Feeding the Plot-Starved

On the heels of consuming several smarty pants books, I’m hungry for plot candy. Now feed me a story with action, imagination, and maybe a little sweet romance, please.

Don’t get me wrong. I love good character-driven literary fiction, too. I mean, I just finished a marvelously lyrical memoir by Sonja Livingston called Ghostbread. Beautiful, award-winning story about a girl growing up in poverty in 1970s New York (upstate).

But I don’t always want to notice the lovely writing or be asked to think deeply about subtext or ponder the questions of human existence. Or maybe I do, I just want to have fun while I’m doing it.

Enter Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi. Yeah, it is another Young Adult dystopian romance. But it’s super awesome. And the characters are so delightful that I’m still thinking about the male lead, Perry, and it’s been two days.

That’s become one of my barometers for good fiction: memorability.  The more I read, the more I’ve started judging stories based on what I remember and how well I remember them days later. 

A few examples from recent reads…
  • I can’t recall everything that happened in Catcher in the Rye, but I can’t forget lousy, crumby, phony old Holden.
  • From Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Blankets, the feelings of sexual and artistic frustration stick with me, as do a few visually compelling images and scenes, while many details are now fuzzy.
  • Repeated scenes of being abandoned in a well are what sticks with me from Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

See what I mean?

I try to keep this concept in mind when I’m writing, and as I evaluate the strength of the things I’ve written.

One of my characters, Mary, is a young girl constantly getting herself into trouble. Her family’s half-crazy. She’s discovering aspects of the world and herself, but always seems surprised to find this stuff out. I recently wrote a scene about Mary in high school learning about sex and her own body while talking on the phone.

While writing, I got so uncomfortable I wanted to crawl out of my skin. But now that uncomfortable-ness is the thing I most like (and remember) about the piece.

I had the opportunity recently to read the story out loud and was thrilled to have validation from others who appreciated that inherent tension in. I hope it was memorable.

In other pieces I’ve written, I may like the humor in a story about Mary’s Great Aunt Dee or parts of  a family reunion story, but character and humor alone is not enough to make a story memorable. Especially when there’s not plot.

Here’s the sad truth: as much as I’m a plot-junkie as a reader, I struggle to write a compelling story myself.

I hover around story, but can’t fully get there. I feel like one of those penny’s you throw in those giant plastic donation cones. The penny swirls around and around a zillion times. slowly working it’s way down, then eventually drops through the hole in the middle. I’m always circling around story, but never actually falling into it.

I have a writing friend who says story is unnatural. That life doesn’t happen the way we like stories to, so we have to learn how to construct these alien things. Maybe that’s true.

Sometimes I feel like the spoken work is an easier medium for me to communicate. When I’m in a conversation, I can spin plot-driven stories or get to  great moments of epiphany, and I think, I should write that into a story.

But then I don’t. Or if I do, it doesn’t work the same way. My stories rarely contain great moments of epiphany.

Remember that kids game of “fishing” they usually have at spaghetti feeds or school fundraisers or tiny local fairs? The ones where adults hide behind a curtain and kids hang these sticks with a string and clothes pin over the edge, hoping a “fish” will bite? The adult pinches the clothes pin onto a prize and gives the pole a good yank, pretending to be a fish, and yells, “you’ve got something” to cue the kid to pull up the pole and retrieve the prize.

But there were always those times when none of the adults would see some poor kid’s string. Like maybe she was standing on the very edge or something. She’d just wait and wait, feeling like a shmuck while other kids would pull up their prizes.

That is a long way of saying I feel like one of those prize-wanting kids. Like I keep hanging my pole over the edge, waiting for a story that never comes. I mean, I’m not just waiting, really, I do keep pulling it out and recasting–I am always writing–but still, no good plot. And I’m not sure what else I can do.

Maybe I’m thinking of this process all wrong.

Here’s where I go back to memorable stories I’ve read–stories like Under the Never Sky that have clippy plots and idiosyncratic characters and cool stuff happening. I analyze. What kinds things kept me reading? What do I remember afterwards? Often the best stories deal with things I’m deeply afraid of and characters who find the courage to act in some important way.

I think, maybe I should list of all my fears and write about one. But still, will I find story? Can I wield a plot? Now there’s a big fear.

My own writing strengths include being able to put a sentence together, crafting moments of good imagery, and the ability to create strong characters. But my stories (or lack of) are shit. And there’s no moving subtext. Half the time, I’m not even sure what the thing is about. That’s not good, of course. My ability to “write intentionally” needs work.

I’m not defeated or anything–I’ll keep reading and analyzing and writing and learning. I just feel sorta blind sometimes.

Like the kid who doesn’t know what’s behind that curtain at the spaghetti feed, but keeps throwing her line over anyway because she’s seen other kids do it and they left with a prize.

Or maybe I’ll just hit myself on the head with the clothes pin.

5 thoughts on “Feeding the Plot-Starved

  1. “While writing, I got so uncomfortable I wanted to crawl out of my skin.”

    I’ve completely had this sort of emotional reaction to something I’m writing. After I got medically discharged from the Army in 2009 I wrote this satirical short story about this veteran on his death bed in a VA hospital. He gets this letter while he’s there from Dick Cheney asking him if he’d be willing to donate his heart to Dick when he dies. See, I was super jaded about my military experience and so writing the story was like being able to totally chew somebody out for how I felt. The bummer thing was that it took me forever to get someone to publish the dang thing.

    • Hi Scott,
      Thanks for your comment. Would love for you to share a link to your story. The letter from Dick Cheney idea sounds fabulous. What a great story premise!

      I feel the same way that writing can open up a space to explore how you feel about an experience and/or “get it out,”

      Congrats on the publication and I look forward to reading it.

      • I have a copy of the magazine but I’ll have to scan it because they don;t have an online version. I’ve been meaning to do it anyways so this gives me a reason to do it!

  2. I really liked what you said about memorability as a measure for how good a novel is. You’re totally right: I forget every last detail about the bad books but remember lots of things –a character, a really awesome scene, the climax– about the books I love most. I’m going to try to go into my own writing thinking like that.

    Also, I have the same problem coming up with a plot. I had the premise of the novel I’m currently writing for a good year before I figured out a plot to make it work. And even after I started writing, I was figuring out elements of the plot as I wrote. It’s much easier to come up with a cool premise than details to flesh it out and make it a full story/novel.

    Good luck! I’m sure your stories are not shit! Writers are always critical of their writing.

  3. Thanks, Aubrey, for your comment! Let me know how it goes for you with plotting. Like you, I usually figure things out as I go along. But my process often leaves me with a bunch of extra boring stuff that needs to be cut or rewritten (which I think is normal).

    Some people try to plot every last detail before they write, but that would suck. I like going on adventures with the characters and if I knew everything before it happened, well, that would wreck the fun.

    Lately, I’ve been writing short stories (to practice beginnings, middles, and ends). I’ve abandoned several half-baked novels, but I’m about to get serious. I’m in my first year in an MFA program and would like to have a finished novel manuscript when I graduate. All it takes is more butt-in-seat time. (At least that’s what I tell myself.)

    Can’t wait to read what you write. Best of luck!

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