Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < Workshop Page < Resources for Writers < Craft <

Originally published on Madam Mayo blog, April 9, 2018

NO MATTER whether one is writing a thriller, a romance novel, or a literary tour-de-force of an historical epic, plot is something a writer needs to grok, before writing, during drafting, and in the editing process. Where to go, what to cut? For many writers, particularly those working on a first novel, plot can seem more difficult to wrestle down than a wigged-out octupus.

The best and most complete craftmans' treatment of plot that I have found to date is in Robert McKee's Story, a book aimed at screenwriters, but almost every one of his yummy nuggets applies to novels as well. That said, it's a big, fat, doorstopper of a crunchily crunchwich-with-garlic- sweetpotatoes-on-the-side kind of book, not the most appropriate for a one day workshop, as I prefer to teach them.

In my workshops, for a necessarily brief introduction to plot, I prefer to start with the chapter in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, which introduces the Fichtean curve, and then move on to Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which introduces the three-act paradigm (which also applies to fiction).

Gardner's On the Art of Fiction is the best introductory book on craft I know-- over the past 30-odd years I have read it and reread it more times than I can count (and bought new copies when the old ones fell to pieces). However, on many an occasion, before I learned to first give 'em ye olde cold fish of a caveat, the more sensitive among my students would complain bitterly about Gardner's arrogant tone. And to those of you not in my workshop but who who have read and loathed Gardner, I say unto you: Buck up, kiddos, or consider that Gardner did you a favor so you can quit now because the literary world, like the whole big wide rest of it, makes snowflakes sweat blood! Then flash-fries 'em to a crisp! Anyway, Gardner died in a motorcycle accident years ago so you're unlikely to ruffle his feathers with your cranky review on Goodreads-- which only makes you sound like a flaming snowflake. SSSSsssss.

Seriously, have a laugh, shake off Gardner's tone like the peacocking silliness that it is; if you want to understand the art of fiction, I urge you to read what he has to say. (Also, by the way, you can ignore the subtitle, Notes on Craft for Young Writers. It's for anyone writing fiction, at any age.)

Of course, in a workshop it is necessary to talk about plot in reference to one or more specific novels. But one of the gnarliest challenges for a workshop is that reading a novel requires many hours-- no time for that in a one day format-- and even the most well-read writers may not have read the same books, nor share the same taste. Perhaps we have all read Edith Wharton, but for you it was Ethan Fromm, for me, The Custom of the Country. Willa Cather? Perhaps you read My Antonia and I read Death Comes for the Archbishop. And, Lord knows, there are perfectly intelligent and talented workshop students who have not heard of either Cather or Wharton. Lord also knows that, much as we may recommend our favorite novels to each other, even we roaringly avid readers may work but a fraction of the way down our towering to-read piles.

What a fine thing then to have found a little book, a classic of childrens literature, so short and sweet, with such an expertly wrought plot as Russell Hoban's Bread and Jam for Frances.

But I cannot bring myself to do taxidermy, that is to say, a synopsis. For those of you looking to learn about plot (and/or find a worthy children's book as a gift for your favorite young reader), may I suggest that you buy a copy of Bread and Jam for Frances, then read it, which won't take you more than about 10 to fifteen minutes. Then return here, just below the triple hashtags.

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Bread and Jam through the FICHTEAN CURVE
Think of this as a triangle (curvy if you wish) where your story travels, episode-of-conflict by episode -of-conflict, up the hypotenuse to the big pointy CLIMAX. Then, with your denouement-- pronounced, raising your nose oh so slightly, day-noo-mahn-- slidey-slide down to...The End!

Episode o' conflict: At breakfast Frances does not want an egg; she only wants bread and jam.
E o' c: She admits she traded yesterday's chicken salad sandwich for bread and jam
E o' c: At lunch she offers to trade her bread and jam for a sandwich, is refused
E o' c: At snack time her mother gives her not a special snack but bread and jam
E o' c: For dinner there are veal cutlets but Frances gets... bread and jam

Climax: At the next dinner Frances cries and asks for spaghetti and meatballs!

Denouement: For lunch the next day Frances enjoys a lunch of a lobster salad sandwich and much more. She agrees with her friend Albert that it is good to eat many different things.

Bread and Jam through Syd Field's THREE ACT PARADIGM

Breakfast at home: Frances does not want her egg, only bread and jam. She admits she traded yesterday's lunch of a chicken salad sandwich for bread and jam
Plot point (what takes us to Act II): It's time for Frances to go to school

Lunch with Albert, Albert has a nice lunch while Frances has only bread and jam.
Snack time, it's still bread and jam.
Dinner, still bread and jam.
Dinner again, bread and jam
Plot point (what takes us to Act III): Frances cries and asks for meatballs and spaghetti

Frances enjoys her meatballs and spaghetti
The next day, Frances opens her lunch box to find a very nice lunch with a lobster salad sandwich and, with her friend Albert, discusses how nice it is to eat many things



Perchance this sounds silly. Am I saying that we can compare the simple little plot in Bread and Jam for Frances with that of such literary heavyweights as say, The Custom of the Country? Death Comes for the Archbishop? Or, for that matter, The Great Gatsby? Yes, dear writerly readers, that is what I am saying-- and moreover, that because the plot of Bread and Jam for Frances is so compact and simple, it is easier to see. And having seen it so clearly, you should then be better able to see plot in your own work.

What does your plot look like through the paradigm of the Fichtean curve? And of the three-acts?

Now your wigged-out octupus just might shed a few limbs, or at least, braid them together and sit up nicely and accept a cup of tea-- and in between sips, calmly inform you, in his bubbly French accent, what's to happen next. (Never a dull moment writing fiction.)

There are other ways of looking at plot, by the way, and one I cover in my workshops is the "Hero's Journey," a paradigm first eludicated by Joseph Campbell. The book I recommend on this subject is Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.