Demystifying Plot

John Fried

Often, when I teach fiction writing workshops, I feel a bit like a guy peddling fortune cookies, each with a classic saw about craft inside. Show, don’t tell . . . Put your character in a tree and throw rocks at them . . . A problem with endings is a problem with beginnings. My students nod kindly. Many of them are science majors, taking a detour into humanities (or more often fulfilling a requirement) and they take notes, as if they plan on returning to these sage pearls of wisdom before the midterm. (Punchline: There is no midterm.) I sometimes feel that they want to make sense of how a story works in the same way they want to understand how the pancreas functions.

blog image 11-6And of course, it’s not like I don’t believe the things I say. Despite sounding like a fiction-writing Magic 8 ball at times, I know these adages contain valuable truths about craft and storytelling. More often than not, I’m repeating sayings that my previous teachers have said to me or that I’ve read and then tucked away.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time teaching fiction writing and trying to write fiction myself, it’s that all of these sayings don’t mean a thing until you actually start writing. You can spend a life time thinking about writing and never get a story down on paper. There are shelves of books at the library devoted to craft. Talking about writing only gets you so far. In fact, these kind of gems of advice can be even more destructive than helpful. It’s like getting up to bat in a baseball game for the first time and trying to keep all the advice of your coaches in your head at the same time. Keep your eye on the ball. Keep your bat back and hands together. Stay loose. Drive the ball. If all goes well, these ideas become part of your muscle memory, habits you sink into, but at first, they’re more often a sign that you’re just thinking too much. They are the multiple voices in your head that only make writing that much harder. A friend of mine once said that this was why she couldn’t write for a year after she finished her MFA. Too many instructions that she had to forget before she could start to write again.

So these days when my students are writing their first stories, I try to simplify the process. I don’t ask them to come up with a plot. Instead, I give them one. I take the plot of a classic story, something they’ve read and we’ve dissected, and tell them to use the structure and inciting action as a means to their own story. Someone is coming to stay at your character’s house and your character is not excited about it. (See Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.”) You work every day in a service job you have no love for and have to deal with at least three customers over the course of the story. (See Jim Shepard’s “Reach for the Sky.”) It’s a holiday and your character is going to have dinner at the house of people you’ve never met before. (See Julie Orringer’s “Pilgrims.”) Plot, I try to show them, is largely generic. It’s the characters you invest in those plots that matter. Character, I try to show them, trumps, plots every time. In the best situations—to borrow another one of my fortune cookie sayings—character is plot.

In doing so, of course, I’m trying to give them a leg up on the story process. They don’t have to worry (as much) about where to start or what’s going to happen. They have a basic road map. At least that’s what they think. It’s their job, I tell them, to make the story their own.

blog image 11-6 - 2Sooner or later, most of them realize I’ve given them everything and nothing, all at once. They’ve still got the arduous task of figuring out whose story it’s going to be and what kind of a character he or she is. They’ve still got to explore the inner life of their character and make us understand their inner world. They’ve still got to put the actual flesh on this skeleton and bring it to life. They’ve got to make their story, for lack of a better expression, transcend the simplicity of the plot.

The end result is often a mixed bag. I get stories of baristas dealing with obnoxious coffee-drinkers. I get stories about a new roommate who moves in with the college kids. (“Write what you know!”) Or the opposite: A vampire couple is invited to have Thanksgiving dinner at the werewolf family’s house. Spoiler: Turkey isn’t the only meat on the menu.

No matter what the variation, the bottom line is that the students now have a story. A story that often lacks conflict, or where they rushed to reach the finish, or where there’s little to no resolution, or where believability is stretched to its limits, but a story nonetheless. A beginning, a middle, and an end. And they have the stories of their peers to look at objectively and consider what’s working, what’s not, and what’s still left to do. And with that, they can join the conversation about writing, instead of thinking about it in the abstract. They can see all the adages about craft come to life in their own work and the work of their peers. And they can then embark on the next challenging task: revision. Because that’s where the real work begins. As the saying goes.

John Fried’s fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including The Gettysburg Review, Minnesota Review, and North American Review. He teaches creative writing at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. John is in issue 295.2, Spring 2010.

Images by: Julie J Seo, a paper-collage illustrator based in New York City. Her clients include Society of Illustrators, 3X3 magazine, Amelia’s Magazine, Richard Pearmain, and Visual Opinion Magazine. You can see more about Julie at