On Stories as Products of Language

Here is a plot for a novel.

Plot of Part-Time Superhero by HJ Media Studios

That’s good and all, as far as it goes, but I’m just not sure that I believe in plot.

Now, this is a bit of a problem since I’m trying to make a name for myself writing novels (see my posts for the past couple of Tuesdays).  Novels, you might say, and lots of people do, are all about plot.

This lack of concern I have with plot wasn’t really a problem when I was focusing on poetry.  Plot can certainly be a focus in a poem, but for me the focus has always been image.  My poems survive and succeed (if, indeed, they do either) on their concentration on tone and emotion, not on what happens in the poem – assuming you mean by “what happens” the plot.  As in who goes where and does what when.

This lack of concern I have with plot wasn’t really a problem with short stories, either.  In short fiction, from flash to novella-ish (my longest story so far is about 12K words), I’m still focusing on emotion and tone and image.  My images in these stories are centered around scenes, yes, and those scenes are descriptions of what’s happening, yes, but those scenes aren’t necessarily connected into a larger scheme of What OMG Is Happening Here?  They scenes are structured more in line with This Is A Sequence Of Events, and by the time the reader gets to the end of that sequence of events they are in a specific fog of emotion/tone.  Ideally.

This lack of concern I have with plot wasn’t ever really a problem with plays, either.  And in some ways I’ve always found plays to be the easiest thing to write since it’s just two people talking to each other.  One person says something, and the other person has to respond with something.  Or they don’t respond, and that’s still a response (silence) that the first person can (and must) respond to.  Dialogue creates itself, both the chicken and the egg.

But, as I said, novels are all about plot.

Except when they’re not.

See, when I am talking about image or dialogue, what I’m really talking about is language.  And, for me as a writer, language begets language.  When I begin to write a novel, there is first the idea.  But that idea is so nebulous as to be virtually worthless. Take THE UNDERGROUND EMPIRE OF JOSEPH WUNDERKIND for example.  The idea?  A kid finds a door in his apartment building’s basement that leads to an underground complex of rooms.  Discuss.

Puzzle pieces - 2 by yann.co.nz

But as soon as I start writing, the idea is put into words.  It begins to define itself, and that definition calls forth certain logical extrapolations, and those extrapolations require elucidation and other big and important words until the novel has begun to take shape.  I always compare it to completing a jigsaw puzzle without a picture to guide me.  Each word, sentence, and scene I write begins to set the boundaries for the puzzle, creating the outer edges of the world.  As I get deeper and deeper into the novel, more of the inside of the puzzle is filled out and I have a better idea of what it is I’m writing and what the final picture will be until, finally, the puzzle is done, the novel finished, the picture complete.

I was discussing this process with my novel writing group this past week.  Tracy Jo outlines the entire novel before she begins so that she knows where she’s going.  She knows the essentials of the story before she starts, and she does that largely to prevent major problems occurring when she’s actually writing the novel (i.e., no sudden realizations that the novel you’re writing isn’t actually a novel or that the character whose POV you’re writing from shouldn’t actually be the main character).

That seems incredibly boring to me, though I understand the logic behind it.  I’m driven by what I create on the spur of the moment and what my mind dredges up to fill in the gaps between various plot points – plot points that only come to me, admittedly, after I’ve begun writing.

Would I have decided to have intelligent, ambulatory arms as characters in JOSEPH WUNDERKIND if I’d decided the plot beforehand?  I’m almost definite in that the answer would be no since the idea for that came from the end of the first chapter.  And that decision re: the arms has influenced everything since, essentially defining the scope of the novel (and, no, the novel is not about arms) (OR IS IT?!).

For me, language is what creates plot.

If you haven’t tried letting language guide your hand before, I suggest it at least as an experiment.  Let me know what you come up with.

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2 Responses to On Stories as Products of Language

  1. hmmm. interesting post, interesting process, but I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “letting language guide your hand.” Then again, I am convinced that poets’ brains are wired differently, and even though you have success in other kinds of writing, I suspect you are a poet at heart…

    I think rather than “plot” focusing on character is easier–what does he/she want? what is in his/her way? does he/ she get what she wants? Yes, but… or No, but… or Yes, and… or No, and… which of course then develops a plot 🙂

    but what do I know? I write memoir 🙂

    (glad you got your blog back)

  2. Andrew says:

    I think you know a lot, Jen, so there. 🙂

    As for character driving plot, I think that works well for some writers, but I feel that’s also where I hear complaints most often–people discover a character, follow them in their life, and then may end up with hundreds of pages (an exaggeration here) without a story hanging it all together.

    In some ways, I’m lucky because I have a genre skeleton to work with in that my novels have all been quest narratives. In that way, I’m allowed to be a little formless (I think) because I’m still on track for the overarching plot (the quest).

    I just returned from watching Fast Five, so I’m not sure my brain is making any sense.

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