Chapter

BEYOND PLOT

NOT ALL FICTION IS FOUNDED on the falling dominos of cause and effect. Some stories concern being rather than doing, states rather than processes. Rather Eastern, really.

The writer's problem is to make something essentially static, something that doesn't change, seem to move and develop before the reader's eyes. Otherwise the resulting story will be about as absorbing as watching a puddle.

The writer has to select or create some structure that's appropriate to the material and that will actjust as plot would, as an organizing principle to which he or she can refer questions of what to put in and what to leave out, what to develop and what to pass over, when to move and when to stand still.

The three strategies this chapter discusses—mosaic, collage, and revelation—can all happily coexist with plot, and with one another. Particularly in long fiction, collage or mosaic may be used as an additional element or variation within an otherwise plotted story, as are the newsreels in John Dos Passos' U. S. A. or the extended character sketches in Faulkner's The Town. (Then, they should be handled like exposition, which is also static and a potential distraction from the plotline: they should be kept brief and interjected only when the plot's running strongly and will carry the reader through the interpolation.) Revelation, a mystery gradually disclosed, is part of the archetypical Story we've been telling one another since we began to be people.

But in literary or experimental fiction, non-plot techniques are sometimes the main organizing principle of a whole short story. The story may contain a few incidents, but these aren't linked to one another in a cause/effect way. They're not plot. And a short story, being compact, can better sustain lots of technical "special effects" than can a whole novel: imagine watching five hours' worth of Laugh-In or MTV, or read about the first thirty pages of Finnegans Wake, and you'll see what I'm getting at.

All these techniques manipulate a story's surface, make it move, to compensate for the fact that the essential content doesn't move or change. And coping with a complicated surface can be as difficult, for a reader, as trying to make out what's being reflected in a choppy lake or trying to read by strobe light. Remember that, when you're writing. Balance motion and stillness at least enough so that the reader can figure out what the situation is, who the people are, and why the story will be worth puzzling out.

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