Bruce Boston Speculative Fiction Workshop

Bruce Boston is conducting an online workshop. Class starts May 2 and is limited to 15 students.


The Most Dastardly Plot of Willycon

[NOTE: I like all parts of a story. If you haven't read anything I've written, please don't assume/limit what kind of writing I like to read/write. Give the exercises Czerneda and Salsitz suggest a try and see if they don't expand limited notions of character. NOTE #2: No, I never want to stop learning about story from anyone who has anything worthwhile to say on the matter. Nothing kills a writer's writing more surely than the one who quits asking questions about his craft.]

Julie Czerneda and Rhondi Vilott Salsitz directed the writers’ workshop with an exercise Czerneda called, “The Wall.” When you run out of ideas or your plot feels flimsy, you stare at... [scary music] the wall. She didn’t necessarily call it so much a search for story as a search for potential plot points along a story. Writers grouped off into threes and viewed illustrations by A.B. Word. We basically brainstormed as many scenarios as possible from an illustration after five minute study. The importance of the exercise was not to construct a plot, but to find possible components of a plot (some of which you will discard, of course).

We shared our points, then each group traded illustrations. Suddenly, the stakes were higher. You had to get more creative since the more obvious plot points had already been spoken for. I found that while the ideas were fewer forthcoming, a few of the remaining ideas were necessarily more intriguing.

Czerneda’s take-home points were that if you tried too hard to write a story immediately after the viewing, you might lose energy the exploration provides. She suggested writers allow the ideas go way off target to get what they’re looking for.

Next, we were handed three story ideas that Czerneda had pulled down from her idea wall. She reads and selects articles from Discover magazine, Science News, and BBC for juicy ideas. Some of these she handed us to assemble into a plot. Every few minutes or so, she would add another idea out of her grab-bag, and the writers had to incorporate the ideas into the plot we were assembling. We also traded ideas with different groups (that is, you still have to use that idea, but so did another group). After an accumulation of about ten ideas, each group revealed their plots.

The first lesson I took away was the value of discarding ideas. Salsitz [I believe] said that ideas do not have to be weighted equally. Sometimes, an idea is just a background detail. So if you have too much going on, consider paring or “sublimating”--moving an idea from the main thread.

One idea I was keen on discarding, however, was a key component of colleague’s future play (he has plans to write a play, me a story based on our idea session). William Campbell, short-short-ist (his collection) and playwright with two plays currently in New York, was great to bounce ideas off of (Terry Hickman, who has a novella forthcoming from Jintsu Press, also played a valuable part but she wasn't quite as taken by the ideas). We took each other’s ideas and took tangents off tangents, reinterpreting bad ideas into wholly new and hopefully provacative ways.

Finally we were handed “tone” & “consequence” cards that suggested how the story should feel overall and the final consequence followed all these plot events. These cards, Czerneda pointed out, changed the plots, changed what we expected from them, and got us to think about what ideas the plot conveyed.

To be frank, I couldn’t understand the other groups’ plots, lacking characters (what’s a plot without characters?). So I asked how character fit into all of this. The next assignment was to find character[s] who fit[s] this arc of ideas, character[s] to whom this arc matters most. Bill and I didn’t have too much more work to do since we’d come up with a character already in order to understand our plot (perhaps we were lucky enough to be handed an interesting character on an early card). We did need finer points to flesh out the character of his character, which Czerneda thought helped with the plot's motivation.

Bill and I discussed some of these ideas over lunch. Character is king when talking of story, but talking plot is really no different than talking of the environmental conditions that impact a character’s course and that may even change a character within to cope better with his environment. Character, meanwhile, is the DNA, and/or the personality built from prior environmental exposures (parents or previous plots that changed a character’s course). Which you lean on more heavily--character or plot--may shed more light on your world view.

The whole exercise sounds rather plotty, of course, but unless you try it for yourself, you’re bound to miss how adding new and unusual plot points can stretch your characters and enrich your stories. If done right, you can walk away invigorated, as Bill and I at least of the dozen writers present, felt the fiery hand of the muse touch us as we pulled and twisted the ideas into something relevant to our character in his situation. I submit you can’t do character without plot, nor vice versa, although you can lean toward one or another. Plot is what happens when you break the status quo, and isn’t breaking the status quo exactly what builds and develops character as he learns from the plot's unfolding? I could limelight or put in a bad light either option, but let’s just leave that up to the stories that individual storytellers choose to tell.

Following the exercises was a question and answer period with the authors. Despite all the talk of plot (or because of), they talked mostly about character. Salsitz thought villains, at their best, were not necessarily villains but the polar opposite of your protagonist. She suggested, amongst other vital statistics, knowing your character’s religion, personality traits, and fears. Everybody has a skeleton in the closet, even if the writer never pulls it out. (She suggested Red Moon, Black Mountain by Joy Chant as an example of where a main character has to die in the greater service of the plot (I suggested that you could always resurrect him again for the sequel--ha, ha).

Czerneda said she had two approaches to character. If idea came first, you decide upon the consequences of that trail of ideas, and decide what character best fit, what character the plot trail would matter most to. In character-oriented fiction, she looked at the triggers or fatal flaws that cause problems within that character. She also developed layers of character: what made her anxious, nervous, fearful of something that she could never overcome (she cautioned not to toy too much with this one except at climax because it’s easy to overdo). If a [character? plot?] is too easy, then it’s probably not worth doing.


Playing the Game: Rules and Experiment

I can't yet weigh in on the Rake's Progress debate without having read the books in question, but being a fan of some postmodern aspects and a scourge to others, I'd like to weigh once more on rules in my own recent viewing/reading experiences.

“Rules are meant to be broken” appears to be the mantra of Robert Altman. Alice McDermott, in the Oct/Nov 2000 Writer’s Chronicle article “Bend Sinister: A Handbook for Writers,” wrote that no one can tell you how to write, which I took to mean something along the lines of Altman’s rote quote. Yet I wonder: Do they really mean that?

I submit that it is the very rules the give us pleasure. If someone plays a fine game of tennis, we admire his skill. If someone swims in the Olympics, we may appreciate the fine, smooth technique or their power.

While you can bend or break a lot of “rules” in fiction (usually those which weren’t rules to begin with, but artifacts that helped certain kinds of stories achieve a satisfactory “intercourse”), there are probably some rules that are pervasive or overarching (“über”) that, when broken, can only allow at best an interesting experience.

A friend of mine, whose opinion I admire, went to see Gosford Park and hated it. I only recently saw it for myself and discovered why: It was marketed as a murder mystery. As a mystery, it sucks. The strength of the film is not that it breaks the rules of a murder mystery, but that it plays by its own rules: It is essentially a finely detailed fictional documentary of the life of the English upper class and their servants. If people went in expecting those rules, more would have come out appreciating what the filmmakers accomplished. If the film had gone into a little more depth with each character, I might have suggested the film was genius. Unfortunately, most of the stories are necessarily cut short due to time constraints; however, to go into more story would risk--if excessive--pushing it into soap opera, which Altman himself labeled it. In fact, examining the deleted scenes, one finds that most of what they attempted to do in expanding the stories would have slopped over into excess (except the last deleted scene which I thought marvelous).

But are there any über rules that Altman ought not to have broken? Well, as our scientific pals recently discovered, if even intelligent humans are given more than four variables, they don’t follow what’s going on. For literature, I surmise that including more than four story threads will only confuse viewers (which isn’t to limit stories to only four major characters unless you want the reader to follow each character as a separate story). Now some readers love to be dumbfounded by art, but they can’t really talk about art in an intelligible way, so why should we pander to them?

In the commentary track, Altman mentions again that rules are meant to be broken in conjunction with “Never cut on a pan shot.” “That sounds like a stupid rule to begin with” was my first reaction, not knowing why someone would suggest such a rule, but then Altman’s breaking the rule accomplished nothing as far as I could tell. If you break a rule, you should know why it was first suggested as a rule and why you broke it (see McDermott’s quote emphasized below). Altman’s MASH broke rules to good effect: nudity, sex, profanity, medical gore, improvisation away from the script. Why? The film was about Vietnam, so he broke the rules in rebellion to a culture that created those boundaries. MASH made today would still be interesting but soon forgotten. Some of these rules that Altman created with MASH, however, he still carries along into later films to lesser effect. Blessing a jeep is improvisational genius in MASH. The separate threads of conversation in the “upstairs” dining room of Gosford Park, while realistic, are mostly superfluous and, therefore, expendable.

McDermott seems to be aware of the rule/no-rules seeming dichotomy:
In a recent workshop at Sewanee, Ernest Gaines said..., “No one can tell you how to write your stories....” And then a split second later, there passed a shadow of utter dismay.... “Then what the hell are we doing here?”

I think this implies that each writer must come to a sense of personal rules, but these are rules that must be communicable, probably based on older rules. McDermott demonstrates how the rules are “broken” in Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister (Now just because Nabokov gets away with some of this doesn’t mean it was genius or even good but simply he followed what he felt the narrative needed):
A first sentence made up of three phrases joined by semicolons, followed by a single-word sentence.... Blatant alliteration, second person and first person in novel that is to be predominately third person, a detailed description of a puddle--can you do that?... Are you allowed to have the whole first page of the novel go by without indication of who, what, when, where, or why we should keep reading?

But really it doesn’t take long to get at enough of the who, what, when, where, or why to keep reading, so I’m not sure he really broke any rule there. She also points out he uses other supposed taboos (although he’s hardly the first to do any of these--it’s just most beginning writers do it poorly):
the manipulative use of dreams to give background and develop character. Long, delightful, but didactic passages that however briefly put the story on hold to explore the nature of thought, God, Shakespeare, school yard bullies, the futility of translation... [and a] final blatant authorial intrusion

But she does derive rules even from these supposedly broken ones:
[T]ake your reader by the scruff of the neck and make him see the world you are calling forth, remember the appeal of language used well and the necessity of voice, of the human, and in the simplest descriptions, and remember, too, that this is fiction you are writing, where every detail is chosen and every word purposeful and a necessary part not only of the sentence it is contained in but of the entire work as well....

The emphasis is mine, of course, but she emphasizes it, too, by more or less repeating the advice. She goes on to talk about finding telling details of characters as opposed to cataloging them (although that can be done too--if done well, of course).

So rules are here with us. The rules help us appreciate the form. If it’s a mystery, we know we will be examining clues and motives. If it’s science fiction, we know that we will be thrilled by the manipulation of science. And so on. It may be important to remember that (although I plan to point out seeming exceptions) if you break some rules, you are probably not so much “breaking” anything but rather no longer writing within a certain form, writing within another form altogether, or inventing a new one on your own. No crime has been committed. But to break rules, you should both know them and know what you hope to bring about in their breaking. If you want to "break" rules within a form, that requires mending the fiction to otherwise conform to the rules.

Buckell Interviews David Barr Kirtley

Don't know if Toby posts these things anywhere but in his newsletter, but Kirtley has some great responses (takes Zelazny's Books of Amber with him on a desert island, time-travels to kill Orson Scott Card to steal Ender's Game), but especially this:
Buckell: What's the most challenging aspect of writing?

Kirtley: For me, by far, it's coming up with good ideas. I know that most writers will tell you that ideas are easy, they're everywhere, all around you. I think this is just a natural reaction to the constant stream of bozos assaulting them with, "Hey man, I've got this great idea for a story. I'll sell it to you for $50,000." After a while, you're just conditioned to snap, "Look, ideas aren't that important." But if good ideas are so easy, then why does it seem that most stories I read are well-executed but ultimately forgettable because they're built around a nothing idea?