Plotting the plot

I’m excited for class #2 at StoryStudio Chicago tonight. We’ll be diving into the mechanics of plot in fiction, and using Rebecca Makkai’s fantastic “Painted Ocean, Painted Ships” from the 2010 edition of Best American Short Stories to guide our discussion. I didn’t give a lot of thought to it when I selected the story, other than remembering that she did a good job of constantly elevating the stakes via all the misfortunes and bad decisions that plagued her protagonist. In preparing for the class and reading it again, though, I found that it really a fantastic story to learn about plot. For one, it falls pretty neatly into the Freytag pyramid: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. It also differentiates between plot (What happened?) and theme (What’s it about?). Lots we can learn from that story. I highly recommend seeking it out.

I also read John Barth’s classic essay, “Incremental Perturbations.” In it he makes the point that “Most working writers of fiction … operate less by articulated narrative theory than by the hunch and feel of experience.” What I take that to mean is that all these rules and formulas for narrative structure are all well and good, but perhaps best applied after the fact, ideally in the revision process. Indeed, I’ve gone back to some of my old stories that haven’t turned out as well as I’d like and tried to apply some of these theories of narrative structure to them, and I’m beginning to see where some of the problems lie. I think when I’m struggling with a story, it’s not usually a question of character, style, theme or general tone, but rather a deficiency in plot.

Perhaps my favorite thing about teaching is how much I learn in the process. Hopefully it begins to translate to my own writing. I’m planning to spend the weekend revisiting the ending to a story I’ve been working on for years — one that’s gotten a couple of “close but no cigar” responses from some lit mags you’ve heard of. I’m finally ready to admit that the end doesn’t arise organically from the plot, and I’ve got an idea of how to fix that. Fingers crossed.

Quite looking forward to class tonight.

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