The Process of Learning How to Write Plot and Everything Else
by David Ebenbach, Professor at Georgetown University
Plot and I have had an up-and-down relationship, one that really got complicated in 2002. That year, the people at Gotham Writers’ Workshops invited me to contribute a chapter on plot for their upcoming book Writing Fiction. I jumped at the chance, in no small part because I had been thinking a lot about the subject lately; I was teaching fiction classes for Gotham, and the students always wanted to know about plot. Until then, my writing had been focused more on character, but it turned out that I liked thinking about this stuff. And plot does matter.
After all, even in literary fiction we need something to happen; that something draws the reader forward to find out what else might happen. That concept has been with us for a long time. In Aristotle’s Poetics, we learn that each story/novel raises a single yes/no question (e.g., Will the protagonist find love? Will the protagonist defeat the monster?) and then goes on to answer it—yes, no, or maybe. In this understanding, plot is the difficult arc where the protagonist moves from the question (raised early on) to the answer (offered by the end), a journey of ups and downs, challenges, forward steps and obstacles. The reader hopes things will turn out well but can’t be sure, and keeps reading.
Well, because plot was so much on my mind, the chapter came together pretty easily, and I felt good about it. Even looking back a decade later, I still stand behind what I wrote then. That said, for about six months after I wrote that chapter, when the topic was so clear in my mind, I wrote a string of stories that were—no doubt about it—bad. They moved from turning point to turning point inexorably, mechanically. And characters? Dragged along behind, like dead weight. Instead of stories, I had written plot machines. Now, to be fair, after those six months or so, I started to write stories I liked again. In fact, those new stories were better than the ones I had written before I ever got involved with the plot chapter.
Here’s the obvious point: learning is a process. Every time we engage with some new aspect of craft—plot, the use of setting, writing realistic dialogue, making characters sympathetic, or whatever it might be—we have to go through that process. More specifically, I think we go through three stages.
1. There’s the stage of more or less ignorance: we write without really knowing what we’re doing, perhaps lucking into some good moves and accidentally making a lot of bad ones. We all start here, and there’s no shame in it.
2. We study that aspect of craft, and we come to know something. Some of us will treat our new knowledge like a new toy, playing with it compulsively and ignoring all our other toys. No shame here, either, but this produces some unbalanced fiction. Also, because it’s new, we’re usually pretty clumsy with it. In that sense learning to write is like learning to drive, where, in the beginning, we have to be conscious of our every move as we make it. But we’re thinking too much, and this is where mechanical, inorganic fiction comes from. At some point we reach the third stage.
3. The culmination of learning is the moment when the shine comes off the new toy, when it becomes just one of many things that interest us, and balance is restored; the moment when we’ve worked mechanically with our new knowledge long enough to forget about it, so that it’s internalized and we start applying it naturally, without conscious effort or thought. This is when knowledge starts to work for us.
As far as plot is concerned, I now think of it (when I do think of it) as the egg in a cake. If a cake is good, you usually don’t sit around admiring how eggy it is; ideally, the egg just does its job quietly, giving the cake form and structure, so that the other ingredients have a suitable vehicle in which to deliver the real taste experience. Of course, that’s true of all the ingredients: each one has to do its own part without overwhelming the others. It takes time to learn how to make that happen, with plot or with anything else, but eventually you can get everything in perfect balance—and without getting caught up in the measurements.
Bio: David Ebenbach is the author of two short story collections—Between Camelots and Into the Wilderness (forthcoming)—and a non-fiction guide to creativity called The Artist’s Torah (forthcoming). Ebenbach has an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and teaches at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.
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