Monday, May 14, 2007

Plot, Thickening

I'm teaching a workshop at Write By The Lake in Madison, Wisconsin again this year. This one is about plot.

I find it very hard to actually talk about plot. In fact, I find it difficult to take all those topics, plot, setting, character, and separate them out like so many pieces of an assembly. But I figure that's just going to have to be my strength. Right now I have six students and even if I get a couple of more, that gives us a lot of time to figure out what people are doing, and what it is that they feel is missing. My working definition of plot is character in situation. That's a dicey definition because I think 'characterization' can rest of the flimsiest of textual tricks. A lot of what we think of as characterization comes from what cognitive psychologists call Theory of Mind. (That's part of what autistic people struggle with and to not have a Theory of Mind is to be Mindblind.) Humans are highly social creatures and we spend a lot of time assuming that other people are, in fact, other people. That they have intentionality, emotion, and that we have a sense of what they are about. That is, when I'm at the grocery store and I see you standing by the butcher counter (okay, we're at Whole Foods, where they actually have a butcher counter) and you're looking at the butcher, who is serving someone else, I will leap to the assumption that you are probably next in line. I assume that you intend to buy meat, or at least ask the butcher a question. I assume that you are waiting for your turn. I assume that my turn is after your turn. I assume that you, the butcher, and anyone else who was there before me, will be angry at me if I try to buy meat before you. And I do all that more or less instantaneously.

We are so hardwired to make assumptions about other people's interior states, that we make assumptions about all sorts of interior states. We personify stuff. We describe houses as 'happy' or 'gloomy'. We think that the grocery cart has it in for our car door. We think that characters in fiction are people. We can leap to rather complex assumptions about them on the basis of fairly flimsy details. The details that we find most telling tend to be their actions. So in fact, part of character is what I describe them doing, and if I think of situation and describe characters acting in the situation, I am in fact characterizing as much as I am generating plot.

But I can't help that. Life is just like that. The components of story do not disassemble as neatly as the brakes on a car. Okay, I'm not sure how neatly the brakes on a car disassemble, having only a hazy notion of how brakes specifically work. But I'm hoping the example makes sense.

After I make some caveats (like the one I just made) I think I'll have students generate events for sets of characters most of us are familiar with. Maybe set up a situation--someone walks into a room where someone is dead in a kitchen chair at the table--and generate what might happen next if the character is a detective, or if the character is a twenty-two year old governess who thinks of herself as plain, or if the character is a psychopathic killer, or if the character is a child. I'm very interested in the conventions we have established and in what reader expectations are in these situations, and how we deal with reader expectations. I think that a lot of plot is a tightrope walk between the cliche and the completely unexpected.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"things get worse"

love it.

May 14, 2007 6:27 PM  
Blogger Beth Adele Long said...

I want to call all six of your students and say, "Get lots of sleep. Eat well. Do brainteasers in the morning to get your mind into shape. Do everything you can possibly imagine to BE READY to study under Maureen, because this is going to be one of the most significant weeks in your entire life as a writer."

But of course, that would be creepy and inappropriate and the sort of thing a very odd, possibly deranged character would do. So I won't.

But I want to.


May 14, 2007 7:11 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Austin, it's the first rule of plotting that I ever figured out. It's gotten a little more sophisticated since then, but still it's a good first principle for me.

Beth, I suspect I would never live up to that hype.

May 14, 2007 7:16 PM  
Blogger Karen Sandstrom said...

I wish I were in your class.

May 14, 2007 9:26 PM  

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