Autodidact: self-taught


Interest and Truth (Plotting) Pt 2

by V. L. Craven

From John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction

Chapter Three: Interest and Truth

-42- The fictional process is the writer’s way of thinking, a special case of the symbolic process by means of which we do all our thinking.

I really enjoy the idea of writing fiction as being as much for the benefit of the reader as the writer, as the best writers say they write primarily for themselves. (Nabokov, for example) and that’s something I can relate to–trying to write for another person turns all writing into a chore, an assignment from a teacher.

-43- By definition, a story contains profluence—a sequence that can end in only one of two ways: in resolution or in logical exhaustion—our recognition that we’ve reached the stage of infinite repetition; more events might follow, but they will all express the same thing.

-44- Resolution is of course the classical and usually more satisfying conclusion; logical exhaustion satisfies us intellectually but often not emotionally, since it’s more pleasing to see things definitely achieved or thwarted.

-45- Logical exhaustion usually reveals that the character’s supposed exercise of free will was illusory. … The only emotions such fiction can ordinarily produce are weariness and despair…

-46- It might be objected here that no law requires art to be “pleasing.” A story that raises expectations, then shows why they can neither be satisfied nor denied, can be as illuminating, and as interesting moment by moment, as any other kind of story, though the ending may annoy us.

-47- …the reader is lead from an unstable initial situation to its relatively stable outcome.

-48- …the writer’s timing in his opening pages is a signal to his reader’s expectations.

-49 The writer works out plot in one of three ways: by borrowing some traditional plot or an action from real life, by working his way back from his story’s climax; or by groping his way forward from an initial situation.

I use the second and third methods–the second method is ‘easier’ to write because I have a destination, but the third is more fun because I don’t know where the characters are going to take me.

-50- Since usually one does not work out plot all at once, but broods over it, mentally trying alternatives, taking notes, carrying the idea in the back of one’s mind as one reads or does laundry, working and reworking it for days or months or, sometimes, years, one may in practice work both backward and forward…Whatever happens in life—a curious fact one comes across in one’s reading, a snatch of conversation, something from the newspaper—all this becomes possible material for the shaping of the plot, or for characters, setting, and them as they may influence the plot.

-51- If the story is to be efficient and elegant, the writer must introduce no more background events or major characters than strictly necessary, and must introduce these materials in the smallest possible number of scenes, each scene rhythmically proportionate to those surrounding, so that the pace is regular or, if appropriate, in regular acceleration, in regular acceleration. … The efficient and elegant writer makes each scene bear as much as it can without clutter or crowding, and moves by the smoothest, swiftest transitions possible from scene to scene.

This is particularly difficult to do when employing the ‘groping in the dark’ method of plotting because characters (at least *my* characters) have a tendency to ramble. I think of them as a cast of improv performers who like the spotlight and want to keep it as long as possible.

-52- He must think at the same time, about why it is that the story interests him. Whether he is using a traditional plot, an action drawn from life, or something he’s made up, no writer chooses his story by pure whim or the mechanical combination of random elements.

-53- But however it may be achieved, in all great fiction, primary emotion must sooner or later life off from the particular and be transformed to an expression of what is universally good in human life—what promotes happiness for the individual alone and in society; some statement on value. In good fiction, this universal statement is likely to be too subtle, too loaded with qualifications, to be expressed in any way but the story’s way; it may be impossible, that it, to reduce at any rule of behaviour or general thesis. We *understand* the value, understand it with great precision, but even the shrewdest literary critic may have trouble formulation it in words and thus telling us the story’s “message”.

This makes me feel so much better–great fiction is difficult to quantify–thank pete.

-54- No fiction can have real interest if the central character is not an agent struggling for his or her own goals but a victim, subject to the will of others. (Failure to recognize that the central character must *act*, not simply be acted upon, is the single most common mistake in the fiction of beginners.) We care how things turn out because the character cares—our interest comes from empathy.

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