Narrative – Plotting – “Story”
With all the recent discussion in recent literary and artistic circles about “non-linear” thinking, you would think “linear” thinking is some sort of plague. Far from it, linear thinking (which has also been called “narrative thinking” at times) is one of the things that makes human experience possible. It is not exclusively important, but try to get through the day without it.
The writing of stories relies on linear thinking more than we care to admit. We experience one moment after another. We read one word after another: front to back, back to front, top to bottom, bottom to top, middle to either end – we read one word after another. In that way, reading is unlike a sculpture or painting, where we take in a number of aspects of the work of art at once.
As the words are read, so are they written: one after another.
Back to Aristotle: a story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end.
If that sounds too oppressive, consider the answer the Italian film director Michaelangelo Antonioni gave when he was asked if he agreed with that statement: “I agree that a story has to have a beginning, a middle and an ending – but not necessarily in that order.” (This quote has been attributed to several different people at several different times. This is who it was attributed to the first time I heard it.)
Once you learn how linear narrative works, you can have fun with it. The trick is not to complicate your story unnecessarily, or to do it for its own sake.
E. M. Forster described the pattern of a simple narrative: it’s progression of “And then, and then, and then…” John got up, and then he washed up, and then he called his wife, and then he took a taxi to the airport … Or the pattern can be much broader: John finished college, and then he took a job at the engineering firm, and then he met Ariadne…
If narrative in fiction were strictly chronological it would make things easier for us writers in some ways and duller in other ways. Duller for the readers too. Writing a story is more than just establishing a chronology.
“John never suspected that he was missing something in his life until he met Ariadne.” That could be the opening of a story. If it is, why should the story begin there and not when John finished college? Or better yet, when John was born? Or even better yet, when John’s parents were born? Why not begin with the Big Bang, where everything else did?
Because, perhaps, as Anton Chekhov would certainly point out, all of those events are not the story.
What the story is about, perhaps, is John’s encounter with Ariadne, and how that may or may not change his life. The meeting is the event that sets the wheels of the story turning. The background may be summarized quickly at a later point.
Some writers, in order to write their stories, have to figure out the chronology of events that occur in them. Some even have to work out the chronologies of what happens before and after their stories, and include complete biographies of all their major characters. For them, that’s part of the process of figuring out what is and what isn’t the story: put it all down and pull out the things you need. The rest stays off the finished page.
You can also start the story near the end of the events that form it: “John asked Ariadne, ‘What’s your answer?’ knowing his future depended upon how she replied.”
At that point, the story would back up and tell us not only the superficial facts, which lead up to the events in the story, but those events themselves. The whole story, in a sense, becomes a flashback – except for the crucial, climactic moment.
Putting an opening so near the decisive scene serves two potential purposes. First, it tightens up the story (flashbacks tend to be shorter than more chronological narratives). Second, it helps set a tone for the story and create dramatic tension (as we read about how John met Ariadne and what happened afterward, we already know that it will lead to this decisive moment in John’s life. The reader doesn’t have to ask, “Why am I reading about this guy? What’s so important about this Ariadne lady?”)
But story writing is more than narrative progression. It’s the engine that moves your story from event to event, sentence by sentence. The road (or the tracks, depending upon your metaphor) that determines where the story goes can be called the “plot.”
“Plot” has taken on a nasty connotation in our time as well, at least as far as “literary” people go. What’s usually objected to about plot is not so much “plot” itself as an overly artificial or forced structure to a story. Not all plots are artificial, or forced, or overdone. It isn’t necessarily true that plots are bad. It’s just that many of them are too obvious.
Plots are simply the paths stories have to take in order to exist. Without them all fiction becomes “And then, and then, and then…” A train with many stops but without a destination.
If John hadn’t met Ariadne his life would have gone on pretty much as expected. Ariadne is the person who forces him to reconsider everything: everything he’s done so far and everything he will do from here on.
Were it not for her, his life would have gone on in a straight line, and straight lines aren’t very interesting to fiction writers.
Stories occur when characters encounter dragons in the road, or anything else that keeps them from going along unimpeded.
Remember what I wrote in the first section, about Aristotle believing that energeia comes from pitting the character against the plot? Well, here it is. Here is the conflict.
John’s conflict isn’t necessarily with Ariadne. She may simply be a catalyst that forces John to evaluate his life. The conflict may exist only inside John: “Am I doing the right thing? Is this the right path I’ve chosen?”
It could be as simple as that (or as difficult, depending on how you view it). It might also have something to do with secret rocket plans, or mysterious murders, or infidelities . . . but it doesn’t have to. It might even be another version of a very, very old story, names and places changed with the times (Romeo and Juliet, which has been retold many times since Shakespeare’s day, was already a well-worn plot by the time Shakespeare picked it up).
It’s not so much the plot that matters as what you do with it. Much contemporary fiction that impresses readers as being plotless is not that at all – their plots are very well hidden, but they’re still there.
And what do you call what you do with it?
Well, if your ending resolves or closes the plot, moves the central character on past the dragon in the road (or sends him the other way running, or situates him in the dragon’s belly), or leaves him dissatisfied with Ariadne’s answer but at least knowing where to go from there, then you’ve got a story. It may be a great one or an awful one. It may need revision or it may be as perfect as anything can get in this world. No matter: it’s a story.
As an exercise, think of your trip to class tonight as a potential story situation (a story situation is when you’re able to establish all the basic elements of a story – except the resolution – in one neat bundle). How would you “narrate” your journey to class? Where would it begin? Where would it end? Were there any “obstacles” along the way that might have created some energeia?
As an alternate exercise, re-tell a folk tale, a fairy tale, or some other well-known story. Change the location, update the time period, the gender of the central character, or whatever else you might think would be interesting to change. Writers have been doing this from Chaucer to James Joyce, and the only thing that remains the same through all these permutations of plots is that every writer brings something different to the story: his or her own unique take on it.
As another alternate exercise, think of some conventional story genres that work upon expectations: murder mysteries have to have a murder; romances have to have two characters who fall in love; westerns have to have some gun play; space operas have to have young heroes who are fated to save the galaxy. Genres work on the expectations of the reader, and writers often labor in obscurity by giving their readers exactly what they want.
Instead, in this exercise, outline or roughly sketch out a genre story that fits with readers’ expectations, then introduce an element that doesn’t usually belong there. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein began as a gothic ghost story and turned into what many scholars believe is the first science fiction novel. Moby Dick began as another sea adventure and became something else altogether. The Name of the Rose started as a murder mystery in a medieval setting then becomes a metaphysical inquiry – or was it a philosophical inquiry that turned into a murder mystery?
The important thing is to play with the expectations of the form. Try to take the genre where it has never gone before.