*Check out my guest blog post for Brevity Magazine!*
Sometimes it really pisses me off that I got my MFA in Fiction Writing so I could learn to write better novels, but all my MFA taught me was how to write literary short stories. In my classes we rarely mentioned one of the most important aspects of a novel, or of any story, really: the plot. And as I now struggle to write and revise novels, I realize that lessons on plot is what I sorely need.
It seems to be the thing a lot of “literary” writers need help with. At the recent AWP conference, panels on plot and structuring the novel were packed, but even the panelists seemed baffled by the topic. “With my first novel, the structure just sort of emerged by accident,” one writer said. “Now I’m two-hundred and fifty pages into my second novel, and I don’t know what the story is. I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
I sat in the audience with my pen poised, ready to take notes, but all of the panelists gave similar, vague anecdotes.
“I write until I see a shape emerge. Then I chip away at it, like a sculptor,” one of them said. Gee, so helpful.
I’ve been reading a lot of books lately about story structure. Unlike the AWP panels, these books are specific and prescriptive. Perhaps a little too much so. Each book has it’s own tried-and-true plot “formula,” whether it’s the “three-act structure,” the “Hero’s Journey,” or the “cause-and-effect chain.” These ideas are helpful, but I find myself trying to follow every single guideline from every single book, which is both impossible and paralyzing.
Yesterday, I was going over all my notes on plot and feeling overwhelmed as to how to structure my novel, when I got an email from my friend Daniel Wallace, writer of the blog, The Incompetent Writer. In the email, he summed up the plot structure of a good story in a few simple sentences, which he attributed to John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. :
A character is morally flawed in some way. At the start of the story, she desperately desires something and struggles to get it, facing increased set- backs. But as she struggles, the evidence accumulates that what she really needs is something more important than getting the thing she desires. Her moral need is what is really at stake, not the thing she desires.
This summary fits with most of the plot formulas I’ve read about (another writer succinctly described plot to me as “put your character up a tree, throw rocks at her, then get her back down.) To help myself understand plot even better, I am going to put my own story into a plot “formula.” See below…
THE STORY OF EVA’S WRITING CAREER:
Premise: Eva’s moral flaw is that she is looking for validation from external sources instead of finding acceptance within herself. She thinks she must have commercial success with a novel in order to be satisfied with her writing.
She desperately desires to write a novel that is published by a major publisher and to make money from her writing.
Exposition: Eva has always loved to write and imagines herself a famous novelist.
Inciting Incident/Turning Point 1: At age 24, Eva quits her job as a math teacher to write a novel. She is confident that she will have success with her writing by the time she’s 30.
Setback 1: She writes a novel, but it isn’t as good as she’d like it to be.
Setback 2: She gets her MFA in Fiction Writing, but the MFA teaches her to write short stories, not novels. She graduates feeling more unsure of her novel-writing abilities than she was before.
Setback 3: Feeling scared for her future and embarrassed at her lack of success, she goes back to teaching full-time, abandoning writing.
Setback 4: She turns 30 and feels depressed about her life.
Turning Point 2: She quits her teaching job and announces to the world that she is focusing on writing.
Momentary Triumph: She writes a novel and gets some positive feedback from agents.
Setback 5/Darkest Point: She does not land an agent. She writes two more novels, and they are both lacking in plot. She feels like a failure. She worries about her future. She wonders if she will ever have any success as a novelist, or if she should give up and find a different career.
Turning Point 3/Choice: She decides not to give up on writing. She buckles down and begins to work as hard as she can to make her dream a reality.
**This is where I am right now in the story. So what will happen in Act 3?
Daniel says there are several things that can happen at the end of a story.
#1 She gets the thing she wants but fails to see the moral need. Callous, he says, but perhaps satisfying.
#2 She sees the moral need, changes as a person, and uses her new-found better nature to get the thing she wants. This is a crowd-pleasing success story.
#3 She gives up the search for the thing she wanted and is happier for it. This, he says, is a meditative redemption story.
#4 She sees the moral need, gives up the thing she wants, and suffers for losing it. This is a tragedy. (Doing the right thing and suffering for it.)
Of course, I’m hoping that the end of my story will be Option #2. Here’s how I imagine it might go…
Self-Realization: Eva finally gets an agent and a novel published, but she doesn’t much care for the book, or her agent, and her novel goes largely unrecognized. She realizes that even with a published novel, she still continues to struggle with feelings of validation.
Eva realizes that she has been placing too high an importance on getting published and having external success. Writing should not be about money or validation or her own success. It should be about writing the books people need to read. In her case, she wants to write in an engaging way about some of the difficulties young women face when it comes to sex, body-image, and self-esteem. She writes passionately about these topics, and in a way that she thinks publishers might like. Not because she wants huge success, but because she wants her books to go out into the world and be read by young women who might need to read them.
CLIMAX: Once she stops worrying quite so much about her own success, she writes a book of which she is proud and feels internal validation for her efforts. Due to her hard work and open heart, the universe smiles upon her. She finds a new agent, gets her book published and begins a true career as a novelist.
New Equilibrium: Eva happily writes more novels, and although she doesn’t make much money from them, she likes her novels, and she has a fan-base who likes them, too. She sometimes gets emails or Twitter shout-outs from young women who tell her how much they enjoy or appreciate her books. She feels confident about her writing abilities because she has found acceptance inside of herself.
So that’s the outline. I still feel like I have a long way to go before I get to the end…