Friday, February 25, 2011

From Once upon a Time to Happily Ever After: Tips on Basic Plotting

Grimm's Fairy Tales (Barnes & Noble Classics)Before you got all cutesy and experimental, you knew what a good plot was, although you may have simply called it “a good story.” You knew it began with “once upon a time,” and that after those words would come some people in some kind of trouble, like a princess stuck in a castle or an evil queen who abused her subjects. You knew that the next part of the story would involve a twist, some kind of event, that would affect this opening scenario, like meeting a wizard or finding a magical stone. You expected a villain, you expected drama, and, if you didn’t get it, you fell asleep or otherwise passed judgment. Finally, no matter what had happened, you expected a happy ending, usually involving people getting married and living “happily ever after.”
Aristotle laid down
the rules for good
plots all the way back
in 335 BC in the Poetics.

You knew about plot long before you knew about anything else involving storytelling. You knew that a good plot begins with a conflict (“once upon a time, a princess was trapped in a tower”), moves to a crisis (“one day, an ugly wizard suddenly appeared”), gets more exciting with each subsequent crisis (“the wizard could let her out, but he demanded her beauty in return”), achieves a climax (“the princess accepted the bargain!”), and ends with a resolution (“the ugly princess lived happily ever after, while the beautiful wizard was stuck in the tower forever”).

There are many variations on this basic plot structure, but every good story ever told follows it to some degree. There is the notion of reversal, for example, where, just when you think the conflict is about to be resolved, something unexpected happens that makes the situation even worse. The cops finally capture the murderer, and then it turns out it was somebody else who is getting away. There’s dramatic irony, where the reader knows more than the characters. Suzy is absentmindedly taking off her clothes, getting ready for bed, but you know the killer’s hiding in the closet! Run, Suzy! Plot is what creates tension. Stories that are referred to as “page-turners” are so because they are excellently plotted, because there is never a moment when you feel the absence of tension long enough to put the book down. You are compelled to keep reading to see what happens next. In longer works, such as novels, there might be mini-resolutions along the way, a moment when one conflict is resolved before another takes its place, usually at the chapter break. Overall, however, the tension is constant and building, as if climbing a mountain.

What it is important for you to understand beyond these basics is that there are good plots and bad plots, and that even a great plot all alone cannot carry a story.

One reason why a bad plot is bad is because it’s unbelievable in some way. What are the chances that the very person you needed to talk to that morning would be the one you would crash into on your way home from work? Never subordinate plot to your storytelling needs. I understand that you need your protagonist to find out that his wife is cheating on him, but does he have to find the compromising pictures mixed in with the bills? What kind of an idiot leaves compromising pictures just lying around like that? Ridiculous plot moments let the reader see the machinery of the story. It’s the writing equivalent of leaving the house with your underwear showing.

But maybe the cheating wife is an idiot. In that case, good for you! You are paying attention to the relationship between plot and characterization. Good plots don’t exist in a vacuum; they are good only insofar as they make sense given the characters involved. If your cheating wife is a normal person doing a sneaky thing, she would not leave her compromising pictures where her husband could easily find them. It would be out of character. If, however, you establish the fact that she’s absentminded, that she’s constantly locking her keys in the car and forgetting to take her birth control pill, we might be more willing to believe that she’s tossed the incriminating pics in with the water bill. In other words, you must provide a justification for the events that happen in your stories.

Exterior conflicts are usually a lot less satisfying to the educated reader than interior ones precisely because of the interplay between plot and characterization. Explosions and unclaimed bags of money are not de facto interestingit’s the different ways different people react to them that capture our attention. Excessively plot-driven stories may give us an initial thrill, but they are quickly forgotten. Once you see the guy who fell out of the airplane land safely on a giant ball of cotton, you really don’t get the same effect the second time around. Interior conflicts, on the other hand, conflicts between good and evil and all the shades in between, between this decision and that one, human conflicts, are always more engaging, because they force us to confront our own fears and beliefs. The best plots are those where interior and exterior conflicts work together, where the character is plagued by doubts over what to do with the rest of her life, and so she does nothing. Lies around on the couch, keeps a blog nobody reads. Normally, these non-actions don’t look like a plot, but, in conjunction with a character’s interior conflict, they make a story.

Never resolve your story on one level and forget the other, however. The beginning writer often rushes to end the story via exterior conflict. You’re writing a love story, and it’s gotten messy. The couple’s broken up, and the one clearly in the wrong finally makes up her mind to seek the lover out and beg his forgiveness. Alas, at the very moment when she makes this decision, she sees on the news that there’s been a horrible accident . . . . Of course, it’s the beloved, and the reconciliation will never happen!


Taco Bell Salsa con Queso, Cheese Dip, Medium, 15 oz. (Pack of 4)
You want chips
with that plot?
Apart from the pure queso of such a plot, the problem is that killing off a character does not address the story’s interior conflict. The problem here isn’t that these two people existed; it’s that they, for whatever reason, could not get along. Killing one of them off does not resolve their true problem, it just prevents it from being resolved. Such an “ending” is more than just corny, it’s the opposite of what an ending should be. Rather than feel a sense a resolution, the reader feels cheated. Would the offended lover have accepted the apology? Guess we’ll never know!

Always resolve your plots on the interior level first. Whatever dilemma your protagonists have been struggling with needs to be resolved in some way, and any exterior event that takes place at the same time can symbolize this resolution. Let’s go back to our broken couple: the one clearly in the wrong finally makes up her mind to seek the lover out and beg his forgiveness. On her way to meet him, she realizes she has spent the entirety of this relationship apologizing to this man. True, she’s a flirt, a ditz, she forgets to take her birth control pills and leaves incriminating photos with the water bill. But he’s so demanding, constantly pointing out her flaws, so hard to please. He won’t even let her eat pizza in peace, she remembers, taunting her about her fat thighs and what does she expect.

Instead of pulling into the driveway of his mother’s house, where he’s been staying, she keeps driving to the little pizza parlor down the road, and scarfs down a whole large pie, with extra cheese, all by herself.

Chicago Deep Dish Pizza - Gino's East Deep Dish Pizzas
A good ending.
It may seem that having pizza is a lot less “dramatic” than a big car crash where people die, but it is a better ending to this story because it addresses the protagonist’s interior conflict. She realizesshe has an epiphanythat she has been wrong, but not in the way she thought, and all her conflicts about how to keep this man just disappear. The conflict disappearsnot the character. That is what gives the story its sense of resolution. A car crash is nothing but a deus ex machina, an artificial way of resolving conflict, like having a god step in.

Finally, also be aware that plots can be as cliché as language or characters. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, writer loses reader. You do not want been-there-done-that, nor some corny variation like boy meets girl, boy kills girl . . . . Ha ha ha, you are so clever. No. You will be drawn to a cliché plot if you are thinking about it apart from the other elements of your story, especially character. Don’t have a detailed plot laid out before you get to know your characters. Or, be prepared to tinker with the plot as your characters come alive. The best writing is organicstart with a premise, a conflict, a setting, some people. Put them in a little terrarium, see what happens. Let the story tell itself. Water it, fertilize it, prune it. Give it air and sunshine.

Pigeon FeathersBut most of all, don’t ignore it. We seem to have built some kind of chasm between “plot-driven” and “character-driven” writing, with plot-driven stories completely ignoring character and vice versa, and highbrow readers scoffing at plot as if it were solely a matter of bombs and car crashes and space invaders. The “serious” writers seem shy of any sort of event, with long, meandering, indeciferable stories where nothing happens. For mecall me retro, bourgeois, Ishmaelthe best stories are those where plot and character are symbiotic. When I teach plot, I always use Updike’s “A&P.” No bombs, crashes, or cops herejust three girls walking through a supermarket in their bathing suits, and a boy whose life is changed by this small event. You can learn everything you will ever need to know about plot from this story. But chances are that you know most of what you need already: once upon a time, in walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.

Friday, February 18, 2011

10 Sexy, Yummy Reads

Guaranteed to be 100% fat-free and smoking hot, these books will make your mouth water and your knees go weak without making you fat or getting you pregnant. Listed below (in no particular order) are my current students’ favorite creative nonfiction reads.

Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in ChristologyGod Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons EverythingEddy really, really enthusiastically recommends God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. He insists that it's not a manual on how to be an atheist, but rather a sort of spiritual memoir with a sociohistorical agenda. Eddy was terribly sick while he was ranting, so we don't know how much of what he said was true and how much Dayquil, but he says he has had wonderful fights about this book and that it has made him very popular at our Catholic institution.

In a completely unrehearsed stroke of cosmic genius, Belinda recommends Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology by Elizabeth A. Johnson, which she is currently reading for one of her classes. I suggest reading both of these recommendations back to back, of course.

Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (The Toni Morrison Lecture Series)Brother, I'm Dying (Vintage Contemporaries)Several of my students are big fans of Edwidge Danticat. Most notably, they recommend the memoir Brother I'm Dying, in which she chronicles her family's struggles to reunite after first her father, then her mother emigrate from Haiti to the United States. Everyone's also very excited about Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, the 2010 collection of essays originating from the Toni Morrison lecture series at Princeton.

Sports Illustrated: Hate Mail from Cheerleaders and Other Adventures from the Life of ReillyInto Thin Air (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition)We Were Soldiers Once...and Young: Ia Drang - the Battle That Changed the War in VietnamMichael recommends pretty much anything written by Rick Reilly, but most especially Hate Mail from Cheerleaders and Other Adventures from the Life of Reilly, a collection of pieces by the award-winning Sports Illustrated writer that Michael says is truly funny. He also recommends We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang--The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnamby Harold G. Moor and Joseph L. Galloway. Now a major motion picture, the book tells the story of the crucial November 1965 battle. Mr. Action also likes Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer so much he has read it "multiple times." The book tells the story of the disastrous May 1996 Mt. Everest climb in which five people died.

Becoming a Doctor: From Student to Specialist, Doctor-Writers Share Their ExperiencesFor those of you considering medicine as a backup to your writing, Chip recommends Becoming a Doctor: From Student to Specialist, Doctor-Writers Share Their Experiences, a collection of both funny and serious real-life accounts of med-school memoirs.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North KoreaTiffany recommends Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Koreaby Barbara Demick, a book which exposes the horrible deprivation of the lives of people in North Korea after WWII through the stories of six defectors. Tiffany calls it a real eye-opener, a book that made her think about her own life and what it would be like to live in such an oppressive regime, one clouded by such silence that we know next to nothing about it.

Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (P.S.)Yazmin recommends Kitchen Confidentialby Anthony Bourdain, the cynical, chain-smoking, weirdly attractive host of the Travel Channel's No Reservations. Ruminating on the seedy side of the culinary world, this book is half memoir, half restaurant exposé. Perhaps this is the only recommendation that truly delivers the promise of this post's teasing title.

So there you have it, folks. Let me hear no more about how you don't know what to read, or whose recommendation to trust, or how you don't have time to find out what to read, or where to get it, for that matter, since all the links above will take you directly to each book's Amazon page. From the sacred to the profane, these 10 books offer a wide spectrum of choice from the tastemakers of tomorrow. There's just no excuse, people. Go get yourself a hot new book.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sex & Cheesecake

Candy Everybody WantsIf lust and hate is the candy,
if blood and love tastes so sweet,
then we give 'em what they want.

So their eyes are growing hazy,
'cause they wanna turn it on.
So their minds are soft and lazy—
well... who do you want to blame?
10,000 Maniacs, “Candy Everybody Wants”

Aqua Teen Hunger Force - Volume Three“See? Kids love pizza, and they love squalor.”
—Master Shake, “Spirit Journey Formation Anniversary”

Kim Kardashian Sexy Bikini 22-by-34-Inch PosterWalking through Dadeland Mall is an assault on the crotch and mouth. Go in through the main entrance, and you’re flanked by restaurants. On your right is The Cheesecake Factory. Minutes after the mall opens, there’s already a line of people waiting to get in. Look through the windows and you’ll see the fat dripping off the lifted fork of pasta, the cheesecake slice so tall it tips over when you cut into it. Keep walking and you’re hit by fumes from hair and nail salons, tantalized by mannequins and posters in suggestive poses, stabbed by the beat of a different song from every store, chocolates at Godiva’s, cookies from the food court, gold and diamonds on velvet displays, Kim Kardashian’s tan, sweaty navel at GNC . . . .

You can walk the entire mall, over 185 stores, and get only two messages: sex and food. The ideal is to combine themKim Kardashian eating something. What cannot be consumed in one way or the other has no place or value.

People love it.

The problem is not sex or food. The problem is the atrophy of the rest of the body. When the only parts of ourselves that we stimulate are the crotch and mouth, the brain, the heart, perhaps, atrophy. Which is why you should read good books.

Though we seem aware of what junk food can do to our bodies, no one seems to think about what the junk book diet is doing to our brains. Our crotch and mouth disease has atrophied our brains to the point that we believe all books are goodas if the mere act of reading was going to turn us into intellectuals.

Theraflu Severe Cold & Cough (6-Daytime, 6-Nighttime), 12-Count Packets (Pack of 2)In truth, I am appalled at what people are reading. We sneer at television for its simple, vulgar plots, and then turn around and make bestsellers out of the same in print. We seem to crave love stories most of all, from the innocently rendered to the sexually explicit. What’s wrong with such stories? Most of them lack complexity. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back in infinite variations. It’s hard to find a story, in print or on film, that doesn’t provide a happy, comforting ending, where all dilemmas are resolved, and all the complexity of life is reduced to some kind of lesson as warm and useless as Theraflu.

Poetry is not exempt from banality. Many people who still read and write poetry complain that poets have abandoned some connection to the real world they supposedly once possessed, that contemporary poetry lacks politics, or passion, or importance. Perhaps. But go to that little shelf in the back of Barnes & Noble that contains it, and you will find the same stories that are in the books, on television, and in films, poetically rendered. Apart from the stray small volumes from indie presses that look like pamphlets next to the Classic Anthologies (collected Milton, Keats & Shelley, etc.), what predominates are anthologies of rhymed love poetry or themed collections on friendship or mothers, light verse as comforting and glossy as greeting cards.

This is what we want: writing that is easy to understand even on a first reading, messages that reassure us that the simple lessons of our childhood are, after all, true, that the good are rewarded and the evil will be punished. Themes that feed our preexisting fantasies about romance.

We are stuck, stunted. We can’t move past fables and fairy taleswe don’t want to. We seek confirmation, affirmation, validation. We don’t want to grow or be challenged, we want to be soothed and lulled. We want cheesecake.

In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black WomenEvery year, I teach Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” twice, once in my creative writing class and once in my introduction to literature. It’s such a great story, and great for teaching, classically rendered, humorous yet profound. Every year it’s more of a struggle to get my students to see the story in its historical context, however. All they seem to know about the Civil Rights era is that MLK had a dream and Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus (these are the “inspiring” soundbites they have been taught). I have a handout I’ve been using for years to quickly familiarize them with the basic concepts of the Black Arts Movement and other “obscure” knowledge of the era that is so central to understanding the story. And this year it finally happened. When I asked my first-year class what the story was about, someone said, “It’s about being true to yourself.”

I pressed for more. “In what way?” I asked, hoping to get something more specific, more relevant. “You know, stand up for what you believe in and don’t let anybody tell you who you are,” was all I got. I pressed for more: who in the story is standing up for what she believes in? what is it that she believes in? who is telling her otherwise, and why?

Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner (Modern Library)Eventually, we unraveled the story more thoroughly, but what breaks my heart is how much of it is lost in the effort to rush to a comforting, familiar message such as “be true to yourself.” The harder questions—the unsettling ones such as who am I? and what or who defines me? and why?—are ignored, not to mention the really hard questions Walker is posing, which are what to do with the legacy of slavery and how to define African-American culture. These questions are uninteresting to the cheesecake addict precisely because they are too specific. We want to “apply the lesson of the story” to ourselves so we can feel warm and fuzzy, and, since we are not black women in the 1970’s, we have to ignore that part of it. Even my African-American students don’t want to dwell on these questions. The 1970’s are part of that “huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.” If they understand the story’s relevance to them, it’s an unpleasant relevance, and, given the choice, one they would rather avoid facing.

What do you want to think about? What do you want to read? What do you want to write? What is art? Some more tough questions. I will attempt to answer. Art will not comfort you or be easy to understand, nor will it do the mere opposite, which is shock you or be intentionally obscure. Art will require more from you than sitting in a comfy booth and ordering cheesecake. It will challenge you to think as well as to feel. You will be confused, you will be upset. You may be enlightened, but never comforted.

Am I a snob? Yes! I claim it. Better a snob than an anti-intellectual, which is its own kind of snobbishness. I won’t apologize for enjoying thought or craving knowledge, which is my inalienable right as a homo sapien. Nor will I entertain stupid arguments about who is “better”; that kind of blanket judgment, along with tricycles and Twinkies, is better left to third-graders.

But what about fun? What if I enjoy a trashy read, a “guilty pleasure”? Go ahead. It will have about as much effect on your brain as the cheesecake does on your thighs. You will never grow as a writer, however, if you keep reading the same story. The mark of the beginning writer is the rush to the moral at the end of the story and the jab to the heart in the poem. It is all you know because it is all you read, all you see and hear. Read your vegetables. You can train your brain in much the same way you can train your palate. Do you really want to be reading chicken fingers the rest of your life? Redefine what you find enjoyable. Put your brain on a healthy diet.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other StoriesThis is more difficult than it sounds, because good books, like good food and good men,are hard to find. Try to find a decent piece of fruit at the mall. Cookies, yes. Pizza, yes. A banana? Like, from a tree? Going to the bestseller lists to find a good book is like going to the mall to find good food. You will only find what sells, which is not the same. A good place to begin is The Big Lists: the Nobel Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize. These are good starting points until you cultivate your own informed taste, and then you can go ahead and argue with them.

Don’t be afraid to read in translation, or about topics, themes, places, or people unfamiliar to you. Choose writers who are still alive, still being publishedyou want to cultivate your own sensibility, not that of the distant past. Read critically, like they taught you in schoolcompare books and writers, keep a reading journal. Think. It’s okay to enjoy yourself, but ask yourself why something pleases you, or not. Don’t just put the book down when you’re done and reach for the next (or for the cheesecake!). If you’re having trouble understanding a book you want to read, research. Go online. There will be study guides, reviews, other readers. Join or start a book club in person or online. Goodreads is a pretty decent place to find other readers. Just make sure that they are discerning readers, and don’t give up.

Life is short. Read hard.

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