of the Affair; Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose. Mystery and detective novels are often very good at plot because all they have is plot. Note that this path is not recommended.

If anyone out there is sufficiently interested, drop me an e-mail and I’ll send you my quick-and-dirty outline of The Angel’s Game, although I wouldn’t recommend reading it until after you’ve read the novel. Ruiz Zafón is astonishingly good at making each scene count in both this novel and The Shadow of the Wind; one shocking thing about reading The Prince of Mist is how weak that novel is in comparison. Ruiz Zafón is clearly someone who’s learned a lot about writing over the course of his publishing career, and he’s an example that makes me more hesitant to condemn not-very-good first novels—even those that gets published. People learn over time. I’ve read Saul Bellow’s The Dangling Man and thought it was okay—but no Herzog.

That’s not a slam: very few artists of any kind in any medium do their best work on their first try. Like anyone else in any other activity, artists learn as they go along, and they have to assimilate a huge body of material.

Anyway, I’m not sure how many MFA programs teach plot or tell their students some ways to think about plot; if I end up teaching in one, you can bet I’ll talk about it some. As an undergrad, I took a lovely novel writing course from a guy named Bill Tapply, who passed away last year. Although I got a lot out of his class, he seldom talked much about plot, which in retrospect I find curious because his Brady Coyne mysteries work very well in this respect. From chatting with others who’ve taken fiction writing classes, I gather that this is common: they talk about language and ideas and description and all kinds of things, but not plot. If I ever end up teaching one, I’m going to talk about plot—not to the exclusion of everything else, certainly, but enough to give a sense of what my 19-year-old self needed to hear. And, from what the correspondent to the Rejecter says, what she needs to hear too.

This is important because I’ve read so many novels with dynamite first halves and dreary second halves, especially in literary fiction (one reason I like Carlos Ruiz Zafón and have been writing about him a lot lately: his novels hold together). Sometimes otherwise very good novels fall apart plot-wise. I started Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask a few days ago, based on an agents advice,** but gave it up because it feels too episodic and disconnected; the novel strays so fair that it loses me as I find my mind wandering and myself thinking, “So what? What’s at stake here?” By halfway through, the answer frequently felt like “nothing.” Too bad: the first page of The Ask is terrific. A lot of the droll humor works. It just lacks…


Too bad I can’t better define what that something is. But I can talk around it enough to know when it’s missing.***

* For the record, zero of my novels thus far have featured an alien invasion, although I’m not opposed to that sort of thing on principle and my eventually deploy it. One of my ambitions is to eventually write a novel that begins as a fairly straightforward love story about modern urban couples / triangles and angst that suddenly shifts, about halfway through, when aliens attacks. I think this would be totally awesome.

** It was a rejection, but not a form rejection, which counts for a lot when they pile up and you’re looking for some pattern with no more success than people who see secret signals in the white noise of a random universe: “I hope you receive that as no more damning than had I written ‘I like hamburger dill pickles, but I love capers.’ ”

*** I’d like a book on plot that’s as good as How Fiction Works, which I could then add to my post on The very very beginning writer. Suggestions would be appreciated. The books I’ve found that deal with plot tend to be of the “heroine reveals her love” variety that I mocked above, instead of the, “this is how literature might work” variety that James Wood and Francine Prose offer.

Someone has probably already written a lot of what I wrote above. I just don’t know who that person is or where their work is.

5 responses

  1. Pingback: Quid plura? | "Back to the rhythm that we all came from..."

  2. First, look seriously into smashwords and lulu for self-publishing. It’s quickly becoming the model to self-publish and use your blog for self-promotion. (My main objection is that self-publishing is too easy and painless. It’s easy for new writers to publish things before being certain they are really done).

    Learning plot in writing workshops. Interesting. I think “plot” is the easy part. The hard part is knowing what parts of the narrative action to stuff into chapters. It’s easy for young writers to include too many scenes and too much dialogue. All this falls under the category of “editing” but it’s not really editing; it’s understanding how the part relates to the whole. It’s more than that; it’s knowing which story parts advance the action and which do not. Part of that can be taught in writing workshops, but most of it is learning by doing (and to a lesser extent, being aware when a scene isn’t working).

    The novel is a huge form; I don’t feel equipped to write one — even though I’ve written lots of longish short stories. It has to do with the sense of what role chapters will play in the overall novel. Two books I found useful for that were Stephen King’s On Writing and Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel. Workshops could help uncover continuity problems perhaps and contradictions. I’ve been told it’s easy to lose track of story details.

    Also for plot, I realize you’re talking about TV — not novels, but I found TV Tropes remarkable for making me aware of literary conventions and cliches. You’ll need to spend a few days absorbing it all.


  3. Jake, I just wanted to let you know that after I posted that comment, I spent 2 or 3 hours browsing through TV Tropes some more. I have lost days on that site. It’s better known for its sections on TV and comics, but in fact it covers all the genres very well. Check out this random topic . If you choose the option to Open All Folders, you can see works which employ that meme.


  4. Found this page while looking at something else… Alexander Chee’s page, I think. What you say here rocked my world. It confirmed something I’d felt but could not quite put my finger on…

    “They did it because I’d successfully synthesized a principle no one had explicitly stated but that nonetheless made my article a little bit better.

    Learning to write scenes is similar: you can’t enumerate all the principles involved. But over time you start to feel them.”

    Exactly! Thanks for writing this up :) I’ll look out for Asking Alice!


  5. Pingback: Briefly Noted: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, and the meaning of the thriller | The Story's Story

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