Monday, February 02, 2015

Steal this plot: the case for the ready-made story line

I think of myself as a literary fiction writer. What does that mean? I'm becoming less and less sure over time, but it suggests my work is not so much interested in plot as in other elements--character, ideas, emotional dilemmas, history. On the other hand, I tend to gravitate toward stories in which a certain amount of external stuff happens. While I deeply admire, and in some cases love, novels like Marilynne Robinson's that create a kind of majestic stillness, a deeply rich experience of contemplation, I find I can't write them myself, and have little patience for less successful efforts in this vein.

As a reader, this simply represents a personal preference. My own life is pretty static and contemplative; when I read, I want to be taken out of myself, ergo I want a bit more action. And as a writer, even a literary one, I've found plot can be a great friend rather than a nemesis.

Fellow writers of literary fiction tell me plot grows out of character--meaning, I gather, that you start with a (ready-made?) person or group of people, and, like molecules in a chemistry experiment, they will begin to interact and create something new. I've always found this to be a rather dubious proposition. Without a more rigid context (a beaker? a test tube?) for the people to interact in, I often seem to come out with a bunch of random collisions that don't really add up to much. Or I end up forcing something to happen--so the molecules aren't just milling around pointlessly--and that makes things even worse.

Which is why I've found that starting with a plot borrowed from elsewhere--a real unsolved murder case, say, or the plot of a two-hundred-year-old novel--surprisingly freeing. Placing characters I've created within this framework allows both the people and the framework to grow and evolve together. The borrowed plot soon becomes quite different from the original--because I'm using my own characters, not borrowing them, so they naturally change the way things shake out. At the same time, I don't have to wrack my brain endlessly, wondering what the hell can and should happen next--I have at least a basic map to consider following.

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