4.12.2005

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.