The Art of Plotting – Preface

Okay, folks:  this is where my ego gets really out of control.  (Muse:  You mean it wasn’t already?  Me:  Quiet, you slut!  SMACK!)

There’s some debate (meaning, I took a random internet thread and inflated it in my mind to encompass the entire writing-o-sphere) over whether certain authors are in fact writers, or storytellers.  The idea of telling an engrossing, compelling story is by no means the same as having a knack for tying together a string of delightful words, that tantalize the reader.  There’s a lot to love about both skills and a lot to dislike about the lack of either skill.  A lot of authors seem to be able to do one without doing the other well.  Some are accused of not being able to do either.

Maybe it’s just anecdotal but it seems to me that the storytellers favor novels and those with magic syntax favor the short story.  I have my own nasty opinions about why that is but without being a complete snot by saying it outright, I think the respective lengths play to those strengths.  A longer story allows for a more complex, more in-depth plot.  A shorter story can make use of dazzling imagery, evoking some captivating thought in the reader that would probably be diluted in a longer work.

Sure, sure, there are exceptions.  Nabokov demonstrated outstanding control of his language through the entire length of Lolita.  Though I may be the lone voice in the wilderness here, I thought the plot was basically dumb and Humbert a completely unlikeable douchebag (I’ll cover characters a few installments from now).  Yes, yes, I get the concept of unreliable narrators.  Still hated it, despite the pretty wording, which I agree was of enviable quality.  And I see some short stories with incredible plots – plots that haunt me from the dark bowers of night as I try to decode and absorb them.  To me, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

If I had to categorize myself, I think I am certainly in the vein of being a storyteller more than a literary writer.  Fancy command of the language is impressive and I wish I could do it better.  But to me, the essence of a story is "Then what happened?"  Without that, is it a cohesive story – or is it just a vignette?  A character study?  An exercise in mental masturbation?  (Or if reading Laurell K Hamilton, the real thing?)  Nobody is going to remember my writing skill – and those that do, will question my intelligence, sanity, and probably bladder control.  But I would like someone, somewhere, to read one of stories and yell, "Now that’s entertainment, baby!"

A story has a beginning, middle, and end.  I’ve had people throw that Hemingway nonsense about baby shoes at me, as an example of a story.  If you don’t know the anecdote, Hemingway responded to a challenge of writing a story in under ten words.  He puked out, "Baby shoes for sale.  Never worn."  And the women swooned, and the poets gnashed their teeth at Papa’s genius.  Rubbish, says I.  That’s no story.  There are more questions than answers, there are no characters, and there is no context.  For crying out loud, the old chestnut about combining religion, sex, mystery and royalty into a concise story was 10x more entertaining ("My God, I’m pregnant," said the Queen.  "Who’s the father?")  If you disagree with me on this, then please press ALT + F4 now.  No, seriously, don’t …. but do beat yourself in the head with a whiffle bat for a few minutes.  I want to read  why Character X has a problem, how they cope with it, and Then What Happened.

(Did anyone really beat themselves with a whiffle bat?  I hope not … but I would still have to laugh.)

In one of my peer groups, I recently reviewed a story that was everything a literary writer could hope for.  The imagery was brilliant.  The emotions were raw and incredible.  The heavy context of the characters’ fates was palpable.  But it had plot holes one could push a manatee through – plot holes akin to suggesting that mankind had doomed itself by forgetting two thousand years of science overnight, without any attempted explanation as to why.  When I wrote as much to the author, the response I got was (no shit) , "Thank you for your review.  But I disagree; this story doesn’t need a stronger plot."

Words fail me.  For once, my smart mouth had no response.  As The Man said, a complete failure to communicate.

Anyway ….

This is the start of my series on how to construct a meaningful plot.  I can hear you thinking, "What makes you qualified to do so?"  Not a damn thing, so take it all with a grain of salt.  Take it with a shaker of salt, as you should with all my blog posts.

This doesn’t have to be a one-way conversation.  If I am in error or taking a narrow view of this, tell me.  Tell me I’m wrong.  Tell me I’m high.  Tell me I’m a Nazi tool.  Tell me Humbert was a Nazi tool (please do).  Whatever, just tell me what you think … persuade me through the power of, er, persuasion.

Next up, Part One – The Plot itself.  It’ll be up later this week, pending my motivation and the aforementioned bladder control.

(By the way, as I write this, I ‘m listening to parts of George Harrison’s album Gone Troppo.  Golden Earring and Eagles on deck.  Sigh.  Today’s music is so much sluice through the waste disposal grate.)


4 thoughts on “The Art of Plotting – Preface

  1. Plot

    So. Let me state, “I am bored” and this was the first thing I read. So you get to be the lucky result of me “trolling” tonight.

    As you well know I am no master of formal written language. I am pretty sure I can barely read. And I mean that in every possible way. Written, verbal, picture, etc. Unless of course you consider “insulting idiots” a language. So take my ramblings with a grain of pepper…

    My question is this: Why must the story/plot be all-inclusive/complete? In the peer group example where the writer merely missed explaining part of history. Why must the story devolve into a monotonous droning on about every aspect of what has or hasn’t occurred. Was the 2000 years important to the overall story? If so, then yes it should have been included. If it wasnt, then no in my semi-moronic view. A prime example is books by authors like Tom Clancy (I haven’t read all of them, only a few) where i learned to skip the first 400 pages of useless drivel.

    If you look at it from a different point of view, no story truly ends. Unless of course the timeline literally ceases to exist and is expressed so in the end of the book. “…and they lived happily ever after” leaves some many questions unanswered that I dont have enough time to go into it. So if “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn” was your great masterpiece, it could inspire and invoke enough emotion to have the same affect of a 1000 page book just without all the “pretty” words.

    To me a story is part written language, part imagination. If you have too much of either it becomes washed out and potentially distorted from what you envision. Of course, it will always get distorted by someone, somewhere. But you just generally ignore that idiot unless they have a really good lawyer.

    I happen to prefer reading fantasy/SciFi where you dont (and cant) explain everything. It is the only thing that captures my need for brain power usage (albeit, very little total power available). I know most of those authors are not “great”, but its a lot of the unknown that makes the story great. You dont have to explain what mythical creature did for the last 2000 years, you merely state it is a great and powerful being who is two centuries old. Let me envision what terrors it has produced. If you spend 75% of the book explaining what is going on you wasted 33% of my time. Yes, I realize that if you dont explain enough then it is an exercise in futility reading the nonsense.

    I cant wait to read the next installment.


    1. Re: Plot

      Welcome. Regarding the 2K years, I am certain I did not explain myself very well, so let me make another attempt.

      I wasn’t asking for a blow-by-blow of the last two millennia. But science and discovery have been part of the human experience ever since the first hulking neanderthal made a spark by slapping two rocks together. If you build a story around how that is no longer the case and make a case for the downfall of the human race, a little explanation into WHY might be in order.

      I’ll put it another way. Suddenly, humans stop eating figs. Just figs, nothing else. That’s the pivotal point of your story – not the poor fig farmers, but that humanity is doomed because no more popping one insignificant fruit. Since the story takes the not-insignificant step of killing everyone, would it hurt to know why people stopped eating figs? Otherwise, the story degenerates into “baby shoes”: a non-sequitur of random thoughts, connected only a common language.

      You can leave plenty to the imagination and still let the reader know what’s going on. I’ll put it to you like this: enough explanation that you know what’s going on but lets your imagination work? A woman in a cocktail dress, with a bit of cleavage and hint of leg. Too much explanation? A porno movie. What I read? “What, there was a woman here?”


  2. Hullo!

    Well, I’m glad you’re tackling this. Plot is one of my weaker points, and I do hope to improve it. I’m interested to see what you have to say.

    For what it’s worth, I’m with you 100% on the length thing. I love to play with language, and in a shorter medium you have way less to worry about in terms of logistics, so you can focus on the evocative stuff.

    I don’t per se think writing and storytelling are all that cut and dry as distinctions- some people are fabulous at both, and the two really needn’t be at odds. Even if you favor one over the other, your story’s pretty much always enhanced by the inclusion of the other element.

    I think you know which end of the spectrum I gravitate to, both as a writer and as a reader, but I am interested to see what you say.

    (and for what it’s worth, I like “Spar”)

    (also, I don’t love your comment section. I get why they wouldn’t let me link blogger through livejournal, but it signs me out if I don’t post things speedily enough)


    1. Re: Hullo!

      Urk! Now the pressure is on to produce something worthwhile, versus a random collection of idiocy.

      Sorry about the comment section, I will see if I have any settings that make it easier to use.

      I tried not to specifically mention, “Spar,” even though it is a sore point for me. I read something else by Kij Johnson that I considered an order of magnitude better. I’ll try to find the link.

      I bet money it won’t win an award.


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