By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA
Once upon a time, there was a person. It was probably someone awesome yet relatable….
In Hollywood’s classroom movies, the teachers are so brilliant that students are inspired do things like hop onto desks and recite poetry. My own best teaching, by contrast, seems to grow from my shortcomings and failures. I’ve been teaching fiction writing at universities and writing conferences for years. Yet as a writer of fiction myself, I struggle with story structure. It is the way I fail as a writer over and over. And I want everyone to know it.
This awesome yet relatable person has a bevy of ongoing problems. Think: cruel stepmother and/or drinking problem and/or home on the San Andreas fault.
People harbor funny fantasies about the writing process. They picture themselves in cabins deep in the woods, typing like nobody’s business, just the clacking of keys and the crackle of a roaring fire. There may be a cable knit sweater and a pipe involved. In this fantasy, the story emerges whole. The only thing that slows the writer down is the speed of her knuckle joints. After a few weeks, the writer types the final words of a final page, leans back in the chair, arms folded, and smiles. It is all so perfect – the plot in the story, as well as the writer’s process of creating it. When things don’t go this way in reality, people become despondent. They whip their fisherman sweaters off and chuck them in the metaphorical fireplace.
The unsatisfying truth is that writing is messy and hard. While different writers struggle with different things, a feature that the majority seem to find challenging is story structure. For every finely crafted plot we encounter in a published book, the writer possibly drafted many poorly structured attempts to get there. How do we craft rising action, tension, a climax, a resolution?
One day, something really wonderful or really terrible happens for the awesome yet relatable person – a bag of cash, a bill collector, a love interest, a loose tooth.
It seems simple in its conception, but when a writer is in the throes of imagining a world from scratch, it is difficult to locate a clear conflict and journey for the main character. Why are we showing one moment from a character’s life and not another? How do these moments (or “scenes”) add up to something significant?
I love to create characters, and I think I’m good at doing that – crafting their thoughts and problems and memories. However, when I first start writing a story, I can’t get these imaginary people to move. They sit in their apartments and stare out windows and have deep thoughts. They smoke and chew gum and drink coffee. They regret and they long for things; they eavesdrop on their neighbors. They are a little like that person in the cabin. None of this, however, quite makes for a story. I have trouble with the – One day, something happened – part. Each story that I’ve eventually published has required me to navigate this problem, rewriting again and again in order to create a story rather than a character sketch. In other words, I have perhaps never learned the lessons of plot structure deeply enough to forgo writing crappy draft after crappy draft. But I have grown to accept that this is my process and to value what it allows me to offer new writers.
Wonderful or terrible circumstances prompt the awesome yet relatable person to do something totally new. She takes the subway, even though she is claustrophobic. Or at Thanksgiving dinner, she gives her stepfather exactly two minutes to button his pants. “I understand that they’re constricting,” she says. “Maybe you need a bigger size.”
Stories vary in the amount of plot they possess, of course. One story might involve a diamond heist that precipitates car chases and betrayals, while another might simply feature a character’s decision whether or not to take his late mother’s dresser to a pawnshop. A story usually needs at least a smidgeon of plot, though, to maintain momentum. A lot of writers are introverts, natural-born observers. So it can be hard for some of us to think in terms of action, even just a little bit of it.
One of the mental tricks I use on myself is to translate issues of plot structure into issues of character. I am more confident in my ability to create characters. So I tell myself that a story’s structure is nothing more than a series of decisions that a character makes. Therefore, a plot diagram – that familiar triangle of rising action with the climax at its peak – is simply a chart of those decisions. With students, I draw the diagram on the board and explain it in these terms.
Consequences ensue for the awesome yet relatable person’s choices. He is challenged to a duel. Or her coach morphs into a pumpkin before she gets home. Or he and his pal Scooby get locked into the doughnut factory where they have trespassed.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler has said, “A character has to want something so badly that it’s dangerous.” What I like about this quote is that the concept of danger can be so subjective. Danger is often in the eye of the beholder, related to experiences and personality. One character’s deepest fear might be of losing her job, while another’s might be of getting married. I just have to figure out what “danger” means for that person.
After I do that, I can contemplate what might be different on this particular day that would create vulnerability. (Did a meteorite fall on her workplace or fiancé?) This is the first point on the diagram. And after that, I can address what a character might do about all of this. These choices and their consequences can be represented by a series of points on the diagram – the rising action. Now my characters are finally out of their chairs! I don’t use the word action in my mind, so much as the word decision. A decision comes from the character, not from me. When I offer the characters decisions between doing X and doing Y, they have little trouble stubbing out those cigarettes and getting some fresh air. Will she choose to visit her fiancé in the hospital? Will she bring a Justice of the Peace and insist on a ceremony right there and then at the bedside? Or will she break things off, explaining that the meteorite was a sign from the cosmos?
The awesome yet relatable person faces a final decision in which something important is at stake. He chooses whether or not to use the Force when he takes his shot at the Death Star. Or he opts to confront the murderous uncle who usurped his father’s position instead of avoiding the whole thing by killing himself or, worse yet, co-existing with the guy forever in the castle, meeting up in the Great Hall on Turkey-Leg Tuesdays or whatever.
When I share my struggles and my strategies for navigating them, I think students feel less concerned later, when their own initial drafts aren’t quite where they wish they were. Many students notice that their drafts, like mine, may need a bit more attention to story structure. It is a common problem, and by sharing my struggles with it, I let them know that there’s no cause for alarm or embarrassment. We just have to roll up our (cable knit) sleeves and get back to work.
The awesome yet relatable person is spiritually renewed or diminished. Or could possibly be dead. In any case, things are stable. This new reality is represented by the image of [a sunset, a child, some space trash].
Students often say, “I’m not sure what I think should happen in this scene. I’m stuck.”
I say, “Try changing the phrasing of that concern. Perhaps you could contemplate what your character wants to happen in this scene instead of what you want to happen. What are her choices right now? And what might motivate her to pick one choice over the other?”
Often, the student goes quiet at this moment, eyes lit up with possibility. After a long moment, the student says, “Oh. I know what I’m going to do.” Or even better, the student simply turns away from me and starts typing.
After all, the best results from the classroom are quieter than in Hollywood movies, too – students write and revise and seek feedback and revise again. They virtually never stand on desks. They do sometimes get published.
End of story.
Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. Her latest collection of short stories, Get A Grip, was published in November 2015.