Archives for category: Story + Plot

One of my oldest and strangest memories is of being about three years old and running around the house with my stick horse bellowing the theme song from Zorro at the top of my lungs. I have no idea how or when I encountered Zorro at three years old–I have to guess that I was exposed to it more than once since I had the theme song memorized–but I do remember that I wanted more than anything else to be like him. I wanted a horse and a mask and a very thin sword and a black uniform, and I wanted to ride around on my horse and right wrongs with perfectly choreographed fight scenes that always ended neatly with the last letter of the alphabet. I’m fairly sure that three year-old me would be very disappointed that all I got when I grew was a closet full of black clothes (without the cape, which was the best part), but there is very little about three year-old me that I can relate to anymore. I grew up. I forgot the song. The horse and cape went into my bedroom closet and then into the attic and eventually disappeared.

I now know that my love of Zorro was only one of many pieces of myself that went underground as I grew up. Riding on his heels went masculine energy, extroversion, the confidence to follow my own moral compass toward justice (or to prance around the house) without asking anyone else’s permission, the tendency to yell at the top of my lungs. Somewhere along the way, I got the message that these parts of myself were unacceptable, so I buried them and pretended that they didn’t exist. Everyone does this.

Jungians call the things we bury “the shadow.” In his book A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert Bly uses the metaphor of an invisible bag: “We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.” This sounds like a terribly neat process–how hard is it to pull something out of a bag?–but it takes great courage to be defiant enough to say, “No,” to the societal pressures that convinced us to mutilate our personalities in the first place, and in the meantime we have to live and work with other people who carry around their own invisible bags. We play chicken with each other, daring each other to be vulnerable and show off what’s in our bag and the punishing each other when we do. We move between contexts that have different attitudes about the things in our bags, putting on masks and taking them off again as deftly as Clark Kent becoming Superman.

And, sometimes, when we are forced to confront something that’s in our bags that we aren’t ready to deal with, we take it out and hand it to someone else. Jungians call this “projection.” Bly says, “When one ‘projects,’ one is really giving away an energy or power that rightfully belongs to one’s own treasury.”

Perhaps, projection is nowhere more obvious than in stories in which a hero represents everything that is acceptable (except for some small but potentially fatal weakness to convince us the hero is human) and the villain acts on the aspects of the self that the hero has to reject. Theoretically, this energy should empower the villain and diminish the hero, and for awhile it does as the villain uses the hero’s refusal to accept their own ruthlessness against them to break the rules and gain an advantage, but this advantage comes at a price. The villain loses everything but the projection in the end, becoming invisible except in the ways they dance the dance the hero made for them, justifying their inevitable death with the “fact” that it isn’t a person that’s dying but chaos or insanity or lust.

But the death of the villain is only ever a temporary ending because the shadow doesn’t die when the villain dies. It just jumps like a tick on a dead deer onto someone else, and the cycle begins all over again. And the shadow will continue to bounce from face to face to face, confronting the hero over and over again until the hero is forced to finally reach into the bag and confront their own inner darkness, to descend to the underworld like Inanna.

This process of avoiding the dark can go on indefinitely, which is how we end up with franchises that go on for fifty years without resolution, but, eventually, in order to have real closure, the hero must be forced to confront the shadow and take a long, hard look in the mirror and answer the caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?”



On Sunday, I taught a writing workshop at Workshop Weekend, which was amazing but exhausting.
Fortunately, I was at a place in my novel where writing was actually relaxing. I was charting new territory. I wanted to know what happened, and I actually managed to write almost two day’s worth of words the day after I taught the class. Lucky me, right?

It helped that one of my workshop students asked a question that touched on something that I’ve been struggling with. I don’t know about you, but I find it so much easier to think through a problem when I’m talking about it with someone else. Maybe, it’s just because it’s easier to escape the “that’s bullshit” face when I’m the one making it. When it’s someone else, I have to actually confront the problem.

But that’s beside the point. More about that later next Monday.

In this case, the question was about how to make a boring story stop being boring. I’m not sure if the advice I gave actually helped the person who was asking about it, but it got me through a snag the next time I sat down to work on my novel this past Monday. The advice I gave was to blow something up, do something unexpected to force the writer to stop writing by rote.

When I stopped writing on Friday, my protagonist’s boss was leaning over to kiss her, and I had the weekend to decide if she was going to be a good girl and wipe him off her mouth as soon as he was out of sight or if she was going to kiss back. On Friday, I was pretty sure she was going to reject him–at least in her head–but on Monday I decided to let her just go for it. Now she’s in a mess of trouble, and I’m having so much fun, and my word count continues to climb…

It’s Day 7 of my modified NaNoWriMo, and I haven’t fallen behind (yet), though this week has confirmed for me already that doing a modified NaNoWriMo was the right thing to do.

Even though I managed to get some writing done over the weekend, Monday was practically a wash because I spent most of the day writing (and finishing) a short story.

Things like this are the biggest reason I decided to be easy on myself with my word count goal. As my friend Icess said: “NaNoWriMo is a marathon, not a sprint.” Even though NaNoWriMo is only a one month commitment, I don’t want to wake up on December 1, and feel like I’ve lost a month. If nothing else, it would be bad for my novel. Novels are the closest art to life I know, and life full of detours, dead ends, back roads, and pit stops.

Which is about where my novel is, too. I’ve gotten past the exciting initial phase where the characters in Part 1 have been introduced, and now the pressure is building. I call this phase of a novel the lobster boiling phase.

When I lived in New England, there was a lot of debate during lobster season about the right way to boil a lobster. One way was to put the lobster in a pot of low water and turn the heat up gradually. The other way was to throw the lobster in to a pot of boiling water, making them panic but killing them more quickly.

My novel is a slow boiling book because I’m interested in the way that people end up in terrible situations through a series of gradual concessions. My protagonist, Lisa, a designer at a big gaming corp has a slight inkling that something isn’t right with her boss Alan, but the heat is on low enough that she hasn’t started to panic.

I think that doing things this way will make for an interesting book, but when I’m not completely absorbed in writing, creating a story this way is incredibly tedious to write since I already know what’s coming. Hopefully, I won’t discover later that the heat’s on too low for the readers, too, but I guess we’ll see!

So, NaNos out there. How are your novels going?

And a quick reminder: If you’re blogging about your process, I’d love to hear about it and include your journey in my Weekend Reads during the month of November.

Before any fans jump down my throat, I love Warehouse 13, but last night, my husband and I were having a Warehouse 13 marathon. As of this writing, we’re ten episodes into the series, and I’ve learned that I can only watch an episode or two and before I stop being absorbed in wondering what the MacGuffin and remember that the show is a series of fetch quests with perfect plot structure.
After the third episode of the night, my mind started to wander during the climax, and I thought of the question I asked on Friday. (Why can’t stories meander like life does?) As I mused on the question, I remembered a story that my father tells about our family:
Early in the 20th century, both sides of my father’s family immigrated from Italy to the United States. Like most Italians, one of the first things they did was join the local Catholic parish, but the priest there didn’t like these new immigrants and took every opportunity to humiliate them from the pulpit for being too poor to put silver (rather than copper) in the collection plate. Most of the community continued to go to church and sit patiently, but my grandfather’s father attended church less and less until, when my grandfather was six months old, he stepped in an electrified puddle at the factory where he worked and died. 

The Italian community was stunned by the accident and many people turned out for my great-grandfather’s funeral to support my grandfather and his mother, the perfect opportunity for the priest to shame them once again, claiming that my great-grandfather died because he didn’t go to church and would burn for it.

Over lunch the following week at work, some of the men who had been to the funeral were discussing the funeral and how angry they were when a Baptist missionary who was working with them overheard and invited them to become Baptists. They would be able to have their own church, he said, and he might even be able to get them funding to build it. 

After some discussion, the community agreed to become Baptist and, as there were brick masons in the community, began to build the church themselves at night after work. 
The story might have ended here, but the old parish wasn’t ready to let them leave. Just as the new Baptists finished digging the hole for the church’s foundation, the members of old parish filled the foundation hole in with dirt. Seeing that their work had been undone, the Baptists rolled up their sleeves and dug the hole again. This went on for some time. Each time they finished digging the hole, the hole was filled back in until the old parish were tired of it, and the church was built. 
This, I thought, is a great example of a story that resists plotting.

Write voltas not war.

If Hollywood was writing my father’s story there would be an ultimate showdown between the two groups, but in my father’s story there isn’t one. The only reason the old parish loses is because they just stop fighting. If they’d had enough patience, they might still be there there battling over the construction site. And yet, it’s a compelling story. What gives?
I’m not one of those people who wrote secret stories in notebooks when I was barely old enough to spell. I was the sad kid writing depressing poems until grad school when, following the development of what would become The Dream Life of Toby McClure, I abruptly switched to prose. Since poetry is my native lens, I have the tendency to look for poetic devices where (theoretically) they doesn’t belong. It’s probably for this reason that while thinking about my father’s story, I found myself looking for the volta.
On the surface looking for the volta in a story sounds bizarre, like analyzing white space in a novel–though, I’ve done that, too–but it isn’t so strange when you consider the volta’s function in a poem.
The word volta comes from the Italian word “turn,” and it is the point near the end of a sonnet (usually) when there is a change . The poem might change perspectives, such as in “Sonnet 130” when Shakespeare shifts from deriding his mistress to praising her. The poem might change from asking questions to providing answers or, as in the case in Mark Doty’s “A Display of Mackerel,” it might change from description to elucidating a theme.
My father’s story lacks a showdown, but his story does have a volta. For most of the story, the people sit quietly while the priest insults them, but after my great-grandfather’s funeral, the community changes from being passive victims to being active builders.

I’m not the killing type.

“I’ve seen the pictures from a thousand years of battle and I think 
It’s such a bore” -“The Killing Type,” Amanda Palmera

I dislike stories where the climax is a showdown between good and evil. I don’t get a thrill from watching people get punished, and I especially don’t like fight scenes that are little more than demonstrations of how bad ass the protag is.
But the volta, the volta is different. A story with a volta might have a change from asking questions to having answers. It might be about the change a character experiences learning something that gives them a new perspective and becomes better (or worse, I suppose) in some way.
The volta isn’t about punishment or gratuitous displays of strength. It’s about change. And change, is something I can get behind.

I don’t like plot. That sounds pretentious, but it’s a preference I’ve had since high school. Jeez, that sounds even more pretentious, like I hated plot before it was cool.

Let me start again.

In September of senior year, my Brit lit teacher drew an arc on the board and began to talk about how every story ever written follows the same pattern: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, end.

I instantly hated it, not because I thought she was wrong, but because I could think of a dozen movies and novels that fit her chart perfectly. It made me sad, this idea that stories followed a formula, the same sadness I felt when I learned that clouds are made of water, as if a beautiful magic was unraveling.

For years after that class, I couldn’t sit through a movie or read a book without counting through the steps in my head—I still have the tendency to sleep through the climax of movies—a habit that became only got worse as I went through college.

A few months after I graduated from college, I picked up The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas. Half-way through, I realized that I was watching the protagonist boil spaghetti, and I wasn’t thinking about where we were in the plot. In fact, I couldn’t figure out where we were in the plot. I was just reading, and I didn’t want the book to end. After that, I devoured everything by Scarlett Thomas I could get my hands on, and it was a revelation: I could read a book and enjoy it without analyzing it to pieces.

Eventually, I figured out that even Scarlett Thomas books weren’t completely plot-free. There was always some crisis, and the protrag had to Save The Day (sort of), but it usually happened so late in the book it was almost beside the point. I imagined Thomas writing those sections with a smirk, as if going through the motions of a dog and pony show put on for the sake of the publishers. But why is it necessary? Why disrupt a good story with this need to rush toward a climax?

I say story, but it’s not just in fiction. I saw it recently while reading an essay that started as a personal telling of a thing that happened on the bus and then suddenly pivoted into a heady discussion of a Very Important Issue. Instantly, this essay that had held me rapt became very boring. It was obvious that the author just wanted to be writing about her experience taking the bus but felt the need to stop herself because her story about the bus wasn’t Important enough.

I saw it the other day while watching Pandaemonium, a film that clearly wanted to be an atmospheric biopic about Wordsworth and Coleridge but devolved in the last twenty minutes into a lecture about drugs out of some need to be about something, as if the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge wasn’t enough.

Why, why does this happen?