Friday, September 03, 2010


I have problems with plots, since I think they are mostly artificial. Most lives don't have satisfactory plots, though there are chains of cause and effect, and we can watch character develop and manifest itself.

However, a lot of life seems accidental and pointless. We try to give it meaning by drawing conclusions about it, based on our belief systems. "She never should have married him." "See where hard work gets you?" "Talk about hard luck!" "She got what she deserved." "No one deserves that."

A novel or long short story needs some kind of skeleton, just as a large organism needs a supporting structure. That structure is a plot. In science fiction, which has a bias toward action, it is an action line.

(There are alternative structures. Italo Calvino's wonderful Imaginary Cities is a book of descriptions of imaginary cities. If there is an action line, I have never noticed it. But if I did a close analysis, I am sure I would find themes, ideas, recurrences, which give the book a shape.)

But let's return to the kind of stories I write, which have science fictional action lines...

The question is, is the plot arbitrary -- simply stuck in to provide load bearing support, or a way to get from A to B, or does it serve the meaning of the story? Should it serve the meaning of the story?

I plot more than I used to, but I still write a fair number of stories that begin with an opening scene or opening line, some images, a situation or idea. I like the process of finding out where the story is going and what it is about. Wandering takes me to some interesting places.

There are good arguments for plotting ahead. It's hard to sell an unfinished novel without a synopsis. I can write more rapidly, if I know what happens next and where I am going. My fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, took thirteen years to write, since I got stuck in the middle and didn't know where to go next. So I put it aside for a decade. The time was not entirely wasted. I wrote another novel in this period. But it's hard to have a successful science fiction writing career, if you write slowly and publish erratically. It can be done. But making a living at writing sf usually requires (as far as I can tell) a certain level of production. The usual rule used to be a novel a year. I don't know if the rule has changed.

I suspect most science fiction writers use a combination of plotting ahead and intuition


Douglas Hulick said...

I think a lot of it depends on the kind of story you write, and the kind of writer you are. I tend to write fast-paced fantasy adventure, which means the plot tends to jump out at you. But that doesn't mean I necessarily have the plot worked out in detail ahead of time.

AMONG THIEVES is a very plot-heavy book, and I walked into it (and through much of it) not quite knowing where I was going, let alone how it was going to end. At my best moments, I was three chapters ahead in terms of knowing what was coming. All I knew is that I wanted it to be an edge of your seat page turner. I think I managed that, but it wasn't because of careful long-term planning.

Hawthorn Queen, by contrast, was much tighter in its concept and planning. I still have the unwritten ending sitting in my head. It's very much a quest/mystery book, and for that I felt I needed to know what was coming well ahead of time. There was still a bit of meandering, but not as much in AT.

The latest effort is also very plot-driven, but again I am spending more time wandering in the woods than charting a path through it. Nerve-wracking on a deadline, but that seems to be how this book (and character) want to operate. So, there's a plot, but sometimes I have to wonder.

I think it can be easy to link action and plot in our heads. When we see people doing exciting things on the page, we assume it is for a reason, and that there is a master plot behind it all. Quieter, more thoughtful stories, by contrast, seem to not have as much plot, because the ride we are along for is more sedate. But the nerve-biting sword fight in one story may serve the plot less than a quiet talk over coffee in another (Stieg Larsson is a good example of this, as are you, Eleanor).

It's like white water rafting vs. canoeing along a quiet lake or stream: both feed a certain aspect of the rider, but in different ways. At the end of both trips, though, you are someplace different than you started, be it physically or mentally or both. I think plot can be like that: wild and crazy or slow and sedate -- as long as it takes you someplace else in the process.

Eleanor said...

Nice comment, Doug!