Sunday, January 29, 2006

Without Charts, Maps, or Compass

You are facing a blank page.

There's no hint of a path, no ripple suggesting a direction, no shadow suddenly appearing as a road on which to walk.

The page is as empty and clean as a sandy beach after a storm.

There are no footprints, no indentations where gulls may have landed, or shallow lines where sea turtles may have crawled.

How do you know where to go?

Must you know your destination before setting off? Or can you simply put one foot in front of another until you discover where you are?

Starting a story... and determining its plot... is a bit like finding yourself on a strange beach, not knowing which way to go to reach civilization. (Hmm... what if you're on a deserted island and walking the beach will only take you in circles?)

So how do you start?

Well, the first question to ask is this: who is walking?

And why is she on the beach in the first place?

And does she know where she wants to go... or what might prevent her from getting there?

To create a plot, you might try begining with a character... and that character's desire for something.

"Something has to happen," writes John DuFresne in The Lie That Tells A Truth, "and characters must make that which happens happen."

DuFresne goes on to share what Henry James wrote about plot: "'s the character's act of doing that becomes your plot."

Plot then becomes not so much an exploration of that external world of beach and sand, but an exploration of that character's internal world... of what's driving her, motivating her to act (or not act), to decide one thing and not another, to choose to live a certain kind of life.

The action must be motivated, DuFresne writes. It must be causally sequential, credible, and compelling.

"The only thing that keeps us reading," DuFresne suggests, "... is the suspense, the wanting to know what lies ahead, the tension inherent in that mystery. No tension, no plot. No action is interesting for its own sake. Don't confuse motion with movement. Movement is motivated motion."

In other words, every action in a story must evolve out of a character's motivating impulses.

"Random incidents neither move nor illuminate," writes Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (5th ed.). "We want to know why one thing leads to another and to feel the inevitability of cause and effect."

"Reasonless action undermines plot," DuFresne agrees. "Plot is all about motive."

Plot is then a record of not only a character's choices but why she made those choices... after she has made them.

It's a map of obstacles that stand in her way, too, a chart showing readers how and why she moved across the beach this way, rather than that way, and reveals the courage (or lack of courage) it took for her to step into the unknown, to pursue whatever she wanted despite the obstacles in her way.

"When 'nothing happens' in a story, it is because we fail to sense the causal relationship between what happens first and what happens next," suggests Burroway. "When something does 'happen,' it is because the resolution of a short story or a novel describes a change in the character's life, an effect of the events that have gone before."

Whenever the character's intentions are foiled, notes DuFresne, we get tension.

As the stakes increase, the journey becomes ever more difficult and challenging.

Plot displays this struggle... so the reader can experience the same struggle (as well as the feelings of success that come from overcoming the odds)... and learn from it something more about the human heart, what makes us human, what compels us to act in certain ways.

You won't find your character's journey on any map or chart.

A compass won't help you either.

What will help is a deep and abiding love for your character... and a desire to fully understand that character's life and dilemma... to know your character from the inside... in order to discover who she is and why the character wants what she wants.

Then... it's a matter of letting her go... and watching her struggle past obstacle after obstacle to reach her heart's desire.

Resources for further study:

Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (5th ed.).
John DuFresne's The Lie That Tells A Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction.


jo'r said...

Strategies for starting out on a story are endlessly fascinating for most developing writers, me included. I've wrestled with whether it is always best to have a detailed outline, or just launch the character(s)without fully knowing the destination, as Bruce talks about here. Dufresne's comments are great, especially his referral to Henry James "'s the character's act of doing that becomes your plot."

In looking back at some of my lecture notes I find my style has become a little like Lois Lowry (I'd be in good company if I could pull it off entirely like her). Lowry (The Giver, A Summer to Die, Autumn Street, Anastasia Krupnik, other Anastasia books) works on a computer (in a former doctor’s office in her house). She starts her novel without any outline or notes (okay, I've usually had a one-page outline), but she’s thought about the story for a while. She has an idea of the characters and where they’re going. By the time she’s written the first chapter, she knows where she’s going. After about three days she rereads that chapter for flaws, rewrites it, and goes on to write chapter two. She keeps repeating this process in a cumulative fashion; i.e., after chapters one-to-five, she rereads, revises, and goes on to chapter six.

Even after an exacting writing process like this, Lowry says you might expect to revise even further. For her novel, The Giver, three editors reviewed it and she rewrote it to address two pages of single-spaced questions from each, and then rewrote it one more time.

Nice article, Bruce.

reniebob said...

Bruce - just spent some quality time with your blog, and I've got to say, as a poet and wanna-be-published children's fiction writer struggling through a revision, I found the information here helpful and inspiring. My favorite post is the On the Dynamics of Desire one... I am a Robert Olen Butler fan and am headed next to amazon to purchase his book. Great blog. I'll be back. And I'll post a link to your blog on mine.