Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Plot: Between Plan and Possibility

“A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be.”––Aristotle, Rhetoric and Poetics

Recently a writing friend asked me for my thoughts on plot. When writing should one start with a plan and faithfully follow it through to the end, she asked, or should one simply sit with one’s characters and hope a plot emerged from their actions to form a meaningful whole?

Yes, I told her. Regarding this question I have too many thoughts and all of them contradict.

First, early on in a project, any path is the right path. To begin, one must write, entering through action––writing as verb, not noun. Any step the writer chooses here will naturally lead to a next. Taking a first step is, therefore, of utmost importance.

Outline away, if that helps you. For me, however, the necessary fluidity required of prose is difficult to generate from such plans. In fact, an outline, especially in the early stages of a project can stifle surprise, and surprise is a worthy destination for writers and readers alike.

Perhaps it’s better then to begin writing, without agenda, and see where our sentences take us.

On the other hand, if a plan helps a writer begin, then by all means begin with a plan. And there are certainly some kinds of writing projects that demand it. Argumentative writing that depends on the careful development of a logic and fact, for example. And, I think, for some fiction writers creating inside of some genres, texts do need to unfold in precise and logical sequences of cause and effect, something Aristotle certainly championed.

Most importantly for our poor writing nerves, however, it helps to cultivate a constant awareness that much of how a story unfolds, how it wants to be written, is outside the writer’s control.

Perhaps it will ease anxiety if the writer first reads a lot about plot, and then sits down to write without any of what he read in mind.

Reading many texts about plot, one after another, each toppling the argument that preceded it, may be especially helpful. The following four texts complement each other in exactly this kind of delightfully cacophonous manner: The Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle; S/Z, by Roland Barthes, Reading for Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, by Peter Brooks; and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, by Helene Cixous.

Above all, we can trust that we are story-making beings. Archetypes and familiar narrative shapes seem to live within us, part of our biological structure transferred from one generation to the next along with our DNA. These living strands of history, culture, psychology, and biology may surprise us with the directions they want our stories to take, and something surprising is probably always better than the thing we planned.

Perhaps that is why writers get into so much trouble (and our stories quickly fall apart) when we try to impose an order on our prose, forcing it to make a meaning it doesn’t want to make. I find comfort in Barthes’ idea that the writer is only a small part of the reading experience. So our stories may, indeed, stagnate the more an Author (capital A) tries to exercise control.

At the same time, writing often includes a lot of apprehension for its initial creator, the writer herself, and having a place to land, even if it’s a shitty predictable spot in a well-travelled part of the swamp is better than no destination at all. It’s fine, even comforting, to head there as long as we’re ready to relinquish control of our creation once it starts moving somewhere else.

So, friend, write your story and see where it lands. Then be willing to play more and to relinquish control, and to establish a beginning, a middle, and an end in highest Aristotelian fashion, and be willing to do all of it at once!

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