The Advice I Wish I Had Given During my Talk on Plot at AWP

This April, at the 2015 AWP Conference in Minneapolis, I was lucky enough to take part in a great panel on storytelling, plot, and teaching: A Thread Through The Labyrinth.

Photo by Jennifer Maritza McCauley​

The panel went really well: for the rest of the conference, people came up to us to say how much they enjoyed it.

The premise of our talk was simple: many fiction writers feel they should understand plot better. We offered to help.

Joy Castro spoke about discovering story structures in fairy tales, Lauren Grodstein discussed how to weave a story from a character’s monologue, and Lynne Barrett presented exercises and techniques that help writers build up a better intuitions about plot. Each talk was great.

I spoke about repetition in fiction, using James Joyce’s story (or novella) The Dead as my example. But I finished the conference not completely sure how well my talk went across. In particular, I began to worry that I had omitted something really important. I felt like, in talking about The Dead, I had skipped a key step, and so my presentation wasn’t as useful as it could have been.

I omitted that technique for two reasons. The first was brevity: we each only had ten minutes to speak. The other, however, was the more uncomfortable one: it wasn’t my idea. I had read it in a book.

Worse, the technique came from a really well-known book on plot, Story, by Robert McKee, a book that everyone who wants to write good stories should probably look at.

On the other hand, this idea has been incredibly useful to me, both as a writer and as an editor. It’s wonderfully simple — it can be expressed in a sentence — and yet it feeds into all kinds of authorial decisions about point of view, pacing, characterisation, about where to start a story and where to end it. It might be the best insight of the whole of Story.

So I thought I would describe it here. This is not meant to be THE ONE MAGICAL ANSWER, but merely a good tool for fiction writers who are thinking about plot.

It’s simply this: Every scene must turn.

What does this mean? McKee, talking primarily about screenwriting, argues that while there are many styles of films, a useful rule is that, no matter the genre or mood, something particular must happen in each scene. He argues that, in a successful story, each scene concerns itself with a moral value or relevant life-question. The audience (or reader) can tell that something of importance is at stake.

This value can be anything, according to McKee: one scene might bring the character’s survival into question, when she is mugged on her way to an important dinner; a later scene might place the focus on honesty. For instance, the character arrives at the conference hotel exhausted and bedraggled, her nerves wrecked from the attempted robbery, and explains to a business rival what just happened. That rival, shocked, offers (in an act of unexpected kindness) to let the character clean up in her hotel suite. However, as the character is fixing her hair, she notices a secret document left on the nightstand. She reads it, seeing how she will be able to destroy her business rival: therefore, the value of honesty has changed from up, at the start of the scene, to down, at the end.

There has been a turn. Something of significance has changed.

McKee then suggests that a well-designed story, generally speaking, is made up of scenes that alternate these movements of up and down, with one scene ending in a positive turn (she survives the attempted mugging) and the next in a negative one (she reads the secret document). Such a swinging up-down motion will be satisfying to the audience / reader, allowing them to absorb greater and greater levels of tension as the story escalates and the stakes rise.

Here’s the next useful insight from this idea: if I’ve written a scene and it contains no clear, obvious turn, it’s likely that the scene is just exposition. It was written, unconsciously perhaps, so I could offer my reader some background information. If so, says McKee, it likely should be cut. Slip whatever interesting talk or internal musing you had written for that scene into a different scene, one where something is really happening.

This is also a useful rubric for working out what is a real part of your novel’s story, and what is, sadly, only backstory. In practice, when drafting a novel, it’s so easy to be writing what you think is real action, but is, in fact, just you working out the setting and backstory to that novel. You’re writing for your own benefit, not the reader’s, in order to figure out what the story really is.

This may even be an essential stage for most writers. First, you spin up a huge numbers of pages about your characters and their world. Then you delete those pages, and start the real novel at a more appropriate point, the moment just before the actual dramatic question, the thing the novel is about, first presents itself.

Important question: what is a scene? I think in prose fiction, we should probably make our “scenes” quite large, regardless of whether the actual location changes within them. It’s not worth trying to have too many big turns. Maybe in a movie, the audience wants constant changes, but in prose, too rigid an approach to scenes that turn can lead you to create bizarrely over-tense sequences, which readers reject in bemusement (I have done this more than once). Especially in a novel, we don’t need to be constantly ramping up the tension, because readers have a long way to go before the end.

In a novel, scenes can be long, and / or their turns can be minimal, and / or we can splice in half-scenes, reflections, and intermissions to slow things down, to widen the narrative’s reach, to clarify what the protagonist / reader has just discovered.

It’s much easier to see what a scene should be when reading someone else’s work. That’s where the theory really shines. Someone brings you their draft and warns you that it doesn’t “flow” right. You read through, find all the good stuff they’ve written, and perhaps you even number those good bits of writing, collecting in a list all the parts where the story really felt alive. Then you arrange each of those powerful parts in a linear sequence of alternating scenes, a jagged line of positive and negative swings for the protagonist.

This still sounds easy, right? Let’s make it a little more tricky. For us fiction writers, what this theory suggests is that point of view and plot need to work together. In other words, if I want to see my story as a succession of scenes that turn, the reader has to be able to see that, too. There’s no point imagining a series of turns in my own mind which the reader has no idea is happening.

This means that I, the writer, need some method of conveying to the reader, scene by scene, what is really at stake. Usually, in modern fiction, this means conveying in narration what the character is feeling and thinking, so that the reader can travel along. Perhaps I describe what the character is saying to herself as she makes up her mind to betray her rival in the hotel room. There are lots of options, but the point is that minimalism may not be our friend here. If it’s meant to be a big deal that the character would steal the secret document, the reader needs some way of knowing that.

And if I can present that “value” to the reader by showing alone, by the use of elegantly deployed dramatic details, well, that’s great. But if not, I should without hesitation ditch “show, don’t tell” and narrate, because the reader must know what significance a particular scene is supposed to hold. If the reader is unsure what the turn is supposed to be, the novel may well stop feeling like a story.

“The writing was good, and I liked the character,” your reader will say. “It just got slow.”

Now, what I’ve described here is just the basic technique.

What we actually see in great literature, such James Joyce’s The Dead, is not only that these works seem to deploy this every scene must turn rule, but that they also do incredibly complex and ingenious things with it.

In The Dead, the story does particularly brilliant things with repetition, making the turns of certain key scenes feel like magnifications of previous turns. Joyce also cleverly weaves in, via spliced in “micro-scenes” and hurried moments of reflection, motifs and dramatic elements that will rise up later in the story, subconsciously priming the reader for their appearance. Repetition makes the story’s intensity grow as it moves towards its magnificent finale.

The contents of this last paragraph — how the idea of “the turn” rule relates to The Dead — that was what I talked about in my talk at the AWP conference, demonstrating several of the amazing things going on in that story.

If you were present in the room, I hope it was fun to hear — and useful!

Yours,

Daniel

Writing a Novel is Not Like Running a Business

Paul Graham is one of the founders of Y Combinator, a very successful incubators of tech startups. He has funded and instructed companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, and reddit, amongst others.

The other day, I started reading Graham’s many essays about business and technology, and I was struck by one point he made, in “Startup = Growth.” There, he argues that a startup is not like a normal business.

Let’s start with a distinction that should be obvious but is often overlooked: not every newly founded company is a startup. Millions of companies are started every year in the US. Only a tiny fraction are startups. Most are service businesses—restaurants, barbershops, plumbers, and so on. These are not startups, except in a few unusual cases. A barbershop isn’t designed to grow fast. Whereas a search engine, for example, is.

When I say startups are designed to grow fast, I mean it in two senses. Partly I mean designed in the sense of intended, because most startups fail. But I also mean startups are different by nature, in the same way a redwood seedling has a different destiny from a bean sprout.

I was struck by this point not because I have a great idea for a startup, but because I’m a writer and a novelist. Graham’s distinction captures something about novels that has been nagging at me lately.

A good novel, a successful novel — it’s not like other forms of good writing. If most writing is like running a barbershop, writing a novel is like creating Google.

I don’t know whether to feel good about this. Probably it would be nicer, it would be fairer, if writing a novel were more like running a small business, like being the manager of a restaurant or a well-paid plumber. Novelists, collectively, might be happier.

Perhaps this is why novelists are so fond of using the language of regular employment and discipline. You always hear novel-writing described as a “marathon,” you hear about “honing one’s craft,” you hear about the importance of “showing up for work each day.” And all of this is true. Paul Graham would never suggest that the founders of Google worked less hard than the founders of a barbershop.

But I think he would argue that the founders of a new, aspiring startup need to work differently to the founders of a regular business.

I was recently at a large conference for writers, the AWP Conference in Minneapolis. I was talking to a friend who, several years ago, published a novel that ended up being very successful. As we talked, I occasionally sensed that she was almost embarrassed about talking about that novel, as though there was something phony about continuing to discuss work she had done so long ago in the past, work that (I assume) had felt just as challenging, as difficult, and as exhausting as most writing always is.

I wanted to say then, but didn’t know how, that she had no reason to hold back. I wanted to say that a good novel like a full-grown redwood, and there aren’t that many redwoods out there. This thing called novel-writing certainly requires regular, hard drudgery, but it isn’t only about that.

If I were to visit a restaurant, and all the awards nailed to the wall were from five years ago, I might not feel that excited about my impending meal. Who cares what the daily soup tasted like five years ago? But not every human project is like this. If Paul Graham and Y Combinator were to never fund another good startup, they would still be paid to give speeches and seminars into the indefinite future, because Airbnb exists and they helped create it.

It’s a different kind of achievement.

Similarly, my friend had written a successful novel. That was all the justification she needed —  the book exists on another plane of significance. It would presumably be worth the price of admission to AWP, or any other conference, to hear her explicate and detail the writing of such a work, to ask her question upon question, and then return the next year to ask more questions.

I’m currently reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I’m only halfway through, so I need to hold off before making a final judgement, but from the first 200 pages, I can say that The Magicians is really exceptional. There is a bravado to Grossman’s re-writing of Harry Potter and Narnia that is breathtaking, a scope and scale that eludes one’s full intellectual comprehension. And this quality becomes obvious very quickly. From the first couple of chapters, The Magicians feels different to most kinds of reading experiences. More complexity is being juggled, a greater intensity is looming, more reflections of real life and past literature are circling.

The first fifty pages of The Magicians feel like they have a redwood in them, not a bean sprout.

The Magicians

So. If this is all true, what does it mean for those of us who want to write novels?

I think it means we need to take more risks. Our preconceptions of what our novel should be are almost certainly too small. As we go about constructing and drafting our novels, we should keep an eye out for ideas that seem terrible or stupid, ideas that make us grimace, ideas that contradict everything we have in mind.

If you are stuck with your novel, and someone advises you to do something with it that makes you feel unwell — a plot twist that appalls you, a narrative stance that appears crude or unsustainable — this may well be a sign you should consider doing it.

Because the idea may actually be terrible and stupid. Or it might only seem that way because one’s ego is attempting to protect itself. The small, walled self is trying to keep the novel from growing too large.

“You’d expect big startup ideas to be attractive,” Paul Graham says, in his essay “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas.” In other words: one might expect a truly great business idea to fascinate every venture capitalist who heard it.

But this has not been Graham’s experience at all. The boldest plans, he explains, “tend to repel you.”

One of the more surprising things I’ve noticed while working on Y Combinator is how frightening the most ambitious startup ideas are. In this essay I’m going to demonstrate this phenomenon by describing some. Any one of them could make you a billionaire. That might sound like an attractive prospect, and yet when I describe these ideas you may notice you find yourself shrinking away from them.

Don’t worry, it’s not a sign of weakness. Arguably it’s a sign of sanity. The biggest startup ideas are terrifying. And not just because they’d be a lot of work. The biggest ideas seem to threaten your identity: you wonder if you’d have enough ambition to carry them through.

… It means these ideas are invisible to most people who try to think of startup ideas, because their subconscious filters them out. Even the most ambitious people are probably best off approaching them obliquely.

If a friend came to you and said they were going to write a novel that mashed together Narnia and Harry Potter with the sort of raw-edged, grown-up sensibility one finds in uber-literary novels about brilliant, unhappy New Yorkers by Jonathan Lethem, you would probably warn that friend off. The premise seems too enormous to make sense. It seems like two or three novels uncomfortably attempting to share a front cover.

You would, however, be wrong.

Perhaps one skill that a great novelist needs, therefore, is the ability to spot the correct crazy ideas, the seeds that contain redwoods. Or maybe no one has the power to consciously do that, but what a great novelist can do is to be more open to such ideas when they arrive.

As we aspiring writers build our novels, we should stay on the outlook for that unpleasant sensation of wrongness and excess, and we should feel excited by its presence. Something large is attempting to enter the story.

We should treat the feeling of being overwhelmed as a hint that here, at last, is a path worth following.

The Lawn Mower That Should Not Have Been

Dear readers,

On Tuesday, many of you received a notification that I had posted a description of a lawn mower. Sorry about that. It was not my attempt at cryptic writing advice. Instead, I was browsing Home Depot, searching for a lawn mower (I now live in a house with a large-ish front lawn), and I managed to post, by accident, one particular lawn mower’s entry. I am impressed that my phone knows how to blog so effortlessly.

I cannot even take credit for the choice of product, as it was simply the model that The Wirecutter website had recommended.

I now wish I had, rather than deleting the rogue post, merely re-titled it, “Writing Prompt: the Lawn Mower.” Might you have taken up the challenge?

How can a lawn mower be used in fiction? Imagine a story involving a lawn mower, with these two conditions: the story does NOT revolve around 1: suburban middle class ennui or 2: the lawn mower running amok and attacking people under its own volition. I exclude those options because they seem too easy.

Imagine the hands of the user of the lawn mower. Something has changed for the protagonist, either before the story or during it, and something feels new and surprising about pushing the mower around. What has altered the lawn mower, for its owner?

This blog recently gained its 2,000th follower on WordPress. If you are one of those people, thank you for reading! Don’t worry. My phone promises to ask permission before posting anything else.