Posted by: kshayes513 | December 17, 2017

Writers Discuss Plot, Part 1 (Boskone 2015 Panel)

Michael Fry’s “Over the Hedge”* gang provides more plotting tips.

Because I’m working on the basic plot outlines of the New Colorado novels right now, it seems a good time to revisit and share my notes on an excellent panel from Boskone 2015:

“Writers on Writing: Talking Plot with Stonecoast MFA Faculty” – a discussion featuring faculty members from University of Southern Maine’s MFA program. The panelists were David Anthony Durham, Theodora Goss, James Patrick Kelly, and moderator Allison Hartman Adams.

[Note: I’m writing this from hand-scribbled notes from almost 3 years ago. If I have made any errors in quoting the panelists or in who made a particular comment, I apologize. My own additions and comments to what was actually said are in brackets like this.]

The panelists began by talking about their own plotting processes. Kelly said his stories start with either a character or an idea, which leads him into a story. He described himself as a “headlight writer” – someone who can only see a little way ahead as he writes his way through a story.

Goss, noting that she grew up reading Agatha Christie, said “I plot like a mystery writer, I like a tightly plotted story” – which she defined as a story where all the pieces are connected, though the reader may not be able to see the connections until the end. Someone mentioned a famous EM Forster quote: “‘The king died and the queen died’ is story. ‘The king died, and the queen died of grief’ is plot.” Plot shows cause and effect. Goss added that plot is also what pulls you along, or suspense, which happens in the shape of the story.

Durham, who had recently completed a novel about Spartacus, talked about the challenges of a plot whose shape is constrained by known historical events. “How do I get my characters through those events?” The plot here is very much about how characters react to events and shape the plot going forward. He observed that you don’t always know your characters well when you start, and as you get to know them, you realize that they won’t react to some events the way you originally conceived. He said he had a tight plot by the time he was done, with all the pieces fitting tightly like a jigsaw.

Kelly asked him about plotting Spartacus compared to plotting his Acacia fantasy trilogy. Durham said Spartacus was much harder to write because of its known events and a bad ending (for the characters!). This made it hard to tell the story in a satisfying way. He said that with his other novels, he tends to get the last scene early in the process, but doesn’t know how he’s going to get there.

Kelly marked out the difference between the climax and the denouement: the denouement is how the author tells the audience what they should be thinking about as they turn the last page. He does more rewriting with his denouements.

The moderator asked everyone if there is  a key to believability in plot. Durham answered, what makes the plot work is the authenticity of the characters in reacting to events in the plot. [See my post on the TV series Sleepy Hollow for more on this.] New writers often have trouble hearing that their character would not react “according to the plot.”

Someone [in the audience?] said that she had put accurate historical facts into a story about the Crusades, and her beta readers did not believe it. The solution, said the panel, is to do more more worldbuilding to create a world where people will believe those facts.  Durham said the writer has to find a way to fictionalize them so that unbelievable reality seems inevitable.

Someone asked what is “believable” in an imaginary, created universe? Goss said that the story has to be believable within the world you have created. Or to put it another way, the reader has to first believe in that world, then they can believe in the characters and the story.

Kelly added that in this new age of mixed genres, the notion of believable is very fluid.  “What’s believable in a slipstream story?” he asked. Slipstream challenges the idea that believability is essential in a story.

Durham mentioned Kafta’s Metamorphosis as an example. If Gregor turns into a giant cockroach, the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know why. We just want to believe how he reacts. Kafka uses incredible craft and detail to make it work. Which, as someone pointed out, is technique, not plot.

In Part 2, coming next week, the panel talks about learning the writing craft, the relationship between character and plot, plotting in short stories vs novels, and more.

*Note: The comic strip above is a favorite from Michael Fry’s “Over the Hedge,” Find more on his blog:
(Yes, the animated movie was based on these characters. I’d bet a truckload of pie that it’s not anywhere near as witty or entertaining as the strip.)

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