No foolin’

I thought about coming up with some kind of elaborate April Fool’s joke for you, but it only took me about 15 seconds to realize that I’m not that sort of clever. Instead, I’ll provide you with some serious yet entertaining advice from the genius of Kurt Vonnegut, via blogger Derek Sivers, via Galleycat. I was fascinated by these charts and explanations for two reasons.

The first is that the craft of storytelling is a bit beyond me. I’m not a writer (as you may have noticed) and have zero aspiration to be one, but I’m really interested in process nonetheless. I can understand how one decides to write a story and even how inspiration works (in as much as anyone understands that), and I get the mechanics of working toward publication (fortunately for my clients!), but I really can’t comprehend what happens in between. How do a series of disparate scenes become a narrative? How does a person who does not exist and never has and never will seem to come to life on the page? How does one even sit down and type for as long as it would take to complete a novel, even the world’s worst novel, without churning out non-sequiturs or a slightly more polished version of what a monkey at a typewriter would produce? I do believe I edit well, and I can certainly identify when something isn’t working and sometimes where I think its gone wrong and sometimes but not always what would make it go right, but I know I couldn’t make it work from scratch. These charts make so much sense now that I’m looking at them—they’re rather obvious in retrospect—but to be able to do that is nearly miraculous as far as I’m concerned. Even a bad novel is a pretty significant achievement, in my mind. And the great ones? Mindboggling.

The second thing that interested me here is the way that Vonnegut explains not just how stories work, but why. I’ve always been drawn to stories that don’t replicate these sorts of patterns. I love bleak endings and anti-heroes and books that leave you with a sense of dread at the mundane nature of human existence. Happy endings are nice, and I’m not opposed to them in the right kind of novel, but I often find myself thinking about what happens after the end of a story and assuming things settle back down into that perfectly fine line halfway between misery and ecstasy in fairly short order. I’m just a cheery person that way! But rather than object to what Vonnegut’s charting here, the explanation of how life frustrates because it doesn’t deviate much from that middle road is pretty illuminating to me. I tend to assume big ups and downs aren’t likely, and thus tend not to fear big things. Really, how likely is it that something unusually terrible will happen to me of all people? It’s kind of comforting. (In turn, common but fairly harmless things like bats fill me with terror. Less comforting, that.) And yet the sense of dread in the stories I love does stem from the same sort of thinking that does the sense of joy in the stories Vonnegut charts here. There’s dread at mundane existence, at the way things are likely to just go on as they are, that the major happinesses aren’t on the horizon. Maybe some day your prince will come, but it’ll probably turn out he snores and has been disinherited from the throne. The bleakest of books are just performing the flip side of the equation, rather than deviating from the rule Vonnegut sets up here.

So which kind of writer are you? Do questions of craft enter your mind at all, or do you let your muse do the writing? Would you/have you used charts like this to plot your stories? And do they conform to this question of expectation v. reality, or go in a completely different direction that would require a different chart entirely?

5 Responses to No foolin’

  1. Tammy says:

    Not all stories should have happy ending. It’s just not realistic. Maybe there is no knight on a white horse that’s going to come and save the day. Maybe the character needs to save themselves.

    I’ve been given a lot of flack for some of the ending I’ve wrote. “How could you kill off the main character?!” They asked. Sometimes you just have to, if you’re really going to get your point across.

    Nothing perturbs me more than a story with battles and drama and at the end everyone is holding hands and tip toeing through the daisies.

  2. Lisa Marie says:

    The muse is a beautiful, compelling creature without any common sense. She doesn’t always act in your best interest. The muse is the voice of the Id.

    I use graphs and flow charts to write, along with highly detailed outlines of around 50 pages. It took me a month to get my last outline written. And this was after I did the requisite market research to ascertain what the specific demographic I’m targeting wants to read about. “Write it and they will read” is a noble ambition, but it’s also impractical.

  3. Julie Nilson says:

    I use something of an outline, in which parts are very detailed, even written in full, and other parts have brilliant wisdom such as, “Somehow they get from the office to his house.” But nothing about it is set in stone–whole chunks frequently get moved around, especially as I start to fill in those un-detailed sections.

    As for creating realistic characters that don’t exist in reality, they actually do, a little bit. Many of my characters’ quirks and flaws come from real people. No one character is 100% based on a single person, but they all contain threads of people that I know.

  4. I’ve used these kinds of charts mentally, but never actually made one on paper or in a computer file. It’s more that I notice things are going too easily for my characters, and realize I have to shake them up. This usually happens in the outlining stage, though, since I write fairly intensive outlines.

    I often find myself thinking about what happens after the end of a story and assuming things settle back down into that perfectly fine line halfway between misery and ecstasy in fairly short order
    I wrote a short story out of this premise, actually! In epic fantasies, there’s often a high note at the end–yay, the world is saved!–but I wondered what happened after that. The characters just settle down? Don’t they get bored after all that adventure? Or do they like the quiet? I’ve been meaning to polish that story and submit it…

    As for creating characters…sometimes it feels almost like you aren’t. Sure, there are plenty of times where you just can’t figure out a character’s motivation or personality beyond the surface and you can’t get them to work, but sometimes it’s almost like they’re real people and you just have to discover who they are. When you do, the writing becomes much easier, and these are usually the most interesting people in the story.

  5. Donna Hole says:

    LOL: its the problem with women’s fiction writing I think. Especially because there always has to be romance, and the romance has to be BIGGER than anything you would experience in ordinary life. Drama and tragedy at exaggerated proportions. So women can relate to it? Hmm.

    I don’t have a chart or plotted story arc. Not written down. I have things that have to happen from this point to that, and I insure there is tension, conflict, progression. And emotion. Section by section.

    I’ve been wondering lately if it would help to write out all the specific’s I’d like to accomplish in the plot, then revise accordingly. I have a tendency to let my characters lead me into their “arcs”. . .

    I enjoyed the article Lauren. Thanks for sharing it.


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