The Bear at the Door
Welcome back, humans! Here’s what we’re looking to accomplish this week:
- Discover the secret to plotting your stories;
- Listen to Amanda Palmer’s husband tell us a story, not once but twice; and,
- Write a scene where shit gets real.
Before We Get Started, Does Anyone Want to Get Out?
Before we go any further, I need you to watch Neil Gaiman read his story “Click-Clack the Rattlebag.”
If you can’t see the video for some reason, you can read the story here. That said, maybe tell your computer to stop being a jerk. Because, let me tell ya, hearing Gaiman perform it is part of the charm.
A Yarn About Spinning a Yarn
You saunter into a saloon west of Mud River and ask for the best damn ink-slinger in these here parts. The barkeep looks up from the glass she’s drying with a dirty rag. She spits a mouthful of tobacco toward the floor behind the bar, where you hope there’s a spittoon, and she asks you if you’re looking for a planner or a pantser.
When you look back at her wide-eyed, scratching at the peach fuzz it’s taken you two years to sprout, you say “I don’t reckon I knows the difference.”
She smiles back at you with the whitest teeth you seen since you left Boston—teeth so white that, even back home, you woulda sworn they was store-bought. She smiles, and she shakes her head.
“Is there a difference,” you ask, “tween the two?”
“Tween a planner and a pantser?” she asks, and she looks downright flabbergasted.
“Yes, m’am,” you say. “That’s what I’m asking.”
“Is there a difference?” she asks, between cackles. She slaps the counter, then her knee, and then she turns to the drunkard passed out at the far end of the place. “You hear that, Al? This poor sap wants to know if there’s a difference tween a pantser and a planner?”
Al don’t say nothing, but he don’t have to. You’re sure he’d be laughing too, if he wasn’t three sheets to the wind. Three dozen sheets, more like.
And so, you leave. You didn’t want to learn to be no writer no how. To hell with these folk. They can keep their precious secrets to themselves.
Jargon Is The Absolute Worst
Let’s get this out of the way: writers can be assholes.
Like anybody with specialized knowledge, writers—me included—have a nasty habit of assuming the people just starting out will know what the hell we’re talking about. And if people are brave enough to admit that they don’t know, the worst of us tend to get flustered and impatient. Like the woman in the yarn I spun for you above, there are those who might even laugh derisively at the person who doesn’t understand the basics.
Like: how dare anyone want to learn something new?
The terms “pantser” and “planner” just happen to be the two bits of jargon freshest in my mind right now. I just finished teaching my Advanced Short Fiction seminar. And when I asked my students if they’d heard of “pantser vs. planner,” even they didn’t know. And they are, as we say in Boston, wicked shahp.
Think about that: writers are using jargon that even other writers don’t understand!
And what’s the end result of that? People who would otherwise make fantastic storytellers get turned off or turned away because they don’t know the lingo.
This shit has got to stop.
By the way: a planner is a writer who prefers to plot out their stories in advance. A pantser is someone who likes to, as the old saying goes, “fly by the seat of their pants.”
And some of the “writers” in the room are going, “Duh. How could anyone not know that?”
To those writers I say: Go fuck yourselves.
The Secret to Plotting Great Stories
Plot, very simply, is the shit that happens in a story. The one trick—the great secret!—to writing a great plot is this: keep em interested.
That’s it. Keep your reader turning pages. Do what it takes to keep them from picking up their phone, or turning on their TV, or turning to some other book for comfort because you just ain’t fulfilling them no more.
As Kurt Vonnegut so eloquently put it, “A story has to be a good date, because the reader can stop at any time.”
Keep the reader reading. That’s it. Write about people who interest you doing shit that interests you. It’s that simple.
And yet there are all of these paradigms and formulas and charts and crap that are presented as the one true way.
Here are just a few:
The Inverted Checkmark
Syd Field’s Screenplay Paradigm
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
If these are helpful for you to get started, great. But I’d caution you with the words of the author Lincoln Michael, who wrote in 2016 that the one underlying substance of story structure models is bullshit.
The most useful piece of advice I’ve ever read regarding plot is also one of the shortest. It comes from Steve Almond’s book This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. In it he writes “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.”
Yep. Sounds about right to me.
An Exercise Before the Exercise
Listen to Neil Gaiman’s story “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” one more time, but this time with the story structure models above kept in mind. Does Gaiman’s story follow any of these models? And if it doesn’t, does that make it any less effective?
We’re going to borrow another exercise from Janet Burroway’s masterful—but costly—Writing Fiction this week. It’s called “The Bear at the Door,” and it’s inspired by Jerome Stern.
In this scene, your character must have an external problem. (“Honey, there’s a bear at the door.”) The problem must be significant. (“Honey, it’s huge.”) The problem should be pressing. (“Honey, I think it’s trying to get in.”) And the problem should force your character to act. (“Honey, do something.”) Your character should have an internal conflict that affects her/his ability to deal with this problem—the bear within him/herself.
Take a stab at that and let me know how it goes. You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck! And we’ll see you back here next week.