We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.
— Kurt Vonnegut Jr., science fiction writer
Vonnegut describes the fiction writer perched at the computer. The writer is ready to roll with the plot. Sometimes he soars, but sometimes his wings get clipped.
In my short story, “For the Love of Wills,” two of my main characters are literally “up there.” The story begins:
“Clara, I’m going to fall.”
“Pipe down, Mother. Do you want them to hear us?”
“I can’t move. I’m stuck. See.” She tried tapping her toes against the stone rock wall, but to no avail.
“Well, whose idea was this anyway?” I whispered.
“Mine? Now, listen here…”
“Shush. Do you want Will and that blonde Bimbo to hear us?”
That blonde Bimbo is what got Heidi Anastasia Clarke started. Bad enough that on her 62nd birthday, her husband of 40 years, William Everett Clarke, decided to toss her out of their old-money mansion in Toronto’s Rosedale. All this for a post-mid-life crisis which brought his oh-so-much younger secretary in and sent my mother packing. (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012).
These two characters, Clara and Heidi, are definitely “ready to roll with the plot,” if they don’t fall first.
Now, let’s look at some baddies in fiction plotting.
A literary magazine editor once scrawled on one of my short stories, “This is not a short story. This is an incident.”
A novel that I evaluated contained quirky characters. However, they solved everything too easily and their relationships, including the love relationship, had no problems.
In another novel, the author had created a certain atmosphere from the setting and characters. Unfortunately, the plot resembled those 500-piece jigsaw puzzles that you finally toss out in a garage sale.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. describes plot as:
I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away — even if it’s only a glass of water. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are. … And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other.
The characteristics of a good plot are:
- A protagonist or main character with a conflict to resolve. The characters drive the plot. Let them struggle to get there. Life may be a bowl of cherries, but the characters need to experience the pits.
- The plot moves forward, usually chronologically, although some flashbacks can work. If you get lost, use Doug Lawson’s rule, i.e., figuring out where the characters would rather not go.
- Events must be connected, not random and they must link from one event to another with some purpose.
- The plot must be believable, whether commercial or literary fiction. Your story line may seem unbelievable, but you make it believable by suspending the reader’s disbelief. Think “Once Upon a Time.”
- Their must be a climax, whether it’s a moral one in the protagonist’s mind or the opposite extreme, such as a sword fight.
- The plot must have some resolution in the end.
Sharon A. Crawford