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
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
which introduces the three-act paradigm (which also applies to
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
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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