Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thick and thin

The last few stories I've turned out have not had a traditional plot. They stand in contrast to most of the others in which I tried hard to use the "person in a place with a problem" plot structure common to many works of fiction. Look here for how that plot skeleton became so popular. And here - Barry Malzberg starts talking about it from 16:42 onwards.

The first time I put together a story that lacked a plot structure I was not that worried because the tale seemed strong enough to survive without it as there was enough else going on in it. Plus re-writing it to make it hang well on that skeleton would have diminished it.

Then I did it again, and again. And the story I've just finished lacks it too. What was a isolated incident is starting to look like an epidemic.

I didn't worry until I read the comments of a reviewer on OWW who was looking over the first of the plotless batch. She asked a question that stopped me short. What are the stakes? In that story the protagonists succeed with precious little opposition. They triumph easily, too easily, over the obstacles set in their way.

The other plotless stories I've looked over share the same problem. There's nothing at stake and the threats to the actions of the protagonists are easily dealt with. There is no sense that they could fail and it could all go horribly wrong. Nothing matters. Bugger.

The standard plot skeleton suggests that the threat of failure should be at its most acute just before the resolving climax. In the current versions I have protagonists who are universally successful and face little or no serious opposition. Threats are easily dealt with.

Having to fix this, and I think I do for them to be compelling stories, puts me in a bind. This is because I kind of believe Stephen King's assertion that stories are found objects like fossils. As such there are many ways to get them out of the ground. Plot being a jackhammer that destroys as much as it liberates.

If I believe that stories are found objects then forcing them into that plot skeleton does damage. Just like it does when fossils are re-created to meet expectations of how dinosaurs lived. I hope that the destruction is creative. It will be a useful process to go through as it will get me thinking about how to tell a story.

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