Sunday, September 25, 2011

Disarming the Plot Monster

On our beach walk this morning we were lucky to find Judy Irvin Kuns, the author of the middle grade novel, While You Were Out, (Dutton Children's Books), just coming out of the water.

She was kind enough to stop and share some thoughts on how she's learning to swim past what she calls the "plot monster."

Her guide? Jane Vandenburgh's
Architecture of the Novel.

With any luck, Judy's thoughts on plot will help you swim past the plot monster, too:

As a child, I was certain there was something lurking under my bed at night--a big hairy beast of a thing--that was just waiting for an arm or a leg to dangle over the edge so it could snatch a limb and pull me under and I would never be seen again.

Today, that’s pretty much how I feel about plot. The only difference is that the plot monster doesn’t confine itself to the narrow space beneath my bed. The plot monster follows me everywhere I go.

So I decided to try and vanquish my dread and face the plot monster head on. I would read every book and article I could find on plot and I would disarm him once and for all. But my plan only managed to further confuse, confound and overwhelm me until I felt completely incapable of attempting even the briefest, simplest of stories.

Enter Jane Vandenburgh. With her casual tone and sense of humor, Vandenburgh immediately felt like someone I could trust. “We need only to think about plot in order to feel lost,” she says in her book, Architecture of the Novel.

Vandenburgh maintains that my story is not something I have to create. It already exits. It has chosen me, not the other way around. All I have to do is uncover it, expose it to the light, and I can do this by the simple act of writing scenes. That’s all. Just scenes. Oh joy! I can do that.

But wait. What about that oft repeated “rule” that says, in novel writing, the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts?

Vandenburgh assures us that we can learn the whole by creating the smallest of its parts.

And for right now, that’s enough. If it’s not meaningful yet, it will be when you make it that way. And you will do this only after observing all the other scenes you have written prior and subsequent to this particular one. Be patient. “Nothing will be as random as it might first appear.”

“There will always be a reason your story has asked you here,” she says, “as the scene contains something it needs for you to find.” I love the treasure hunt feel of this statement, not to mention the challenge put forth. All of a sudden it feels like a game rather than a chore. Reading this, I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off of me and placed on the story itself.

So as your simple little scenes accumulate, they start bumping into each other and begin talking amongst themselves. Just leave them alone. They’re making their own plans.

And just when I felt I couldn’t get any giddier at the simple doableness of this, Vandenburgh adds, (in not so many words) oh and by the way, forget about any kind of organization. No chapters, no outline (“Keep the blueprints in the tube.”), no back story. Scenes only. And don’t try tucking memories into scenes, either. Memories are back story and back story is a plot concern. We’re not going there, remember? When a memory presents itself, just write it as a scene and worry about where it will go later. (I LOVE this woman.)

“Background, if ignored, will almost always take care of itself,” she says. Which sounds very similar to what one of my beloved Vermont College mentors, Brock Cole, told me so many years ago. “Take care of the small stuff and the big stuff will take care of itself.”

And as if all of this good news wasn’t enough, Vandenburgh explains that writing in scenes removes the need to explain things. But don’t think you can get away with just gazing at your scenes as if looking in through a window. Oh, no. You must “go to the door, turn the handle, open that door and step into your story.”

Exposed to the light and confronted by you advancing one scene at a time, the plot monster shrinks to a dust bunny.

For more information on Jane Vandenburgh, visit:

And to learn more about Architecture of the Novel, take a look at:

Judy Irvin Kuns is a graduate of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her first middle grade novel, While You Were Out, (Dutton Children's Books), was a Junior Library Guild Selection and winner of the Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers. An excerpt of her middle grade novel, The Family of Things, was selected as a finalist in the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adults and Children’s Writing sponsored by Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts. She lives in Sandusky, Ohio.


Andrea Mack said...

I really liked this low pressure perspective on a complex issue - thanks for sharing this interview.

Augusta Scattergood said...

Just what I needed, right now. This afternoon I shall visit a bookstore/ library/ kindle and come away with two books, Judy's and the Architecture of the Novel. Thanks for sharing, Bruce!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Judy!I love the idea that background, if ignored, will take care of itself.

Ann Angel