Friday, November 11, 2016

Story glue

My pal, we’ll call him… Chesschamp; he’s quite a bright fellow, intellectually. In fact he’s the current official chess champion (I know. You saw that coming) of Scooterville, which is no small feat. Scooterville is actually one of the nation’s larger cities; akin, I am guessing, to Ottawa or Calgary in population.

I think the particular tribes he throws himself into are deplorable but I still respect him. I see that he approaches these associations out of loyalty to a different kind of intelligence than that which I give priority; one immersed in the theoretical.

He’ll talk philosophy or politics with you all day and all night if you can bear it. He has a gentle demeanor and a kind willingness; an eagerness even, to drop whatever he’s doing at any time and help a pal world-build their novel or work out their plot tinkering, and with genuine interest to boot.

Chesschamp thinks very highly of plot. He even seems to infer that plot is the most important element in the novels he reads; key to his enjoyment of the story. While I happily concede that he may know something I don’t, on this or many other matters, I cannot grasp this point of view.

Writers say, Hey New Day! Will you listen to my new story idea? It goes like this: and then they deliver the plot; or as much of it as they have thus far deciphered. They might divulge at length the twists of a complex murder mystery or else say, “Well I’ve got this neighborhood breakfast café and there are these regulars: an automotive mechanic, a pretty woman who is basically single for the first time in her life, and a trio of old men who talk over each other in their native language while waving their hands all over the place.” What do you think? Could that work? My answers are mostly identical. Well sure it could work. It depends what you do with it.

Any plot imaginable could work. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire story, if broken down into pure plot outline will probably run a thousand pages! And it works! Here’s a somewhat briefer plot that could possibly work:

There’s this bottle of ketchup. People shake its contents onto their food.

I attribute my enjoyment of stories to such things as my ability to relate to characters and the engagement of my empathy; to the relief of tensions; to the triggering of my own memories; to the escape from my own world and the novelty of immersion in another world; to the lyrical use of words and their rhythms; to entertaining humour, to thrilling emotions and the artful progression of one to the next; to the coming alive of scenery in my mind; to finding out I’m not alone and the comforting sense of camaraderie, to the gut satisfaction of redemption, revenge or justice; to the little details which bring things alive; to all the tiny hints at this grand thing called love; to the cautions and the warnings for which I am grateful; to the fascinating experiences which are not available to me in own life circumstances; to the road maps to better ways and the hope they instill; to lessons learned and valuable perspectives gleaned; to the tricks of word-play. Ha! You got me there! I could go on.  

There are a hundred and one things I connect with directly but never directly to plot.

Remember the giant wall murals the whole class would create? Thirty artists; one crinkly colossus you could land a small plane on? All its colorful components are what I have described above. Plot is the glue which holds them all together.

Plot is a pile of wood and nails; a pile of inanimate things barren of life but from which we may build the framework of a house. You connect with the furniture and décor and the people within the house; not with the frame. And you build a house by first planning the needs the house must serve; the necessary rooms and their dimensions. Then you architect it all before you start building the frame.

Plot is the last consideration. Plot is building what you need to build in order to serve the greater purposes.

It took a while but I have learned not to start story ideas with the plot. I think about themes, ideas, characters, wisdom, lessons, environments; stuff that I know or else can entertain with a strong sense of imagination. Then I devise a plot which will loyally draw them all together. Because whether we think about it or properly account for it, our lives and every life we’ve ever heard of, and all of these lives’ minute components, are firmly anchored in causality. At some deep level we get this. Plot simply delivers the causality necessary to allow the story’s components to feel real. It holds up the house.

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