AWP Dispatch: Plot as Ritual, not Representation

Another great write-up from our very own (and Simple Sugar Bakery's) Tiffany Q. Tyson:

Panelists: Debra Monroe, fiction author; Antonya Nelson, award-winning short story author and novelist; John Dufresne, short story author and novelist; Lynne Barrett, short story author, editor of the Florida Book Review.

I’m currently working on a novel with a big, messy plot, so I couldn’t miss this session. Also, I have a little crush on John Dufresne mostly because his books have such great titles (Love Warps the Mind a Little, Louisiana Power and Light), and because he possesses that messy, Southern charm that I love in a man. Antonya Nelson is, of course, brilliant. I can’t even aspire to write as well as she does. Still, I hoped I could take away some wisdom about how to create a plot that is more than a series of events. Lynne Barrett waxed poetic about how much she loves fiction with a strong plot and Debra Barrett told a very funny story about a grad school professor who would not allow the word “plot” to be uttered in his classroom. Dufresne actually plotted a novel, scene-by-scene, while we watched, one decision leading inexorably to the next in unexpected ways that led to wonderful character revelations.

Finally, Ms. Nelson talked about her troubled history with plot. She claimed to have gotten into graduate school on the strength of her sentences rather than her stories. For some time, she said every piece she submitted was described as a vignette. One of her professors prompted her to think about the plot of her own life and she realized that her life had no plot. She said she spent her days reading and talking and doing not much of anything that might be considered action. In desperation, she decided to abandon “plot” and focus on “shape.” By imposing shape on her characters, she was able to create the illusion of movement that readers recognized as plot. For example, she suggested that if you are writing a story that is merely dialogue and introspection, it’s a good idea to put your characters on the road and let the story unfold from the seat of a moving car. Sometimes, it’s best to restrict the story by imposing a time limit--the space of an hour, say, or a day.

The general consensus among the panelists was that a quiet plot was still a plot. Plot isn’t about events, but about change. If the ending of a story or a novel changes the way the reader views the beginning, then you’ve got a successful plot.

--Tiffany Q. Tyson

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