Thursday, July 22, 2010

Greetings from Iowa: Plot and Structure

Days Three, Four, and Five of the Iowa Summer Writers Festival

Hi folks.  Well, things have been busy here, as this consolidated post reveals!  Friends have been made.  Fun works have been workshopped.  Chocolate cake from Iowa City's wonderful Atlas Restaurant has been eaten.  Repeatedly.  The last three days of workshop have focused on Plot/Structure, Characters, and Time in Fiction.  I learned the most from the former, and thought I'd share what I learned:


A slightly different way of thinking about GMC (goal/motivation/conflict) that I found very useful is desire/decision/impediment.  Plots only move forward because a character wants something, makes either a good or a bad decision to try to get that something, and encounters some sort of impediment to success.  Their efforts to work around that impediment (a new desire), moves the plot forward as it forces them to make a new decision, which invariably leads them to a new impediment.  And on and on to the conclusion.  This repeated encountering of impediments relates to the existence, in fiction, of long plot lines (the overall desire of your character--in The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy's overarching desire is to get home), but also of short plot lines.  To use the Wizard of Oz example again, there are four short plot lines that run throughout the movie.
  1. Dorothy wants to get away from home (go somewhere over the rainbow)-->that leads her to the (bad) decision to run away-->which results in her ending up in a new world with some pretty serious enemies.  Both the enemies and not knowing how to get home are impediments, that lead to a second short plot...
  2. Dorothy wants to get to Oz-->that leads her to follow the yellow brick road and make new friends-->which earns her the wrath of the witch who uses a poisoned poppy field to stop them, and though the eventually escape it, when they get to Oz, the wizard rebuffs their request for help, which leads to a third short plot...
  3. The wizard demands the witch's broom, which becomes a new want for Dorothy-->leads her to go to the witch's castle-->which leads her to get captured by the flying monkeys, though her friends rescue her and she accidentally kills the witch, successfully retrieving the broom-->but then it's revealed that the wizard isn't a wizard at all...
  4. The final short plot ties immediately into the larger plot, wanting to go home-->and this time her desire and her decision actually lead her home, and the story ends
Each one of these short plots has its own Introduction-->Complication-->Climax-->Resolution.

Another way of thinking about plot is this:  plot as a power struggle, and plot as patterns of connection and disconnection (Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: Guide to Narrative Craft)
  • In the first, the characters struggle over domination or power, and they have to be relatively equal in power to sustain a novel
  • In the second, whenever the character connects with or achieves something new,  she has to disconnect with someone old or lose something too (i.e., achievements come with sacrifice)
    • In Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has to give up her home and family to meet the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, and then she has to give them up to get home again--she can't have both
    • This way of thinking of plot, by the way, gives me a craft-related way to critique Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn.  One of my biggest complaints about this book was that the main character, Bella Swan, got everything without any sacrifice.  She got both boys (albeit in different capacities).  She got to have a child.  She got to keep her human family and be turned into a vampire.  She got to bypass the normal newborn bloodlust.  She got to stay in Forks, instead of retreating to Alaska to eat penguins.  It's hard to convincingly move a plot forward if nothing changes when the character changes, and if the character doesn't actually have to struggle to achieve.  In this way, Meyer violated a central tenet of traditional plot development.

Intricately intertwined with plot is structure.  Depending where you place a central or critical event in the overall storyline impacts the story's emphasis and the nature of the plot.  Let me give you an example from a writing exercise we were assigned in workshop.  The prompt was: write a story that begins with a murder, and then write a story that ends with a murder.  Here were mine:

A story that begins with a murder:
     The pool of blood oozed and spread out in circles from his head.  The deep red of it mesmerized her, had her making the inane comparison to the color of her pointy-toed high heels.  Both were glossy, but the crimson of her heels was brighter, cheerier.  The blood was the color of death--red-black and darkening by the second.
     She finally snapped out of her ridiculous stupor when the red flirted with the point of her shoe.  She jumped back, heart now filling her throat.  The metal bar clanged to the gritty pavement.  The sound was a beacon in the darkness of the alley, and echoed between the dingy brick of the surrounding apartment buildings.
     She turned and fled.  Running to the end of the alley, she slowed into an awkward walk-run as she hit the street.  She turned left and her eyes stung with the panic and adrenaline she'd somehow held back before.  She wished the retracing of her earlier steps could actually undo the events of the past half hour.  She clutched her ruined blouse together and hurried past dogwalkers and late-night commuters and normal people having regular days that hadn't involved assault in an alley.  Did they see her?  Did they know?
     Despite the coolness of the October evening air, sweat glued the silk of her blouse to her achy skin.  Her feet throbbed and chafed.  These heels weren't made for running.  But, as she reached her block--the one she'd always prized for its diverse, funky, urban atmosphere--run she did.  Past the corner grocery.  Past the blue flickerings of Mrs. Rosenberg's open window.  Past the big jaunty carved pumpkin on the stoop next store.  And up the front steps and three flights of stairs to her apartment.
     Her keys fell to the floor from sweat and adrenaline shakes.  On the second try, the key went in and the door opened, and she stumbled forward and slammed the door behind her.  Her back protested when she fell against the barrier to the outside world.  Nausea brought her to her knees, and she wrenched forward and gagged on a sickly sour taste before projecting the remains of her dinner onto the scarred hardwoods.  The smell of his blood, his sweat, his breath, his body odor suddenly filled her nose and throat until she wretched a second time and kicked off her heels, wanting the red to be gone.
     Crawling across the ratty rug to the chipped and scratched coffee table, she picked up the phone and pushed three buttons.  "Help me," she whispered.  "I just killed someone."

A story that ends with a murder:
     Her favorite red heels clicked against the worn concrete sidewalk as she hurried down the street chattering on the phone.  "I know.  I know.  I had to work late though.  I'm going to string him up by the balls tomorrow if I miss even five seconds of Vampire Diaries."  She laughed as she tilted her head into the receiver.  "I should already make him pay for the fact I'm gonna have to skip my stop for Ben & Jerry's in order to make it."
      She came to an intersection and cheered internally that she caught the walk.  On the other side, she rushed unseeingly past her favorite Chinese restaurant, a colorful Oriental rug store, and a pawn shop with the grate already drawn over its appealingly cluttered front window.
     "Okay," her best friend said on the other end of the line, "hurry.  You've only got five minutes."
     "Okay.  Let me hang, then."
     "Call me when you get home."
     She laughed.  "You know I will.  Bye."  She shook her head and smiled--sitting on the phone together and watching the show was always one of the highlights of her week.
     Not paying attention, she stumbled a bit when the sidewalk dipped down at the entrance to an alley.  Her heel popped out of her shoe, and she paused to fix it.
     For a split second, the tight constriction just under her breasts stole her breath and disoriented her.  But the puffy sweaty palm that slammed over her gaping mouth and backward motion of their grunting bodies into the otherworldly darkness of the alley clarified with an incredulous white horror exactly what was happening.
     She twisted and he tightened.  She screamed and bit at the fleshy gag, and he slapped her.  She kicked with those wicked heels, and he growled and whipped her around until her spine was on the losing end of a fight with an unseen brick wall.
     The man pawed and tore.  She blocked and kneed and elbowed and head-butted.  He couldn't hold her still everywhere.  Her mind disconnected, sending her hopes and dreams and emotions and personality standing somewhere on the far side of the suffocating space until all that was left was instinct.
     Her knee connected with his disgustingly hard erection and he staggered back and caved in on himself.  Her ears were apparently over there with the rest of her, because she couldn't actually hear the threats he spewed.  She took off.  The imperative was to get away, but that sent her further into the alley.
     Footsteps pounded behind her.  Her eyes went on a search and seize mission that drew her to a pile of debris.  Grasping, her hands fell on a too-heavy board and a useless coil of cable before something cold and steely filled her palms.  She yanked it out of the trash pile so hard she stumbled back, and instinct told her to use that momentum.  She turned, swinging.  With a crunching thunk and a wet squish, the length of old copper pipe found the man's head.  His eyes stayed on her for two seconds and then drifted to the right.  His body crumpled, first at the knees, then at the waist, until he was sprawled half on his side, half on his stomach.
     Blood streamed down over his bald head and round face, obscuring his features, before dripping, dripping onto the shadowed pavement.

Same story.  Same character.  Same central critical event--the murder.  But the placement of that event creates a very different structure.  In the one with the murder at the beginning, the emphasis of the story is on the consequences, on dealing with the event.  It creates a character-driven story.  In the one with the murder at the end, where the emphasis is on the anticipation of the event, the structure creates a plot-driven story.  I found this exercise very useful in thinking about how to plot a story before writing, and it gives me a handy way of thinking about the relationship between plot and structure I hadn't had before.

If you'll indulge me one final thought, in a post with far too many as it is, I'll report that the workshopping of Fantasy Life went splendidly--the story was very well received, enthusiastically discussed and debated, deemed 'the best written and structured' and 'most professional' of the class.  Whether true or not, I cannot say, but these were still much appreciated compliments and great to hear.  Yay, Fantasy Life!

Thanks for reading,

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