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?