Friday, May 7, 2010


This is the beautiful convention center that housed AWP 2010. NO BEAR! DON'T GO UP THERE!

"Plot as Ritual, Not as Representation" was one of the best discussion panels I attended the whole weekend. The panelists Debra Monroe, Lynne Barrett, John Dufresne, and Antonya Nelson each spoke on the tricky concept of plot. Plot is essential for a story, but how do we turn our well-written scenes and little vignettes into something with a plot? Or, how do our stories avoid borrowing plots that already exist? 

Debra Monroe began the discussion by providing some background. In the 1980s, the trend was minimalism. No one talked about plot. It was a dirty word, forbidden in many classrooms. Realism was the buzzword of the decade. Stories were about character, psychology, and tension. Writers were supposed to reveal the complex interior of their characters and not be so concerned with events in the exterior world. Plot was an artifice, the least realistic part of writing fiction. Now, it seems almost condescending to mention Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but it remains the most useful example of this kind of minimalist realism. 

Then, something strange happened. As if she were some sort of dealer, students began to approach Monroe in shadowy hallways and dark alleys. "Hey, I think I'd like to try some plot," they said. "Excuse me, can I get some more of that plot?" These rebellious students, though frightened of being caught and outcasted, seemed earnest in their desire for a new way to talk about storytelling, a way that included the best techniques of how to do plot. 

With the audience hooked, Monroe introduced her approach to plot: ritual. Like plot in stories, rituals are an artifice. Yet, no one objects to ritual. Weddings are recognizable as weddings because they all share similar features. But at the same time, any given wedding conflates and distorts the traditional paradigm. The wedding can be deeply familiar yet startlingly new to its attendees. Plot should incorporate old and new in the same way. The traditional paradigm of plot pitches an antagonist against a protagonist. Most of the action is exterior. There is a sense of rising tension, climax, and resolution. In the modernist plot, the protagonist-antagonist paradigm goes interior, psychological. Tension is often unresolved and climaxes are much less overt. 

Like a present-day wedding, a postmodern plot incorporates the traditional and modern paradigms. Our lives are neither an arc of rising tension, climax, and resolution nor are they scenes of unresolved tension followed by an anticlimax. A postmodern Plot uses pieces of the two paradigms. Like ritual, "Plot is not an imitation of life's details as much as an antidote to the random way in which we experience life's details." Ritual, like Plot, helps us tell our story. 

Next, Lynne Barrett advised conceiving plot as a wheel rather than a linear construction. In a linear plot, the cause and effect relationships are direct, known, and fully understood. A character performs an action and the desired result occurs. In a wheel plot, a character performs an action that produces a result opposite from what the character expects. The cause and effect relationship is, therefore, indirect, unknown, and not fully understood. This creates a wheel shape: a character setting something in motion that doesn't go in a straight line, it turns in an unexpected arc. 

This means, of course, that characters must be acting with intentions, even though the actions are producing results that they do not expect. The character is, in other words, making a mistake. A 1980s realism approach would have a writer imagine a flawed character, but Barrett's approach says to create a character who makes mistakes. A mistake leads to action, and action leads to plot, and action that produces unexpected results leads to an interesting plot. Indeed, the plot is still present in minimalism. In a story such as Hemmingway's Hills Like White Elephants, we are only seeing a small piece of the plot, about five degrees of the wheel's arc. But there is still an action, there are still unintended consequences. White Elephants is still a story with a plot. 

John Dufresne's presentation was particularly impressive. The man basically improvised an entire short story before our eyes! And in the process, he created about the clearest most concise step by step process on how to write a story that I've seen. He began by saying that characters have to have something meaningful to do. "Don't resist the plot," he told us, "embrace it. Let the necessary plot do your thinking for you. It is the magnet to which all other narrative elements attach." 

To write a story, Dufresne said to create a character that wants something, goes after it, and either gets it or doesn't. (During the presentation, Dufresne created Ruth.) First, decide what the central character wants. (Ruth's husband tells her he's leaving her. She decides she is going to try and save her marriage.) Why does she want it? (Security, their kids. They have been married for 25 years.) What are the results of pursuing it? (Multiple confrontations with her husband, a re-examining of their relationship, facing the relationship's multiple flaws.) Does she get it? (Yes, but in doing so, she realizes she has trapped herself in an imperfect marriage.) If there are multiple characters, which character has the most to lose? (Ruth.) This will help you decide whose story it is. (Ruth's.)

Thus, the writer forms plot with a series of questions. Every time the main character tries to get what she wants, the author writes a scene (confronting the husband, reaching out to relatives for help, using the kids as manipulative tools). It is this intense questioning approach that will help the writer avoid borrowing a plot and falling into that genre trap. Story writing, Dufresne said, is like launching an arrow. Once you have launched it, there is only one possible place for the story to go, and you discover that trajectory by answering a series of unrelenting questions, by taking the path with the most resistance. The answer to these questions will tell you what to write next. Thus, plot generates, not stifles, a story's content. 

The final speaker was Antonya Nelson. Nelson explained that in graduate school, teachers criticized her stories as not stories but vignettes, character studies, and brushstrokes. She was striving for a Carver-esque minimalism but realized she was misunderstanding what was going on in his stories. They were not plotless, they simply lacked the exterior events of a traditional narrative. Nelson said she had a breakthrough when she began to understand plot as a shape. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is told in the shape of passing alcohol back and forth across a table. This back and forth shape creates the sensation of movement, a tension between polarities, where there is not an obvious sense of plot. Thus, even if the movement's shape is not obvious, the reader still feels satisfied. 

At the end of Nelson's presentation, I realized that Monroe, Barrett, and Dufresne had each described the same approach. All four speakers were describing different shapes to impose on a story to "forge a plot that is resonant and yet startlingly new," to both create a plot and avoid a familiar, borrowed plot. Monroe's shape was the ritual, Barrett's the wheel, Dufresne's the trajectory of an arrow, and Nelson's the back and forth motion she identified in Carver's story. That is, the panel was providing the attendees with metaphors--metaphors to pull out of our toolbox when the tension in our stories is falling flat, when we have a scene or a character and can't figure where to go. 

However, and this is an important point, these metaphors are not prescriptive, they are descriptive. They are descriptions of what is going on when writing is working. Most of us execute these shapes in our narratives intuitively, subconsciously, and we don't have to think about them when letting our words flow onto the page. It is when we get in a bind, though, that considering these metaphorical shapes for plot may help us get out of the weeds. 


  1. Awesome post. In a way it ties in with my Lost rant: the need to balance purpose and plot with the kind of organic development that Dufresne demonstrated. He wasn't locked into a particular goal. He started with motivated characters and let human behavior call the shots.

  2. Yes, I was thinking that while I read your Lost post, too. It was almost like Dufresne was writing the story through exploration, letting the questions guide the writing instead of the answers. Whoa. Profundity.

  3. I heart John Dufresne. His writing book is the best one out there, and I got to tell him so at AWP. Great post!

  4. Thanks! I should probably check that book out, I haven't gotten a hold of it yet!

  5. Both of John Dufresne's writing books are terrific. The only thing better is his fiction.

  6. Yes, Dufresne has definitely earned himself a spot on my summer reading list!