Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Short Story for the Editor, Part Three: the Plot

At times it was the smart of a whip, and at other times it was the blunt trauma of being struck with a club. It's been beaten into me. And now, I can feel how great it is, and now that I'm with it, I think everyone else should be too. I'm a believer, and perhaps I should stand on a hilltop and shout it out. “I believe in plot. I believe plot will save us all.”


Otherwise, what's the point?

I wanted to be a botanist. It's true. I spent my youth in plant filled places and I liked that. After the war, I moved to Germany and in my rural town, everyone had beautiful gardens. I admired these gardens with a level of envy I'd care not to explain. One day, while on a run by a long line of gardens, I saw a woman, a naked woman, tending her grapes. When I saw her, that was it, all I wanted was a grape arbor and a naked woman to tend to it.

When I returned to the states a year or so later, I still maintained this dream of botany. I had this other compulsion that I never told anyone about, a funny habit of writing strange things that I called stories. Occasionally, I became engaged in the writing of bad poetry. It was mostly to gain perspective on my life, the war, and my loneliness and alienation, but what I was writing was not journal nor memoir. It was just strange.

What does this have to do with plot? What does it have to do with the smarts and the blunts?

Kalleen Zubick was the first to do it. She asked: “What do you think fiction is?” It was a good question to ask. She was adjunct faculty tending a freshmen composition class and I was her student. “What do I think fiction is? I don't know, it's like a scene you see when you look into a window,” I said. “Okay,” she said. “Remember, in fiction, something has to happen.”

Something has to happen? It's taken years for that to make sense. Let's consider her words as the smarting of the whip.

During my graduate studies at Goddard College, Kyle Bass was not so subtle when our conversation of plot came up. He pointed out that my manuscript lacked plot. It lacked plot. That means, that of all the pages I'd written nothing was happening. What I admire the most in Kyle Bass is his ability to think on his feet. In this discussion of plot he pulled out several examples and then changed my study plan accordingly. He was a wonderful mentor, as I've said before. Let's consider that the blunt trauma. He made me read and annotate John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, with an emphasis on “Chapter Seven: Plotting.” Kyle introduced me to Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Then came Jerzy Kosinski, and Frank Conroy. These were all writers on my reading list. These were the writers Kyle thought would solve my plot problems.

To a small degree my understanding of plot has increased, at least as a writer. As a reader, I'm unstoppable. And as an editor, plot, especially in the short story is something I look for, and if I can't find it? I discount the piece. Very often in this blog I talk about the beginning, the middle and the end. This is my way of saying plot.

As this lesson in plot revolves around the short story, let's use short stories as examples. Remember, if you have a problem understanding plot, you should see John Gardner and read his examples in Chapter Seven, or try out some of examples given to me by Kyle Bass.

“Guns Before Butter,” in Kurt Vonnegut's 2008 Armageddon in Retrospect tops my list today. All of the short stories in this collection are undated and unpublished. “Guns Before Butter,” a story of American GIs as POWs in Dresden 1945, is a very Vonnegut themed story. This piece is a great case study for both the character and conflict points we talked about in the last two lessons. But when, as an editor I say the beginning, the middle and the end, “Guns Before Butter” is just that. Here we have soldiers, both American and German and they're talking about what soldiers talk about, food. As with most of Kurt Vonnegut's work, word choice and construction are all his, but his plot? Straight forward and clear.

Another short story plot which is straight forward and clear with the whole beginning, middle and end is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even if we remember Fitzgerald for The Great Gatsby or This Side of Paradise, or even the way Hemingway portrays him in Moveable Feast, all short story writers need to put Fitzgerald at the top of their reading lists. He wrote and published something of the tune of 180 stories in his lifetime.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is funny. It's a dig on Harvard and Yale. It questions age, experience, marriage and society. And more importantly it has plot. The beginning of the story is the old man and the end of the story is the infant.

The last example is another one of my favorites. Plot in mind, let's look at Aimee Bender's “Ring” in her The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I bring this one up because like many of Aimee Bender's stories the very first sentence of “Ring” pulls us in the middle of the plot, or the middle of the story:

I fell in love with a robber and he took me on his rounds.

The whole story takes a turn for the surreal, this is true. The whole thing happens in threes, not unlike a joke or an old story. Three rings: a diamond, a ruby and an emerald. The couple moves and then takes a vacation. What's the plot here? We travel over time and space and events, we get consumed in conflict and we get to know the characters, their sensibilities and their desires. It's really a wonderful story.

Rather than taking the academic view of plot, like John Gardner, or Kyle Bass, or even Kalleen Zubick, let's do it our way.
1)remember the beginning, the middle and the end as a map of a story. You don't always start at the beginning, or finish at the end, think about the Fitzgerald example. But if you begin a story, please follow through.
2)if you spend time with your characters and construct them in the proper way. Giving them desire, dimension and a task, they will probably carry out your plot for you. All you'll really have to do is put a shine on it.
3)read, read, read. Read the short stories written by the masters. Remember many magazine editors or curators of short stories would probably pass on “the classics” for their publications today. Read magazines and see how they're constructed, if any given piece got published, it probably has a plot you can decipher, define and study.
4)a formal approach works too. You can study the Fictean Curve John Gardner preaches. You can use the story arch we learned about in school. You can storyboard your piece like a movie. You can follow one of Aristotle's plot lines. These are all good approaches.

As we conclude today, remember that good plot must be piloted by good writing. Don't sacrifice one for the other. To make a plot fluid it cannot seem contrived. Our magazine editor is also a reader and we cannot forget that either.

In our current short story project, which is now in the third week, let's consider plot. Can it be understood? Is it working in the confines of the story? Does it need work? How do you feel about it? If you feel like you need remedial studies, do it now. Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.

1 comment:

  1. This is fantastic! Thank you Anthony. Love the vineyard part.