Friday, June 5, 2009

PLOT OR SERIOUS FICTION?

The July/August issue of Writer's Digest has an article (Inkwell - edited by Zachary Petit) by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, author of 'Make a Scene' called 'Confessions of a Plot Junkie'. In it the writer confesses, "I am a plot junkie." The reason for this, is that Jordan likes a story to move along and not get hung up on long, even-if-well-crafted descriptions of scene, or a sentence that is written for its own sake.

I often wonder why this has to be an either/or proposition. (And some writers sit around wondering and wondering without ever getting anything on paper - I am cautioning myself here). My last post quoted some lines from 'The Snows of Kilamanjaro' by Ernest Hemingway. (Hemingway is a great author to blog about because some people really love him, and others are deeply offended by him). The main thing I can say about Hemingway in this context is this: he showed us how to fuse plot and great literature. In fact, it would seem odd if we read any Hemingway that wasn't plot-driven. He had a close eye to on the story line always, 'and' on the story he was telling.

I am not a fan of our postmodernist approach to literature, though in some instances I have enjoyed the creativity of it. I am not a fan of artists of any stripe who throw something on a canvas in the hope of getting a reaction - even if it is horrifying. There is enough that is horrifying in the world for us to write or paint, without becoming a part of the horror ourselves. But you see where wondering and wondering takes us - I have gotten off track.

Of course a story or novel (and I believe even nonfiction) should have a plot. My daughter Holly gave me a Storyteller and it sits on my desk even now. A Storyteller is a Native American ceramic of an adult with many little people crawling on him/her. These, presumably are the stories that person has to tell. I keep it right there to remind me of the importance of telling the story. Even in nonfiction (especially in nonfiction), we have the responsibility to do more than simply relate facts and information. If we do it right, in fact, nonfiction should be even more creative and more 'truthful' than fiction; though it almost never is presently. That narrative imperative is exactly what I have tried to write into 'American Masters', a popular history of great American literature from the colonial period to modern times.

I forget who told me this, but it still applies to every writer, "Start at the beginning, tell the story, and then stop." That is the plot. What you do with it is your business. Don't throw out plot because it will seem more 'literary' to do without one. I have just started a novel about war and peace (no, not 'that' novel). I am finding that I can be forgiven a multitude of sins if I just keep the story moving forward. Of course I'll have to write out the sins in the re-write.

Keep reading and keep writing,

Jim

4 comments:

  1. this is exactly what i've been thinking about in regards to my latest and future stories. i'm working on lacing the plot with symbolism so all throughout the story the subtext tells a story of its own. like hemingway did in the sun also rises.

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  2. Excellent. I use symbolism and motif in my nonfiction 'American Masters' to keep the narrative flowing deep and wide. Hemingway is a great example. When people think of Hem they think of plot, but take a look also at the religious/Christian symbolism in 'The Old Man and The Sea'. Very powerfull.

    Keep on doing what you're doing.

    Jim

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  3. I often wonder why writing students are encouraged to sacrifice plot to make way for good character. Even the best characters need something to do. I think great writing contains both excellent plot and real characters.

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  4. It's a balancing act to be sure. If the plot gets to moving along too fast, we can forget about character. I am working through that problem right now in my next novel, 'The Struggle' which starts out in the midst of a war. I am reading Chekhov and finding that he is very deft in handling characterization in just a few pen strokes in his short stories.

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