Tag Archives: The Art of Fiction

The Plot’s the Thing, Part Two

This month I turn again to John Gardner for inspiration, paraphrasing his comments on plot generation in The Art of Fiction. Last time, we talked mainly about short story plotting. As Gardner points out, writers labor over plot (as if we didn’t already know!). Trying out one approach after another, they often find that an idea for a short story morphs into an idea for a novella (between 30,000 and 50,000 words) or even a novel.

Shaping the Novella

  1. Most novellas consist of a single stream of action focused on one character and moving through a series of rising actions. We find this structure in Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” and William Faulkner’s “The Bear.”
  2. Some novellas are what Gardner calls “baby novels”: they shift from one focal character to another and incorporate episodes with intervening time breaks instead of a continuous stream of action. D. H. Lawrence’s “The Fox” uses this more complicated form, which accommodates a range of styles and a longer time span than is customary in the novella. On the down side, the progress of separate events produces less urgency than one continuous action.
  3. Another possible structure is fictional pointillism, used masterfully, says Gardner, by William Gass in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In this form the author abandons causal sequence and unfolds the story in what Gardner calls “snippets,” with feeling serving as the basic principle of assemblage: the writer shuffles and reshuffles fragments to find the most moving presentation, achieving narrative climax through poetic force. As it depends largely on emotive texture, this structure carries the risk of sentimentality.

Novella and Novel Compared

In general, the novella treats one character and one important action. A good novella, whatever its structure, has an effect that Gardner likens to a musical tone poem in that it traces a single emotional line, at the end of which the world is radically changed for the protagonist. Paul Grenfel at the end of D. H. Lawrence’s novella has won his woman and killed the fox. The bear, at the end of Faulkner’s novella, is gone, and Ike McCaslin is changed forever.

The novel, on the other hand, abounds in complexity; the reader encounters various characters and multiple actions. Like a symphony, its closing movement echoes with all the characters, events, images and motifs that have gone before, and unexpected connections emerge. According to Gardner, the novel exists for this closing orchestration. When it does not occur, the reader feels cheated.

Approaches to Plotting the Novel

Gardner is quick to point out that there’s no one way to organize a novel. A writer may choose to build her novel–

  1. by a sequence of causally related events through exposition, development, and resolution.
  2. by juxtaposition: Event A does not cause Event B but stands in some logical relation to it. This kind of novel develops argumentatively, leading point by point to some conclusion. Think Gulliver’s Travels and Dante’s Inferno.
  3. by lyrical repetition, that is, by some essentially musical principle, such as we find in the novels of Virginia Woolf. What carries the reader forward in the lyrical novel is some form of rhythmic repetition of a key image or event, the repetition deepening and redefining its meaning with each return. This form, says Gardner, parallels the play of the wandering mind and so lends itself to psychological narrative.

Additional Plot Structures

The Art of Fiction, richly instructive, covers a number of other plot designs as well. One is the picaresque plot, which follows some character, often a clever rascal, through various levels of society, showing us the flaws and absurdities of each. Another is the allegorical plot (found in almost all quest tales), which proceeds by symbolic juxtaposition, transforming ideas into appropriate characters and generating events that express the relationship between these ideas.

We have, too, expressionistic and surreal fictions, which resemble allegory only superficially, their meaning being far less imposed from without. The expressionist translates some basic psychological reality into actuality: Gregor Samsa becomes not like a cockroach; he becomes a cockroach, and from that point the story develops realistically. In surreal fiction, the writer translates an entire sequence of psychological events into actuality, developing the story as the mind reels out dreams, plotting to a climax as in a realistic fiction.

As must be obvious by now, plotting is a Hydra of a topic that sprouts multiple offspring. But enough said. Starting next month, we’ll move on to other aspects of writing fiction.