Friday, January 27, 2006

A Publication, Character & Theme v Plot

Up today to a quiet morning and a little publication in New Zealand, a small magazine that both prints and publishes on the web at the same time.

Before I point at the story, here's where it came from.

Picture by Judith Wolfe

I advocate character-character-character and have written articles such as Plot is a Four-Letter Word and given talks such as "Never Mind the Plot: Feel the Character".

I believe absolutely that the key to good writing comes from allowing characters the space to act "independently of the author". I believe,though that the characters we choose and the way they react is NOT random or casual but that they come from the depths of us and are subtly, even if not consciously, "chosen".

I believe like Dorothea Brande argued, that what we see and react to matters to us, and that when we respond (again whether conscious or not) we do so with a tone, an attitude, a setting, and characters that are PRODUCED by the aches, responses, internal pressures.

Thus if we have a nagging feeling about writing something in-the-general-area-of, merely by coming up with a character and a start point (provided we let it happen and do not force it) those elements will directly connect to our ache/pressure.

Then, if we "write with light hands" our characters will do as we hoped and the theme of our stories will naturally emerge.

In the article above (and in other writings) I talked about how plotting consciously is cold, left-brained and almost always obvious. Apart from maybe a tenth of one per cent, so-called "ingenious" plots are rarely a real surprise.

I have often run a simple classroom exercise to show that plotting is crap.

I tell writing students this:

The ingredients are, a man, a woman, a car, two children, a stormy night, a hitchhiker, and an announcement on the radio that a lunatic has escaped from a local mental asylum.

I then ask the students to write an outline of their little story.

If you haven't done this, why not do it now before reading on?

Did you?

Students produce a number of obvious and typical plots. The most obvious is man and wife and their kids in car, storm, p/u hitch-hiker, random stuff, radio on, "Oh no. Madman!"

Then either they fight and man wins, fight and HH wins, fight and wife kills HH.

These plots (and a few variations) I call "The Big Match!"

Occasionally someone will have the same start, HH has lift, they let him out and THEN hear the message. I call that plot "PHEW!"

There are minor variations to the above. The driver is the lunatic, his wife is, one of the kids is, they ALL are, but it's still the same "Big Match!"

In larger classes, the occasional bright spark will attempt to do something else. Favourite is the plot I call "Oops!" Where the man kills the hitch-hiker only to hear the news that the lunatic was recaptured an hour ago.

But as a teacher, run this scenario past a few hundred students and what happens is predictable, WHEN STUDENTS PLOT.

What I ask is things like, "Why have you used all the ingredients? Did I say you HAD to? Why is every single story set IN THE CAR? Did I say it had to be? About 98% have the man and woman as spouses or partners? Did I say they were?

What nobody does is simply play with character and see what happens.

My story, just a fun little thing, is my example of using a character and winding up the mood (of the character but also the author) until the character (deep part of the author) appears to act spontaneously.

Before I leave to get some writing fone (already written 1200 words today) check out the nifty, quirky drawings Judith Wolfe creates for stories in the magazine

Hennesy Drives


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