The Plot’s the Thing

Plot has always been a particular challenge for me, and I know I’m not struggling alone. For step-by-step guidance on the process of plotting, I turn this month to John Gardner’s classic, The Art of Fiction. For this post, I excerpted and paraphrased pertinent passages while taking some superficial liberties with Gardner’s text. For example, when referring to the general writer, I substitute the feminine pronoun for the masculine throughout, letting she/her stand for both men and women. (This double application rationale is the same as the one given for using the masculine pronoun exclusively.) I do, however, assign a masculine pronoun to the general reader . . . just to play fair.

Now to the heart of the matter. When designing a short story plot, says Gardner, the writer may work backward causally from the climax or forward from an initial situation. (Any event that seems to the given writer startling or interest-laden can form the climax of a potential story.) Here, then, are the processes laid out by Gardner:

  • Plotting backward from the climax.

Let’s say the writer conceives the following climax: a woman deliberately runs over a traffic flagman on the street. To justify this climax, the writer must figure out what kind of woman would run over a traffic flagman on purpose, and why. Either she knows the flagman and has something personal against him, or she doesn’t know him, but sees him as a symbol (a male chauvinist, for instance).

Let’s say the woman doesn’t know the flagman. What central character might the author choose: a harried housewife, a tough female executive, a stripper? Let’s take the stripper. What pressure can the writer put on the stripper that will account for the climactic event?

Call the stripper Fanny. She’s thirty-six, well preserved, but finding it increasingly hard to compete with younger strippers. Fanny is an old-style performer, the kind who teases her male audience. She unclothes slowly with artistic style—a classic act that, like her body, is losing its appeal. Nakedness means nothing to the younger women. They take off their clothes indifferently, and their acts, because of their easy and uninhibited sexuality, have no need of artifice. Whereas Fanny grew up in Texas of stern Baptist stock and fled to burlesque in troubled defiance, the younger women grew up in cities like San Francisco and feel no such inner conflict.

Having worked out this preliminary sketch, the writer must now start figuring out the scenes. By Gardner’s rules of elegance and efficiency, she will choose the smallest number of scenes possible—perhaps three.

First, the writer might use a scene in which Fanny, fearfully and angrily, watches the rehearsal of a young stripper’s act. She can tell as she watches that, though the performance is technically shoddy, the stripper is being groomed as a starring act to push Fanny out of top billing.

In the next scene, Fanny might confront the manager and learn that her suspicions are well founded, whereupon she explodes into a rage. At the peak of this scene, Fanny might slap the manager, and to her amazement, the manager might slap her back, even fire her.

In the third scene, Fanny is driving along a street and happens upon the flagman. He smiles lewdly at her, thus provoking the climax: she runs him over. What happens in the denouement the writer will likely know only when she writes it. (Although some authors claim they know the final lines of their stories from the beginning, Gardner thinks this is a bad idea because it tends to produce fiction that is subtly forced or mechanical.)

  • Plotting forward from an initial situation.

Say the writer gets the idea, an initial situation, of a young Chinese teacher of English in San Francisco. She is kidnapped by a group of Chinese thugs who want her to write their history. Conflict must be established. The teacher must be given a will of hers own and a purpose opposed to that of hers captors. In other words, she must want—in some serious way—not to write their history.

What, the writer asks, would make the teacher so so unwilling to write the exploits of the thugs that she would defy them and risk her life? Perhaps she has her head full of the heroic legends of Mongolian bandits, and perhaps she’s not only a teacher but also a fiercely dedicated young poet, steeped in the tradition of Chinese verse. In this case, the history of a miserable gang that does nothing loftier than rob an occasional bank or two may so outrage her sense of art that she refuses to have anything to do with the project.

If the gang shoots her for her stubbornness, that’s the end of that; there’s no story. How can we keep the teacher alive and continue the story? Perhaps the teacher writes an insulting history, contrasting the petty escapades of her kidnappers with the exploits of great Mongolian bandits. Insofar as her captors want to be more like Mongolian outlaws—and they would not have kidnapped her and asked her to write their history if they did not take some pride in their deeds—the kidnappers may spare the teacher grudgingly, learning from her a heroic kind of banditry.

Eventually, it might occur to the ne’er-do-wells to rob a bank during rush-hour traffic in downtown San Francisco and escape mounted on horses, like legendary Mongolian outlaws. In this case, events lead to a comic-heroic climax of modern Mongolian bandits galloping across the Golden Gate Bridge in traditional regalia.

To sum up, whether writing backward from a climax or forward from an initial situation, the author must work out the causality of events in order to make the story convincing.


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