Friday, July 27, 2012

Something Better Happen: Or, Plotting is Your Friend

Arvin Loudermilk taught me more about how to tell a story than anyone or anyplace else on the planet. He didn't do it all by himself. He did it through books he recommended, TV shows and movies we watched together, and by letting me watch a Manic Plotter at work over the almost twenty-five years I've known him. This Plot-World is not necessarily a safe environment to venture into, especially for someone like me who lives in the Land of Pretty Sentences surrounded by a lot of intuition and hope that those pretty sentences make a story. Arvin lives in the land of Something Is Happening.

How is that possible? Because he makes sure it is. He holds entire universes in his head, backstories for hundreds of characters, thousands of pages of a series of novels.

He makes worlds. I follow words. For a long time, there was a cavernous moat between us on this issue, filled with alligators and damsels in distress, and flying dragons, and ... or, as Arvin would say, cut the babble and find the story.

I guess it's normal to stick with what's familiar and with what you're good at. Because I loved language first, I focused my studies on that and figured the rest would take care of itself. Sure, I loved a good story, but not nearly as much as I loved a great sentence. And, as often happens to those of us who love the sentence, we poo-poo the genres that focus on story more than sentence. That's not writing. That's storytelling! we might say in a dark corner after a poetry reading when we notice someone is carrying a copy of the latest mega-bestseller.

Over the years, at least for me, I've had to step back from Language Land and really investigate what makes a story. I want people to read my stories, and let's face it, most people want a good story more than they want a fabulous sentence.

Why can't there be both? I think there can be, but not if a person doesn't understand what makes a story compelling. Very few people will just read strings of sentences. They want the suspense. The tension. The experience of being in another world. Sentences are the tools for creating that world, but I've learned they must be more than beautiful. They have to carry the weight of the story's movement. They have to construct, deconstruct, and seduce. A sentence isn't a fluffy socialite. It's a warrior.

I wanted to spend some time while on sabbatical learning to write differently. I wanted to learn more about what I am weakest at, and I wanted to push myself out of what was comfortable. I asked Arvin for book recommendations from authors who were strong plotters.He recommended books by Dennis Lehane, James Lee Burke, John Connolly, and Neil Gaiman. He recommended rewatching the HBO series The Wire. I studied shows like Breaking Bad and Damages and The Killing, asking myself: What are the writers doing to make me respond like X? What are they doing to make me respond like Y?

I studied these authors like I once studied highbrow literature in college, and surprisingly, I found myself enjoying reading again. I was reading stories that moved on the page, that surprised me, that made me cry. I hadn't cried reading a book in twenty years. Then I read Robert McCammon's A Boy's Life.

Teaching so long had turned me into a reader who read for intellectual reasons. I had forgotten somewhere that I used to read because reading took me places. It made me feel things. It opened my heart (and my mind), but it opened my heart first. I wanted to get back to that place, and I've had a bit of success with that this year. I have fallen in love again with stories. Now, I've got to keep working on putting into practice the things I'm learning.

Arvin helps me with this. Check out his book In a Flash. I have listened to him talk about the characters and the worlds in this book (and the subsequent ones in the series), for years. He simply gets Story.

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