Which came first? Craft or creativity: guest blog by Michelle Hoover

I've been teaching fiction writing for fourteen years, moving from the short story to the novel as my own work meandered nervously from short to long. What I return to again and again, what I find most helpful to my students, is an exploration of the formal structures on which fiction relies.

These of course begin with Aristotle, his idea of 'one action,' and how this single action, introduced at the beginning of the play and carried through to the climax, like the far shore of home that Odyssues never takes his eyes from, conveys both physical action toward a tangible desire but also the interior (and conscious) motivation behind it. Aristotle himself argues that plot is more important than character, but I think his idea of plot, of one action, is so character-based as to make the two elements hopelessly intertwined. If we carry the idea forward, we find Henry James and his assertion that 'character determines incident, incident reveals character.'

For James, 'motivation' is more closely (and helplessly) tied to the character's fundamental flaw, a flaw that leads the protagonist inevitably to an incident that will test this flaw, bring it more into the open, on stage if you will, than ever before. And of course, how the character reacts to this incident only complicates our understanding of the desperate hold the flaw has on this character, or which the character has on it.

For centuries, authors have repeated these ideas, attempting to pin down exactly what a plot is and how a fiction writer can invent one without feeling stupid or blandly commercial. John Barth's essay 'How To Know Whether You've Got a Plot or Not? is one of my favorites, as it stems from an author I consider a rebel. Even Barth doesn?t take his ideas so seriously that he can't mock them.

The essay's main title is 'Incremental Perturbations' - try to say that three times fast. Better yet, say it in front of a classroom, where for me the words morph absurdly into 'Ecumenical Protuberances' or even 'Imperturbable Excrements.' Barth describes plot as 'the incremental perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a complexified equilibrium.'

In all its ridiculousness, the definition still nails it. What better term than 'complexified equilibrium' for the necessity of a story to have reached a new (and often terrible) resting place after it's been jarred from its opening instability. You hear readers complain that 'nothing happens' or workshops moan that they detect little to no emotional 'shift.' The complaint is about a lack of budding complexity, in event, character, or theme, isn't it?

Like the looming self-help sections in bookstores, authors now fill walls with books on craft, whether they are successful fiction writers or not. The laugh is that craft books sell far better than any fiction, though one hears a painful hiccup as the author slips on the discarded peel of his soul before he deposits his cheque.

But beyond Barth's breakdown of plot and a handful of other 'practical' guides, I find most authors speak so abstractly about craft that few beginners have a clue what they're talking about. The author may list examples, claim that here is good dialog or, oh, look, what a nice gesture, but the examples are either so dull or uniquely brilliant that students will never want to, or never can, identify such elements in their own pages. They will never, like Barth puts it, understand if they've 'got it or not.' Knowing the difference may be the test of talent. It may also simply be luck.

Take for instance Steve Almond's wonderfully defiant collection This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey. His 'Quick Definition of Plot' claims 'Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.' Simple. Direct. Yet I've had any number of students try to apply this line to a published piece of fiction and fail. What does it mean, 'to force' a character against something so abstract? My students point at a story and say, there, the character is showing emotion, or there, he is revealing his desire. But Almond's idea is far more complex. Still, if a student can't identify such a plot in someone else's story, how will they ever be able to identify it in their own, where they forgive everything?

In truth, Almond's idea is only a more emotional extension of James' character determines incident. A character's desire or fear must be challenged. It must be brought out in a shameful, semi-public, and dramatic way, and the character must act to cover that fear or expose it further, to fess up or lie, to grab at his desire or let it go. As Aristotle might say, the character must do something, because the fear or desire is such an integral part of him, he can't do otherwise. Whether good or bad, it's all he's got in the world.

But what about stories that don?t work this way? Of course, the best are never obvious in their choices. And yet, I've found Barth's definition of plot at work in authors as diverse and astonishing as Borges and William Gass. The structure follows that of fairy tales, and the structure of fairy tales is what feels most natural to us. We have repeated these rhythms for centuries, independently, all over the world.

I tell my students to take such 'rules' with a grain of salt. Know them before you break them. And if you break them, if your story's inherent qualities 'as opposed to laziness' lead you in that direction, try to understand what you're giving your reader in return.

In my 'Plotting the Novel' seminars, I advise students to simplify. Once you know them well, employ such 'formulas' with as little consciousness as you structure a sentence: subject, verb, object. Plot is simple. In many ways, plot is boring. There's little use for fancy stuff. Why waste your energy? Use it as your story's invisible skeleton, and save the best of what you've got for the harder, more important stuff, for character or scene, passion or shame, happiness or ruin, the amazing complexity of it all.

Do ideas about craft deaden creativity? I wonder at times. Look at Paul Yoon's immaculate story collection, 'Once the Shore', and we immediately know that the stories do not follow Barth at all. But Yoon has his own kind of recipe, one based on the quiet assuredness of the narrator's voice, on the single setting around which his characters live and yearn, and yes, there's the trick on one character matched with another, a constant coupling of foreign and familiar personalities, both of whom suffer from losses so enduring and serious that they're transformed into physical scars, a broken ankle, a lost limb, a weak heart. This very coupling brings complication. But formula? I wince at using such a term. Yoon's stories are far too haunted and mysterious. Their power is innate to the author's vision, his sense of consequence and pain. Yet in the end, isn't consequence as a result of action what Aristotle was writing about? The desire, the instability, the flaw - these things launch characters forward into the incident that will mark them for the rest of their lives. A story captures the moment in which a character fully reveals himself, in all his human ugliness and charm. And sometimes it's simply plot that forces us writers to put our characters in the terrible situations this revelation requires, the situations we would otherwise attempt to save them from.


Rosy Thornton said...

What a wonderful, thought-provoking post, Michelle. And you can't imagine how happy it makes me, to read that plot is boring, and that it is OK to concentrate instead on character and scene.

Gillian McDade said...

Thanks for this fantastic insight, Michelle. It was a pleasure to read - and educational too!

Thanks for your contribution,
Gillian x

Susie Nott-Bower said...

What a fabulous post - thank you! I'm reading the wonderful Jane Gardam, who embodies everything you speak of. Could you let me know when and where you run your seminars please?

Helen Black said...

Very interesting.
I too often wonder if the endless disection of craft is actually a bad thing - though one which I cannot resist.
Does it make us too self conscious in our writing?
HB x

Caroline Green said...

Thank you for this intelligent and insightful post, Michelle. Your book looks amazing...off to check it out!

Paul Lamb said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

As right (or wrong) as any analysis may be, if it doesn't reach into a writer's mind and find a foothold, it's as good as background noise. I agree with what Barth says, but he could be speaking in a foreign language for many aspiring writers. They're just not going to "get it" based on how he describes it. It's not only Barth, though. Every person who thinks seriously about writing also thinks idiosyncratically, and whatever revelations there might be will make sense to some and not to others. Thus an aspiring writer ought to read across the spectrum to find the analysis and advice that works for him or her. Or, the writer should keep his/her own counsel and just get busy with pencil and paper.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post - and I love your ending "the situations we would otherwise attempt to save them from" - revealing how much of ourselves we invest in our characters - a nice twist in the tail, I think!

Unknown said...

Great post.

As a reader, I've come to realize that plot is indeed boring; it's character, the interaction of characters, the human condition, and emotions or the absence of emotions that interest me. The genre doesn't matter. I'm pulled into the world of a story by the characters.

Fidelity said...

Yes, great post. Not all plots are boring. Some writers are good at plot but most modern writers I think like to work less methodically and often seem fragmented, sometimes delightfully. Fielding was good at plot. Richardson agonisingly hopeless at it. I've read through 1,000 pages of Clarissa and am thinking seriously of giving up...the plot has hardly moved at all. But the writing is good. Maupassant's stories are intrigueingly plotted but the characterisation is not deep. Dostoyevsky does both extremely well.

As for analysis, you should take to it if you like it perhaps but it's not really necessary to producing work. I was reading this morning that Edna O'Brien's famed novel 'The Country Girls' was her first and written in three weeks. Katherine Mansfield writes lovely short stories with hardly any plot.

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

First-class post, Michelle, and I'm definitely going to try Paul Yoon!
I don't think craft deadens creativity. Rather, it allows us to express ourselves far more finely. Learning it is awkward, but once it becomes ingrained, like a musician's skill, it is there to be used as the writer wants.

Michelle Hoover said...

Thanks for everyone's comments. Of course, I think the best way to learn "craft" is simply to read loads. But if a beginning writer doesn't know what to look for, that reading still may not help (maybe nothing will). I consider plot "boring" only as a way to encourage its simplicity. Students seem to resist the most easy fixes when it comes to their novels, and doing so ties them in knots for years. They simply don't want that simplicity. But over-complicating their plots robs them of time better spent on character, scene, etc., the important stuff. Actually, I have yet to find a story or novel that does not have a "plot" in some way. It just depends on how you define the word. My definition is so heavily intertwined with character that it seems to float for any piece of fiction I read.

And DO grab up Yoon's collection. It's the real deal. The book was very well received by critics, but I don't believe enough people have read it yet.

Anonymous said...

It's probably true that, stripped down, plots are boring, but one still must exist, to act as the spine of the novel. A novel cannot stand up if it relies on character and setting alone.

Sophie x