A Poetics of Fiction

Composed from forty years of experience of editing and teaching, A Poetics includes:

  • An introduction explaining the principles underlying the book: how writers read and teach themselves to write.
  • Six Chapters on the Formal Elements of Fiction: Diction, Point of View, Characterization, Patterns of Imagery, Plot, and Theme.
  • Many practical examples from American Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks, and from other works by well-known writers.
  • Advice on Beginnings, Endings, Narration, Dialogue, and other useful topics.
  • A Bibliography as a guide to readers for further study.
A Poetics contains a detailed and comprehensive pattern for study of creative writing, including a great deal of practical knowledge not generally available elsewhere. Students who have received their MFA degrees and/or attended prestigious writing conferences around the country routinely find that the information gained from this pattern of study goes far beyond any other approach to the study of creative writing.

410 pages, 6 x 9, in paperback.

Price: $225.00

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Samples from A Poetics of Fiction

Point of view is the term of art that describes the person and perspective from which a story is narrated. The categories of point of view, as ordinarily defined in English classes and textbooks, are first person (I), second person (you), limited or close third person (he, she—wherein the viewpoint is that of a central character), and third-person omniscient (wherein the author, or a narrative persona created by the author, provides an overarching or encompassing point of view capable of shifting between and illuminating the points of view of multiple characters).
An Overview: Common Ideas and Misconceptions
In English and creative writing classes over the past fifty years, students have often been instructed that once a particular point of view has been established in a story, that point of view should never be deviated from or broken. The explanation given for the rule is that if point of view is not maintained consistently, the reader will be disoriented and the story’s necessary illusion of reality will be ruined. While correct in principle, and often in practice, this teaching has led to general misunderstandings and oversimplifications of point of view. For many student writers, point of view may seem a monolithic or mechanical apparatus, not easily moved once put in place, and best left alone. Or, if it is to be shifted, it is to be done only at a major transition—a chapter break in a book or at the line space between sections of a story, for instance. Likewise, student writers often work with the unexamined premise that a story’s narrative point of view is identical to the point of view of the primary character. So, for example, the working premise would be that in a first-person story, the I who is the narrator is the same individual and has the identical point of view as the I who is the main character, or that in a limited-third-person narration, the reader receives only the immediate perspective of the he or she main character—in either case, first person or third person, the writer would seem to be allowed to tell the reader only what the character directly experienced and knew at the time of the events or knew from an earlier time. Other common misconceptions and exaggerated ideas about point of view include: the writer must avoid direct authorial statement to the reader; only the points of view of main characters who are “moving” rather than “fixed” should be conveyed; the categories of point of view are mutually exclusive of each other, so that, for instance, a first-person narrator cannot narrate omnisciently. In each of these statements, there is a measure of truth, and a sensitive, intelligent writer adhering to them will write successfully; however, an attentive reading of classic and worthwhile contemporary fiction quickly reveals a greater fluidity, flexibility, and lifelike spontaneity in the use of point of view and encourages an expansive interpretation of ordinary teachings about point of view.
Why Point of View Is Ordinarily Taught in a Categorical Manner
There are several reasons for the dominance of conventional ideas about point of view. Some readers and writers are confused, if not offended, by shifts in point of view and by the presentation of multiple points of view in a single work, and indeed, if a reader is intended to attach to a story by virtue of identification with a single, main character, then a unitary point of view may be expedient. Likewise, some readers and, to a lesser extent, some writers are opposed to the idea that one individual can know the mind, inner life, or point of view of another individual, and thus multiple points of view mediated by an omniscient narrator seem to be implausible. However, the primary reason for categorical definitions and rules for the use of point of view is the reasonable intention of making a complex element of fiction clear and manageable for student writers.
Developing a Broader Understanding of Point of View
The basis of art is limitation. No single work of art can do everything or contain all of life. Successful works of art achieve their effects by virtue of the artist’s choices from among all the possibilities of life and by the artist’s proficient use of technique to create a design that was not otherwise apparent or did not exist until the work of art came into being. A fiction writer who is learning the art may be wise to begin with a few basic techniques rather than with many or advanced ones and with a more limited scope than can be employed after the writer gains experience, confidence, and mastery. Each writer comes to the task with certain given talents that require little or no study to apply skillfully on the page. For instance, some writers are gifted in the use of point of view and need give it little deliberation. That is to say, some writers, as they look around at the world, easily perceive the points of view of other individuals and can, as if effortlessly, express and accurately interpret these points of view. Such perception does not depend on other individuals directly explaining themselves to the writer but on observation, intuition, imagination, sympathy, thought, and an abiding interest in human nature.

The term perspective connotes an awareness of the true relationship that one thing bears to another; as a facet of point of view, perspective indicates a recognition of the cause-and-effect basis of human interactions and of the way character influences fate. The earliest Greek plays were one-character plays. Gradually, as the form developed, characters and subplots were added. And, as the millennia have passed, literary art has moved beyond viewing humankind, or its representative hero, as being consigned to fate. Instead, today’s fiction describes individual action on par with fate, if not predominant over it. Consequently, character determines the plot of most stories today rather than, as Aristotle noted two thousand years ago, plot determining character. Written storytelling has evolved from the fated one-character (heroic) dramas of Greek tragedy and comedy into today’s multiple-character stories expressive of a psychological and pluralistic world, and, in like manner, young or beginning writers typically evolve from writing one-character, limited-point-of-view stories to attempting stories of broader scope. This is not to say that one-character, limited-point-of-view stories cannot strike deep nor that some great writers have not built a life’s work of stories and books in which genius lies in the thorough expression of a single type of character and point of view. However, in such bodies of work the singleness of type is most often an expression of the author’s own type, whereas in the work of writers who can step outside their personal stories, one recognizes a greater, more encompassing perspective that provides a writer the freedom and insight to draw inspiration from diverse sources and to cast material, as needed, on wholly invented, original story lines not determined (or overdetermined) by the writer’s personal history.

Mortality: Time in the Lines
Successful writing depends on a strong, continuous sense of time flowing forward. A reader’s most profound awareness is of his or her own mortality; and for a reader to suspend his or her life in favor of words on a page, the words must produce a sense of mortality as great, or greater, than the reader’s own.

In creating a written work, an author must, from the first word, create time. This effect is initially achieved by the rhythm and meter of the lines and then must be sustained and played out through the structure of the piece. If the sense of time flowing forward in a piece stops—that is, if the clock stops—the piece loses its mortal connection to the reader and, in effect, dies.

The heartbeat is the syllable, the breath is the line.

An unborn infant growing in its mother’s womb listens to her mothers’ breaths and heartbeats and to its own heartbeats threading with its mother’s. At birth, there is the infant’s first breath and cry and the solo beats of its heart. Our constant knowledge of life and death flows from our breaths and heartbeats—we are never far from this truth, and it provides the thread of story, of narrative.

Writing, like speech, is physical. The muscular activity of uttering sound is at one with the emotional and intellectual experience of life. Words proceed from a unity of mind, body, idea, and emotion. Before words reach the page, the writer locates the core of each rhythmic phrase and lets it come to life so that it touches and quickens the reader’s heart. Without this connection between writer and reader, the other elements of writing fall flat.

Rhythm may be defined as a regularly patterned flow of sounds or movements; it is the repetition of time in a perceptible pattern—the ticking of the clock, the pulse of the heart, the flow of human voices. Rhythmic sound creates a temporal pattern; rhythmic movement creates both a temporal and a spatial pattern. In literature, words create sound and movement—a lyric, formal effect.

The lyric aspect of writing is its songlike or musical quality, the light, flexible play of sounds through which emotions are expressed. Writers whose gift is lyric—that is, who have a good ear and whose experience of language is felt—may need give little thought to diction, unless to take care not to rely on lyricism in lieu of employing other elements, such as plot and point of view, to create successfully structured, modulated work.

The music in writing should be inseparable from the meanings and emotional associations of the words. Expressiveness, not solely musicality, is the function of literature.

In lyric writing, the prominence of vowel sounds creates a melodious effect, while the prominence of consonant sounds creates a staccato one. A writer may create these and other musical effects at will, but if the musicality is for its own sake, it becomes meaningless, or if it is insistent, it smothers meaning. Writing should be tactfully, subtly, variously musical, according to the meaning it expresses.

Writers who come to the task without a natural talent for lyricism can improve their work by listening carefully to the rhythmic movement of language and by paying close attention to the connection between the meaning of the words and their sound not only as intelligible sounds but also as felt utterance or instrumental performance. In workshops, I often ask students to read their work aloud, and sometimes when a piece isn’t working well, I stop listening to the words and listen instead to the thrum of the voice. Is it coming from the head only, or is it coming from the center of the body, from the heart and loins and stomach as well as the head? What are the moods, prevailing emotions, needs, or desires being expressed? Do they correlate naturally and spontaneously, with the words riding the rhythms, or are the words and rhythms forced, and if so, why, and how might the utterance be improved? How might the writer come in closer contact with the impulses driving the work and make more conscious, or at least effective, choices about the play of language?

Rhythm initiates a form that the words fall into and focuses the reader’s attention. The effect of rhythm is to make the reader feel the emotional truth of the story. If the rhythms are authentic (lifelike), then the reader directly experiences the pain, grief, joy, and other emotions of the characters.

Imagining the Characters
The root word of imagination is image. Images are pictures. Imagination = images in motion, moving pictures of characters. Before a character can exist for a reader, the character must first come alive in the writer’s imagination. The writer pictures the character in sustained movements of plot—what the characters would inevitably or probably do (essential action). The movements are consequential. The pictures are active—that is, characterization depends on animation rather than still portraiture. The sequence of pictures develops causally, and the character lives out a destiny that has been imagined and, then, interpreted in words.

Would-be writers, especially those working from autobiographical or found material, sometimes lament their lack of imagination. However, they don’t lack imagination so much as misconceive it. Every sentient person has a constantly active imagination that unifies sensory data into recognizable patterns—the image of a familiar face, for instance. This involuntary imagination is reproductive—it repeats and copies what already exists in the world—and operates in writers who employ it unawares to lift material directly from life. By comparison, the artistic imagination is productive—it takes raw material provided by involuntary imagination and creates images and patterns that did not previously exist. The artistic imagination is a willed, directed process that involves not only the habit of forming mental pictures but also an increased level of awareness that engages the totality of self—intellect, judgment, emotion, and moral sense.

The statement “art imitates life” expresses a distinction between an imitation and a copy. At first a copy seems identical to the real thing but on closer inspection reveals its differences. It has a lower order of being. An imitation shows immediate, obvious differences from the real thing but produces in the observer an effect of development or imaginative movement toward sameness. Imaginative movement in the creation of characters produces drama.

Don’t Protect Your Characters
A writer must be careful not to give preferential treatment to some characters over others at the cost of drama. It frequently happens that a writer, without fully meaning to, throws a protective cloak over characters closely resembling him- or herself, giving them the best or most dominant lines, maintaining them firmly in their accustomed positions, whether those positions are fortunate or not, and in any case resisting the natural changes on which drama and truth depend. Preference does not always entail a positive circumstance for the character but merely the writer’s elevation of the preferred character’s situation above the natural play of cause and effect that influences life. A writer may, for instance, have a preference for characters who are victims, or ones who are obsessive cynosures. But no matter the degree of negative or positive preferred attributes, a writer must alertly oppose his or her preferences by providing equally strong characters to contest the preferred ones, and the challenge must not be one of drawn battle lines uncrossed but of reciprocal actions and inevitable movements. Protecting characters produces one-sided, flat drama and gives the impression that the writer’s motive in avoiding risks is self-protection.
A Situation or Circumstance Does Not Necessarily Make a Scene
Inexperienced writers will often pose a situation, such as two characters in an unhappy relationship, and then proceed to detail the situation at length, without creating any movement, change, or consequence. In some manuscripts, the basic situation posed at the beginning of the story obtains throughout the piece, with various instances of the situation being presented as though in a progression of scenes, though each instance merely restates in somewhat altered form the basic circumstance provided in the beginning. A writer may have the impression of creating scenes by moving or shifting time and changing the literal detail from instance to instance; however, if the dynamic of the relationships and conditions in the story does not develop consequentially, what’s produced instead is a redundantly stated circumstance that lacks drama.
On the Conscious and Unconscious Sources of Imagery
When the topic of discussion in a workshop or seminar is imagery and a well-known story, such as Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” or Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” has been studied, students often ask if the author knew what he or she was doing with the imagery or if it happened spontaneously—in other words, more or less without the writer’s awareness. Typically, this question, like many questions in classes, generalizes a more personal question relating to how the student may be trying to achieve a particular effect, or effects, in his or her own work. Accordingly, the question may sometimes be put aside in favor of drawing out a particular example from the student’s own work. Each writer creates imagery in his or her own way and as is natural to each piece of work; otherwise, the writing would be formulaic. The student writer may have a secret or instinctive belief that imagery (and other techniques) should occur spontaneously, and certainly when writing succeeds that way, it’s a gift. More often than not, however, passages of unerring, spontaneous inspiration come only intermittently and cannot be depended on to achieve completed, successful works. Malamud was known for his meticulousness and for writing as many as fifty drafts of a story, and it’s reasonable to say that by the time he finished, he knew exactly what was in the story, though when he began, and through successive drafts, his intuition provided material, including imagery, that was accurate without his deliberating on it, or the initial material became more accurate in the pattern of the story by virtue of Malamud’s repeated scrutiny and revision.

Literary art is neither all conscious nor all unconscious; an interplay between the two attitudes typifies the process by which stories are written; however, the movement of drafting a story from inception to completion is from lesser to greater consciousness in regard to both content and technique. On balance, a work that approaches mastery represents a highly sustained play of practiced, if automatic, skills across inspired material. Like a musician or painter, a writer practices, learns, and overlearns the techniques of an art so that once inculcated they may be performed with an exactness and ease of proficiency fed by inspiration. Absolute control is rarely, if ever, achievable, nor perhaps desirable, since the temptation to perfection can lead to overdetermination, yet the writer aims for mastery of the art and an ideal performance in each work. A writer works to attain the unachievable, and as a writer’s mastery grows, the progressive expansion and autonomy of the goal, its elusiveness as it’s grasped, make the work infinitely engaging and worthwhile.

Perfectionism, as distinct from mastery, springs from an inadequate understanding of art, from the writer’s knowledge and skills not being up to fulfilling the concept or intended ideal of the work, or, conversely, from the writer’s choice of concept being unsuitable or impracticable for the art, and in either case, the writer strains to make the embodiment and ideal of the work coincide, and the strain shows. Hence, the notion that the work should spill effortlessly from the writer can seem attractive, if not supremely seductive and correct. Moments of spontaneous grace are a constant aim and a great pleasure in drafting, but a reliance on them to produce excellent work and a resistance to close revision make for deluded, self-indulgent writing.

The writer in love with the immediate outpourings of his or her pen unreasonably expects the reader’s unequivocal love and discovery of form and significance where only vague or partial articulation exists. A writer should not expect a reader to find more knowingness in a work than the writer’s own knowingness, nor should a writer be satisfied if the work can occasion only the reader’s subjective associations. The work should provide for an objective, aesthetic understanding closely related, if not identical, to the writer’s own. The strength and worth of a work depend on deliberate artistry as much as, if not more than, talent, desire, and inspiration.

Imagery has many sources. An intuitive writer has the benefit of spontaneously occurring interior visions or the vivid imagery presented by the external world. A sensory writer may translate the impressions and perceptions of the physical senses into visual details—a somewhat more deliberate though ultimately no less effective process of imagery than that of intuition. Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was conceived from initial image:

. . . a young woman . . . whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like a rabbit’s ears.

This image came to O’Connor’s mind and occasioned the story that came out of it; however, it is not the first line of the story, nor is the young woman the primary character. This is to say that having received the integral image, O’Connor determined what it meant and what became of it in a larger pattern of images and ideas rather than allowing it to determine all that followed. Also, it is worth noting that while the image came to the writer’s mind as a picture, it was translated into words on the page in such a way that anyone could experience it clearly and objectively. O’Connor’s inspiration was intuitive; her art, thoughtful and deliberate. The movement of words from face to broad and innocent involves the author’s interpretation and commentary on the image even as she translates it visually for the reader.

The conclusion of Jayne Anne Phillips’s “The Heavenly Animal” likewise offers precisely written intuitive imagery:

A deer jumped the road in front of them, clearing the snow, the pavement, the fences of the fields, in two bounds. Beyond its arc the hills rumpled in snow. The narrow road wound through white meadows, across the creek, and on. Her father was driving. Her brothers had shining play pistols with leather holsters. Her mother wore clip-on earrings of tiny wreaths. They were all dressed in new clothes, and they moved down the road through the trees.

This sort of imagery comes to an author’s mind complete, either as individual pictures or in a sequence of pictures spontaneously rolling one to the next. Words describing the pictures may come to the author simultaneously with the pictures or may follow afterward, but in either case, the words reproduce the content, shape, movement, and import of the images exactly, and the reader, in turn, experiences them in the mind’s eye as did the author. To be sure, there’s a lyric effect as well as an imagistic one in the above lines. The relative freedom and forward rush of breath in the first two and a half lines slow in rhythm as the imagery moves from the deer and the fields toward the car and the family. The road, an ongoing image of fate in the story, forms an intersection between realms and a shift in both the imagistic and lyric impulses in the lines. Beginning with Her father, the breath and rhythm grow shorter, more constrained, yet the author’s touch lightens all the while toward the final line, which is a release, a good-bye to the past, as the daughter comes complexly into her own, and the reader lifts away with her and returns to life beyond the story. The images and their effect are instantaneous and perfectly natural—the result of conscious artistry.

By comparison to Phillips's and O’Connor’s intuitive imagery, David Quammen’s imagery in “Walking Out” can be recognized as sensory:

There were yellow pine floors and rope-work throw rugs and a bead curtain to the bedroom and a cast-iron stove with none of the lids or handles missing and a pump in the kitchen sink and old issues of Field and Stream and on the mantel above where a fire now finally burned was a picture of the boy’s grandfather, the railroad telegrapher, who had once owned the cabin.

Rather than giving a complete instantaneous picture—a deer jumping a road as though effortlessly or a woman whose cabbage-shaped head evokes her naïveté—Quammen gives a series of static particulars, a list, that cumulatively builds to a larger impression, an atmosphere, and finally a destination—the image of the grandfather—that signifies the type of masculinity and eros conveyed by the place. The telegrapher appears as an isolated figure, tapping out coded messages across wires to others at a distance. The cabin is ordered, neat, conventional, outmoded, a place in which rigidity and codes of behavior supersede spontaneity and felt connection. Quammen does not immediately interpret these images but lets them speak for themselves, and, later, as the conforming power they represent breaks down under conflict, images that move and an interpretative consciousness come into greater play. Quammen’s use of imagery is related and owes a debt to William Faulkner’s use of imagery—that is to say that Quammen is both naturally disposed toward Faulkner’s techniques and has studied them carefully. Descended from Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” and, to a lesser degree, “The Bear,” “Walking Out” exhibits a similar stylistic method. For the sake of comparison, here’s a brief passage from “Barn Burning”:

Presently he could see the grove of oaks and cedars and the other flowering trees and shrubs where the house would be, though not the house yet. They walked beside a fence massed with honeysuckle and Cherokee roses and came to a gate swinging open between two brick pillars, and now beyond a sweep of the drive, he saw the house . . .

The stylistic similarity between Quammen and Faulkner mainly consists of the use of sensory imagery, typified by the listing of specific concrete detail. Note how each author strings details together by repeating the word and. Of the two writers, Faulkner displays greater flexibility and variety, more sheer mind in the work, though Quammen has the benefit of overall stylistic advances in literature and of greater psychological understanding available since Faulkner’s time. For instance, without losing any of the power of the main character’s point of view, Quammen frees the narrative point of view from the more primitive aspects of self-reflexiveness in “Barn Burning” and thereby gains an objectivity that dares a more intimate examination of the father-son relationship than did Faulkner, though Faulkner remains the more formidable artist, his gifts being extraordinary. Note the activity, the agility of Faulkner’s lines, as compared with Quammen’s. In any random selection of passages for comparison from the two writers, Faulkner’s natural superiority would show, as would the two writers’ similar approach to imagery. In Faulkner’s and Quammen’s works, and in those of any writer strongly gifted with sensation, the use of specific concrete detail and listing typifies sensory imagery. Note that the cumulative effect of sensory imagery moves toward creating perceptual import similar to that of intuition. Sensation is a slower, more physical process; intuition, a more immediate, visionary one. Whether the initial source of imagery in a writer’s work is sensation or intuition depends on the nature of the writer’s gifts, though the two types of imagery are not exclusive of one another and are often blended, one leading to and informing the other. Intuition and sensation are related functions of perception existing in all individuals. One of the two functions of perception will predominate in any individual, but the other function can be brought into play, more so with practice. Cormac McCarthy, another writer related to Faulkner by a similarity of perceptual gifts, exhibits a decidedly sensory approach to imagery, yet the strength and vividness of sensation in his work achieves the immediacy and visionary quality of intuition. Here is a representative sentence from McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian:

They saw halfburied skeletons of mules with the bones so white and polished they seemed incandescent even in that blazing heat and they saw panniers and packsaddles and the bones of men and they saw a mule entire, the dried and blackened caracass hard as iron.

The sentence is composed of compact phrases—halfburied skeletons, bones so white, for instance—and each phrase viscerally enters the reader as sensation combined with lyric impact. Some of the sensations are purely visual; others, bodily or tactile, as in blazing heat or hard as iron. The bodily or tactile sensations also convey visual perceptions—shimmering heat, the solidity of iron. McCarthy forms his phrases compactly, combines and places words to create maximum immediacy, directness, and potency, yet his concision produces richly brocaded sentences rather than plain ones. The phrases move with rhythms that are McCarthy’s by way of Faulkner and the King James Bible, and, to a lesser degree, James Joyce, whose work had an influence on Faulkner’s style. McCarthy’s rhythms set his phrases as precise units whose integrity is absolute—each perception or image is a thing unto itself. And with only one comma in the forty-six-word sentence, the rhythms—the breaths and pauses—act as punctuation to give each detail its moment, while the sentence moves and gathers as a whole. It asserts its form and cannot be misread. Its strength says, This is real; this is the truth. And the lyric, imagistic rhythms rise and fall, creating points at which sensation flashes into intuition—bones so white, blackened carcass hard as iron.

Readers sensitive to language will note that bones so white occurs on a rising rhythm, preceded by a fairly even, long one, and followed by dips and rises that gradually fall and lengthen again into the deeper, steady register of blackened carcass hard as iron. The climactic moments in the sentence are not all crescendo but are determined by the nature of the facts. The they in the sentence are men on horseback, moving at a walk, and the rhythm of the language and the perceptual moment of each image accords with the time and motion, the glance of the men on horses. They come upon certain objects on the ground, a perceptual variation occurs, and they ride on. The shape of the sentence, from the longer, relatively flat movement of the first words to bones so white through the shorter rhythmic statements in the middle of the sentence to the longer, concluding motion of blackened carcass hard as iron mirrors horsemen’s motion toward what they see, at what they see, and passing on. The beginning and end of the sentence have the shape of the forward line the men are traveling, interrupted by images of death, a shortening, a quickening in the line. The sentence is an entire passage—a complete plotted drama of its own. And, by the multiplicity of orchestrated elements at work—imagery, lyricism, plot, metaphysical statement—it should be obvious to an alert reader that the effects that McCarthy, or any writer, achieves in such a sentence are not the result of happenstance but of care.

Success favors the writer whose practice and development of skills continues whether or not inspiration is immediately present. W. B. Yeats, in his poem “The Song of the Old Mother,” made images of age and youth to characterize the nature of the poet’s task:

I rise in the dawn, and I kneel and blow
Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow;
And then I must scrub and bake and sweep
Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;
And the young lie long and dream in their bed
Of the matching of ribbons for bosom and head,
And their days go over in idleness,
And they sigh if the wind but lift a tress:
While I must work because I am old,
And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.

Yeats was only in his twenties when he wrote these lines, yet he cast his image of the poet as an old woman working dawn to night to keep the fire alive and the house running, while younger folk dream and idle and sigh at the wind. The old woman’s testimony can be seen, in part, as Yeats’s prescient understanding of how life and work play out—a writer ages, his energy wanes, and then the strength of developed knowledge and the habit of work provide the means of inspiration—the fire—rather than the other way around. Taken together, the diligent old woman and the dreamy youths form an image of the interplay of fancy or serendipity and discipline that occurs throughout a lifetime of creative activity. Sheer inspiration, like the wind, is not continual and will not always come when summoned, and across a lifetime the spark or fire of a writer’s given talent counts for no more, or perhaps less, than the focused effort a writer expends.
The Thinking That Plots, or Not
Some writers are naturally gifted at plotting. Without apparent effort, they can formulate the sequence of actions and events of a story. Other writers—in fact, most writers—work hard at plotting, with varying degrees of success depending on the writer’s gifts, intentions, and understanding of plot. In more than twenty years of reading manuscripts, I have found relatively few writers who can plot and, among the ones who can, few who can resist overplotting and can imbue a plot with life. Plotting is, on the one hand, a matter of thinking, and, on the other, a matter of integrating the thinking that plots with the other imaginative and, in part, irrational elements that make up a story.

A writer who cannot plot, or who is weak at it, may resist the idea of plot altogether, opting instead for a play of effects—lyric, imagistic, thematic, and so on—that come more easily to hand and, in deploying these effects, may assert that the result is no less a story than one that is well plotted, and may also assert that the result represents a new form, an intentional going beyond conventional, outmoded definitions of story. And who would care to disagree? Why deny the writer’s personal pleasure? Though by no means insisting on one way of doing things over another, I would suggest that any rationalizing of a work, or its effects, as though to justify it, should be viewed with some skepticism. A well-told story makes its own justification by virtue of direct, total impact on the reader. A plotless or weakly plotted work may offer various impressions—feelings, images, thoughts—but will have less magnitude and less power to move a reader than one that is well plotted and gives a unified effect. The works of imaginative prose that have stood the test of time bear out this principle.

A writer who easily plots will usually begin a story by conceiving the plot, often in outline form, whether held all in the mind or put down on paper. Outlines are provisional. They are not set in stone. They shape and are shaped by the story that emerges. Outlining and drafting are reciprocal, one informing the other. Outlines give a writer the opportunity to think through and develop a story with continuing variations as needed to make the story as focused and true as possible—true in the sense of being lifelike, emotionally true, and architecturally sound, all the structural elements properly aligned.

Outlines are often formed as lists organized by number and letter, by dates, by bullet points, or other hierarchal means. While useful for term papers, theses, dissertations, scholarly articles, journalism, and factual nonfiction, such outlining is inadequate for imaginative prose. Lists of character actions and attributes, settings, ideas, and so on are dramatically inert. Plot outlining should put a story into action, in concentrated form.

Henry James’s notebooks are instructive in the matter of outlining stories. James would often begin with an idea for a story, something he had heard or observed from life or something he imagined, and then he would develop the idea in outline in his notebooks, working the story forward to the point where it began to go wrong, or thin, or otherwise wobbly, and then he would draw back to where the work was solid. And, each time that he drew back, he would cast forward again, reaching farther, extending and carefully conceiving the story before he wrote it. Reading James’s notebooks in tandem with his works reveals his inspired method of plotting. Here, in part, is James’s outline for The House Beautiful:

Fleda Vetch is down at Ricks—has come down to find Mrs. Gereth installed and in possession of most of the treasures of Poynton . . . The sense of what her friend has done quite appalls the girl, and what has now passed between her and Owen prepares her for a great stir of feeling in his favour—a resentment on his behalf and pitying sense of his spoilations. I am here dealing with very delicate elements, and I must make the operation, the presentation, of each thoroughly sharp and clear. If this climax of my little tale is confused and embrouillé it will be nothing; if it’s crystalline as possible is will be worth doing. I have, a little, to guard myself against the drawback of having in the course of the story determined on something that I had not intended—or had not expected—at the start. I had intended to make Fleda “fall in love” with Owen, or to express it moins banalement, to represent her as loving him. But I had not intended to represent a feeling of this kind on Owen’s part. Now, however, I have done so; in my last little go at the thing . . . , it inevitably took that turn and I must accept the idea and work it out. What I felt to be necessary was that what should happen between Fleda and Owen Gereth should be something of a certain intensity. My idea was that it should be, whatever it is, determining for her; and it didn’t seem to me that I could make it sufficiently determining without making it come, as it were, from Owen . . . Fleda suddenly perceives that on the verge of his marriage to Mona—he is, well, what I have in fact represented . . . . His marriage hasn’t as yet taken place, but it’s near at hand—it’s there. She expects nothing more of him—has a dread of its happening. She wants only, as she believes, or tries to believe, never to see him again. She surrenders him to Mona. She has a dread of his not doing his duty—backing out in any way. That would fill her with horror and dismay. But she has no real doubt that he’ll go through with his marriage . . . . It seems to me I have really here the elements of something rather fine. The fineness is the fineness of Fleda. Let me carry that as far as possible—be consistent and bold and high about it: allow it all its little touch of poetry. She is forced again, as it were, to renew a relation that she has sought safety and honour, tried to be “good,” in not keeping up. She is almost, as it were, thrown into Owen’s arms. It is the same with the young man. He too has tried to be good. He has renounced the relation . . . He is thrust by his mother into danger again. Mrs. Gereth is operating with so much more inflammable material than she knows.

In James’s remarkably transparent, sensitive deliberations, in all his pauses and fluctuations, there is the steady, forward movement of imaginative thought and story. As concept and sketch, the outline does not entirely embody the drama, yet the characters’ desires, emotions, actions, and conflicts are apparent, the impact of the drama is felt, consequences arise at each step, and a meaningful destination is promised.

No one studying James would want to imitate him exactly—his gifts are his own—yet his process of thinking a story through can be adapted for any writer’s use. A writer who finds that outlining a story kills spontaneity will, as a rule, just go ahead and draft, shaping the material on the fly, perhaps giving some reflection to how it’s coming out but not achieving a highly developed structure. Then, once a draft is complete, or reaches critical mass short of completion, or loses momentum, the writer will go back over the draft and, in effect, ask, What now? The writer will look for a means by which to decide on a form that will be compelling to readers. Revision of an instinctively written draft requires principles on which to decide not only what transformations should occur but also how they may be achieved. A viable story, though inchoate in draft, will assert its form, and the writer need only to discern the emerging plot and allow it to reveal its necessities. James mentally drafted his stories, writing concentrated outlines and revising them before committing himself to writing a draft with narrative, dialogue, staging, and so on. Any writer less able than James to hold a story clearly in mind engages nonetheless in a process of creating and revising material, though with less alacrity and economy of effort than James. Across a lifetime’s work, the writer who accepts and develops a thinking approach to plotting, or who uses thinking to augment an instinctive approach, will labor more effectively than the writer who resists plotting aforethought.

An intentional development of skill at plotting can be observed by comparing David Mamet’s early vignettes The Duck Variations (1976), which are lyric, imagistic evocations of feeling, with his later highly structured dramas, such as Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), The Shawl (1985), and House of Games (1987), in which characters’ actions take on the full measure of fate and consequence. About his development as a dramatist, Mamet said, “That’s the only thing I ever really worked hard at in my life: plotting. Do it and do it, and do it again. I’m not looking for a feeling—I’m looking for an equation. Given the set of circumstances, what does it end up with? How is that inevitable? How is that surprising?”

A Poetics of Fiction

410 pages, 6 x 9, in paperback.

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