Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Jumpstart Part III: Plots and Back Stories

After a brief detour in the film department, we have made it back to the beginning. If life was only so circular, right? Of course life isn't always linear either. And sometimes the undulations of the day, or the story are what really keep us going. Whether it's Brautigan's winding trout stream or the Kosinski years one stacked on another, there is plot. The plot. There were a few key players who lead me to the plot pond, just to see if I will drink. It was a cold Vermont winter then. I spent the long nights reading one book after another not really thinking about the plots but enraptured by the language. Then I met Patricia Highsmith on a train. When I followed her events one linked to another to another to another I finally saw the evidence. The plot and the mastery of it is indeed elemental to constructing good fiction. The back story here? Well, it took a few conversations, a few cold Vermont nights, and thinking about it for me to understand plot and its importance.

If not Patricia Highsmith (or at least not this early our conversation); we have John Gardner to look forward to discussing. The Art of Fiction really has made a huge impact on me. I don't know if I can attribute this huge impact to the time it was presented to me, or what has been going on in my life since. Published in 1983, I feel like the book has aged well enough. The discussion here today is Chapter 7, “Plotting,” and more specifically, the Fictean Curve.
This means, in effect, that in the relationship between characters and situation there must be some conflict: Certain forces, within and outside the character, must press him toward a certain course of action, while other forces, both within and outside, must exert strong pressure against that course of action. Both pressures must come not only from outside the character but also from within him, because otherwise the conflict involves no doubt, no moral choice, and as a result can have no profound meaning. (All meaning, in the best fiction, comes from -as Faulkner said- the heart in conflict with itself. All true suspense, we have said, is a dramatic representation of the anguish of moral choice.) The famous Fictean curve is in effect a diagram of this conflict situation:

When we think about this conflict that Gardner suggests, it must be deep enough to cause a course of action. Recently, I read Ian McEwan's Atonement. Admittedly, it took several weeks for me to get past the first fifty or so pages. I guess I was confused about most of the events going on. Yet, as those Vermont nights of years gone past would have it, I was attracted to the language. But the basis of the conflict which Gardner tells us that is the foundation for plot, Ian McEwan gets it. In Atonement the baby sister sees her older sister and the servant boy in a compromising position. That situation and the way she deals with it take up the entire first third of the book. This is conflict, and that conflict, as Gardner says, is within and outside of the character. It becomes plot.

As I was saying about my own development as a writer, plot was something that took a long time to develop. I say this only because in my earlier days I didn't think of my writing projects as a whole. This is the beginning, middle, and end song I like to sing. But it's true. Since language is such a part of everything that we are, we need the beginning, the middle and the end. Yet, to craft this in fiction it cannot be simply linear, this and then this and finally that. No, to make fiction work well, and be enjoyable for the reader, and who knows, for the characters too, a set of circumstances leading to conflict leading to action works wonders.
Before we get to the three examples of plot, I want to propose an exercise. There is only so much reading about writing one can do before it's unbearable. In this exercise, describe a room. The room must be a room you've been in, but not a room you are (or were) intimate with. In the room, there are the objects, placed there by someone, and there are the feelings you have as a visitor in the room. The object is description of place and a description or feeling or mood.
I suggest the room piece during the discussion of plot, because I feel a description as such can become back story used as exposition for character development. That seems like a tongueful, but watch where we go. In Richard Brautigan's So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away, he has two characters inside of one narrator. One character is the voice of 1979, and the second is him as a little boy in 1948. The descriptions of 1948 are haunting and vivid especially overlaid on 1979. In the room exercise, please keep in mind how powerful a back story can be for a character. There are things we do because of where we've been. This is perhaps the conflict within exercise you may need.

Moving on, I mention Patricia Highsmith for one main reason: she is the master of plot. Perhaps writers of suspense, crime or mystery are all masters of plot. They have to be. In her book Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno meet and plot a murder for the other. Guy Haines is not such a bad fellow, but when caught up with Mr. Bruno he has to comply to the original agreement. Talk about trouble within and outside of a character. As an aside, Highsmith writes very exciting stories.

I developed an interest in Jerzy Kosinski in grad school. The Painted Bird I believe is a must read, but I warn everyone to read it on a sunny days only. The basic plot: 1939, Poland, dark skinned boy wanders from village to village. He develops and changes. It's a horrifying account. In Kosinski's own words, in his 1976 “Afterword” he states: “man would be portrayed in his most vulnerable stare, as a child, and society in its most deadly form, in a state of war.” (xii) The conflict is plot.

The last example for plot is a little more strange. Talk about a beginning, a middle and an end; we can throw that out the window with this example. Rabih Alameddine's I, the Divine is a book written in the first chapters. In a way, Alameddine's novel is a great sum up for us here today. The Sarah character in I, the Divine endeavors to write a book about her life. It's in first chapters because she narrates the beginning. She chooses to start in a different place each time, and through all of her stories, false starts and beginning, we actually get to know so much about her that the overall picture of novel construction can be so different and we get it. Talk about back stories and plot (lack of). It's a read well worth the time, and if not, read the first chapter.

Next Jumpstart:
Place, space and time

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