April 15, 2010

AWP, Part 4, Plot as Ritual, Not Representation

Today, I’ll go over the "Plot as Ritual, Not Representation" panel. Debra Monroe was the moderator, and the other panelists were Antonya Nelson, John Dufresne, and Lynne Barrett. Debra teaches at the MFA program at Texas State University and is the author of short story collections, novels, and a memoir. Antonya teaches at the MFA at the University of Houston and is the author of so many wonderful intense short stories that everyone wishes they’d written. John teaches at Florida International University and is one of those multitalented people who write short stories, novels, plays, and screenplays. Lynne is my good friend who teaches at Florida International University and writes these great short stories and has fun with genre. She’s even done a libretto. Each panelist read a paper on the subject, and then they took questions.

Debra said that writers sometimes think that “plot” means “predictable plot” and that “form” means “formulaic.” Every story needs a crescendo, however, and the ending of a story matters. You should have arrived at someplace different from where you started. Her point was in the title of the panel: Plot is a ritual, not a representation of reality. In fact, plot is the most unrealistic part of storytelling. Plot is the “art” part of “artifice.” How you make a story realistic is through the details and the psychological realism. Her point about plot being ritual is that it’s like a wedding or a funeral. In a wedding, like a story, everyone knows the broad outlines of what’s going on, what to expect, but each one is individualized and made specific to the characters and participants. It’s about reader/participant expectation.

Debra said that there are essentially two plots (I’m paraphrasing, so I hope I get it right and not concatenate other ideas): 1) the dramatic structure originating in the Victorian period with inciting incident, rising action or complication or development, climax, and denouement (Freytag’s pyramid) or 2) the modernists’ reinterpretation of this structure, which is inciting incident, rising action or internal tension, anticlimax, and denouement. (I hope I’m getting the terms right.) She said that today’s novel doesn’t necessarily match either of these plots but takes elements of each. She also said that the ending should be a comment on the rest of the plot and should force a reinterpretation.

Lynne’s presentation started with a story about her development as a writer, and I was so enraptured that I didn’t take a lot of notes. She and almost everyone on the panel agreed that “plot” was a dirty word when they went to school. Some teachers banned it from the workshop, and if you said it, it was as if you’d said any other four letter word. This bothered Lynne and so her ideas about plot (and genre) went underground. I wish I could regale you with her wonderful stories, but, alas, short term memory loss (can’t explain it!).

But then Lynne talked about plot being a wheel. I love this idea. (In fact, maybe I can get her to do a guest post about it!) One way for an effective plot is to end up where you began only backwards. In other words, the character has a goal at the beginning, and at the end of the story she gets the exact opposite. One of the examples Lynne used was Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” In it, the protagonist encourages his girlfriend to have an abortion so things can go back to the way they were, which she does, but as a result their relationship changed so much that he’s lost what he originally wanted. This, Lynne said, is also a good example of not having to show the whole plot sequence, but it’s all there in that scene in the train station. You only actually show a small part of the wheel.

One of the first things John said was that plot is hard! Don’t we know it. He said that plot is the organizing principle of a story. It is the gravity that holds the structure together. It’s based on the central character’s needs and desires and has a beginning, middle, and end. His plots are created out of the questions: What does this character want and why? Everything has to happen in scenes and, he likes to say, always take the path of most resistance. I love this! And then he went on this fabulous improvisation where he created the plot of a novel from the simple premise of a woman in her kitchen and her husband is going to leave her. I can’t express how magical it was to have him talk through the creation of scenes, of point of view, of details in the room, of developments. She has this motive so she does this, and as a consequence he reacts this way. He does this so that means his motive is this. And so on. You had to be there. I could’ve listened to it for hours. Later in the Q&A, he talked about how plot, or setting up a series of scenes, is like letting loose an arrow. You point it in a direction with your first scene and let it fly/develop. I could definitely see this in how he talked through his process.

Antonya (I hesitate to call her Tony, as we’ve never met) has a wonderful translation of terms. When she began to write, the usual terms of plot and character and setting didn’t make sense to her, so she translated them into terms that had meaning for her. Instead of the term “plot,” she uses the term “shape.” The actual action of the scene ~ what many people would call plot ~ is only a small part of that shape. She once wrote a story in the shape of a loaded gun. The gun was a teenager, and the parents (mother?) kept putting pressure on the teenager, cocking the hammer farther and farther back, until at the end the teenager goes off. Instead of protagonist’s desire or want, she’ll often think of it as what the protagonist lacks. Instead of setting, she thinks of atmosphere, because it’s not just the landscape but everything else around and also the protagonist’s take on that setting. Instead of protagonist vs. antagonist, she thinks of opposing forces. These forces can be two people, but they also can be within a single person.

Antonya told a funny story about being in her first workshop and being told that she wrote beautifully but that her stories never went anywhere, that they were vignettes. She said that she realized that she led a plotless existence. (We all do because our lives are, in reality, not based on cause and effect and they don’t have a pretty shape. They are without form, and it’s only with story that we shape them.) She began to think about how to give her stories a sensation of movement without it simply being the actions of the characters. Tips she mentioned: make your time frame as short as possible, impose a ticking clock, use external markers of time, and shape is found not in the first draft but in revision. Then she said that she is trying “to defeat the infection of predictability” and create “elegant artful surprise.” Wow. Exactly! So well said.

What I’m Reading Today: Gosh. Life is so full right now I’m having reading withdrawals.

PS I’m on the road tomorrow through the weekend, so I will not be able to post. I will continue with a recap of AWP on Monday. Have a great weekend!


Brad Green said...

This is a wonderful overview! Thanks!

Tamara said...

Thanks, Brad!

Victorian Short Stories said...

[...] Related weblogs Book review: short stories by anton chekhov: bk. 1: a tragic actor ... Awp, part 4, plot as ritual, not representation Victorian short stories: stories of successful marriages by george ... Victorian short stories of [...]