So okay, I’m off the road a bit. Too much to do at the moment to begin Purgatory Ridge.
Among the many things on my plate has been preparation for the Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State in Muncie, Indiana. It’s a great workshop opportunity for writers in early career wanting to hone their skills and move their work toward publication. Among the workshops I teach is an all-day intensive session that focuses primarily on Plot and Narrative. It’s a session I love giving.
Honestly, for me, plot has always been the least important element of my books, but it’s the element I spend the most time worrying about, for this reason: For most of us, life, generally speaking, doesn’t have plot. Things just happen, and more often than not, they happen in a chaotic way. Or they happen in a plodding way. They don’t have a dynamic, grabber of an opening. They don’t have someone behind the scenes pulling strings you can’t see. They don’t have dark motives or deadly consequences. And they don’t wrap up neatly in the end. All this is plot, and mostly it’s false. But it’s probably what the majority of readers think about when they hear the word “story.”
Me, I think about all the other elements of story—language, character, setting, voice, for example, which are all aspects of narrative—and all of these seem to rise naturally from my own experience. Although in my writing I try to use language in an interesting and powerful way, it’s still the medium for all my daily communication. Every day I run into interesting people and work at analyzing their character. In my stories, for settings I use the places I know well and that move me. And I don’t know about other people, but I’m always internally narrating my life, so voice is always in my head. These things come to me naturally.
But plot doesn’t. Plot I have to think about, calculate, construct. Usually, I think my plots out in advance, launching into the writing of the story only after I’ve been able to see the entire architecture and feel comfortable that all the pieces are in place and the plot is going to hold together. But sometimes—and I’m there right now with my current project—I realize that the underlying motive is too weak to provide a good, believable foundation for all the action it’s supposed to support. And I’m worried. And I hate worrying.
Clever plots are interesting, but not as interesting as characters that ring true, relationships I can understand, settings I can see and feel and smell, or language that’s so good it makes my teeth hurt. When I think about the books I love—To Kill a Mockingbird. The Great Gatsby. Mystic River. In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead—I realize I love them not so much for the story they tell, but for the way in which they tell the story.