Posted by: kshayes513 | December 23, 2017

Writers Discuss Plot, Part 2 (Boskone 2015 Panel)

This is Part 2 of my write-up of a 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.]

In Part 1, the panelists discussed their own different approaches to plot, and the problem of making a plot or a plot event believable, especially in spec fiction. Part 2 continues:

Kelly said that the typical writer lists of “10 Magic Plot Tricks” don’t always work for all situations. If you are going to attend a writing workshop, the contract you make as a writer is that the story you bring must be malleable, not yet completed.  Durham said that Mary Robinette Kowal had a formula for teaching people to write stories, but that formula is only a starting point, [writing stories] is too individual to reduce to a formula.

Someone 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 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.

Kelly said that when you ask people to read your work, they mostly feel obligated to focus on what isn’t working, so they sometimes point out things that aren’t really very wrong with the story. He sees this happen all the time in workshops. But if multiple critiques from different readers all focus on the same issue in your story, then you probably do need to fix something.

The discussion moved on to how character decisions affect plot. One of the panelists said that characters making decisions with full agency (ie they’re in control of everything) can lead to a plot with no tension. Ideally the character should be making choices under pressure with only limited and bad choices available. What makes readers (and editors!) unhappy is when characters just dodge all the choices.

Kelly brought up characters other than the protagonist(s). Secondary characters make choices too, and those choices also can/should affect plot and the choices available to the main characters. Durham encouraged the idea of getting characters to make choices that seem surprising but on reflection also seem inevitable. Kelly said that you can sometimes pull that off with false foreshadowing. Underneath the false foreshadowing is the real stuff [that the reader will recognize later]

Someone asked about plotting short stories [and keeping the plots simple enough for short story length]. Kelly answered that every time you violate time and space (ie a change of location, or a character going from 7 years old to 20 to 90), there’s a demand for more narrative. So for a short story, keep a narrow focus in time and space. One classic short story plot is 2 characters in an existing relationship [of any kind, not just romantic], and a third character who messes up that relationship, or threatens it. The relationship between the 3 characters is what builds the plot.

Goss diverged from that suggestion, pointing out that some short stories don’t even have what one would call a plot. She thinks of a short story as having a shape. She needs to know the whole shape, the tensions, and how it moves. Perhaps most important, what is the point where everything changes? [I was taught in studying the short story many years ago, that a short story is about one single event of change that points everyone in a new direction]

A short story, Goss said, has many fewer characters and a much simpler setting than a novel. Within that limit, the arc of the story is the same as in a novel. Each chapter in a novel is a mini-story with its own arc.

Someone asked, how do you not lose the plot in the worldbuilding, where the world drives the plot? Goss suggested looking at how famous authors have done it. She uses the opening of The Hobbit to show how this works: Tolkien leads the reader as a guest through Bag End [talking all the while about Bilbo and the Bagginses, to create his ordinary world before Gandalf turns up.]

Usually, Goss said, we see the world as the character moves through it and see what the character sees. The opening of Game of Thrones (the novel) is an excellent example. Ned and Bran are talking about the execution. It feels like a completely natural father-son conversation, but it’s stacked with information about the world. And it’s multitasking because it’s also building relationships.

Durham added that this scene exemplifies a good way to lead a reader into a complex world, because it starts small with only a couple of characters. [How many epic fantasy novels have you encountered, where the author introduces a dozen characters with peculiar fantasy names, all in the first scene. And how many of those did you continue  reading?]

The panel concluded with the observation that plot is something that makes readers ask questions [so they will keep reading!]

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