Archive for the ‘Plot’ Category
Plot is complicated.
The more I think about plot, the more complicated it gets.
Plot is the method by which you present your story.
Plot is a vehicle.
Plot is a purposeful sequence of events — and in a well-plotted story, those events all connect logically and culminate in a specific goal, or climax.
“Life is an unceasing sequence of individual actions,” said Ludwig von Mises.
That is true. Plot is similar, but plot is among other things selective in the actions presented. The author is the selector.
Plot is purpose — and for this reason plot requires that your characters who engage the plot meet with adversity, difficulties, obstruction. It requires struggles and obstacles of some sort. Why does plot require this? Because it is only by means of such things that characters can be presented and developed.
Plot is drama.
Drama holds the reader’s interest.
As Kurt Vonnegut said:
“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.”
Plot is not action alone. It is not random events.
Neither is plot a series of conversations (even if those conversations are in and of themselves interesting), and it is not a catalog of day-to-day or minute-by-minute activities.
Novels are by definition about human action. If, therefore, the subject of the story isn’t dramatized in terms of action, it is not a successful story.
Within this framework, there are degrees of plot-versus-plotlessness. Thus, of a story that has a sequence of actions that aren’t motivated by purposeful action but rather by accidents, it is appropriate to call this a plotless story. But of a story that has a sequence of events which does progress purposely, or even semi-purposely, and yet which is resolved by pure chance — or if there are actions unrelated to the storyline — it is appropriate to call this a plotted but poorly plotted story.
To dismiss plot because it is invented, or to describe plot as an unnecessary contrivance, as many academics do, is like dismissing the rules of chess as an unnecessary contrivance and yet trying to play chess without those rules.
Plots are invented because humans need to see human life in compendiated, encapsulated form.
That, incidentally, is the function of art — all art — and that is why plots are the indispensable device of storytelling: because they encapsulate, via the writer’s selection of events, the human experience.
P.S. Speaking of Kurt Vonnegut, my good friend Greg sent this to me:
He was the only child of middle-aged parents, a miner-turned-truck-driver named Neil and Neil’s wife Angela, a half Cherokee lady of rare beauty whom Joel loved with all his heart — one younger sister born dead four years after him.
He grew up silent, a silent child, pale and skinny but healthy. He brought coal from the shed to the stoker. He took out clinkers. He had certain gifts. He was quick with numbers and he could draw. His father had taught him to read when he was only four, and from approximately first grade onward, he developed the habit of counting almost everything he did. Later he began calculating things, it didn’t matter what, license plate numbers, prices in store windows, numerals on clocks, and then adding and subtracting and multiplying these numbers, dividing and subtracting, re-adding and so on, endlessly, all in his head, all day long. It brought him comfort.
The three of them lived together, on the outskirts of a mining town, in a large house-shaped trailer, fifty meters beyond the backyard of which an undulation of aspen trees fell away across the slopes. He seemed wise beyond his years and bore his father’s barehanded beatings with a stoicism unimaginable in one so young. Like his father, he possessed an uncanny sense of direction, and also time, but more than anything else, his mind was of a naturally speculative cast.
The month that Joel turned seven, it rained for three weeks straight. It rained and rained, morning, noon, and night, and finally it rained so much that after a while Joel thought it would never stop. He stood in his bedroom, in front of the window, watching for hours the low sky flash and weep. The woods beyond lay dripping and lugubrious. It was during this period that he came home from school one afternoon and found his aunt and uncle waiting for him near his bus stop, at the end of a leafy lane.
The two of them stood next to their mud-encrusted pickup, under a blue awning, waiting outside despite the cold weather, the rain sizzling in the streets around them. They watched him come up. His aunt Nikki was his mother’s younger sister, and she and her husband Peter lived in a town ninety miles north and rarely visited. So when Joel saw them both standing there waiting for him that day, he knew something was wrong.
There came a short break every afternoon when the spongy sky would momentarily dry—an hour or so at three o’clock, the clouds lackadaisically spitting—and then the rain would begin all over again, gathering easily at first, with a sound like the whisper of wind in the grass, and then increasing until soon everything was cats and dogs. It was this that he came home through.
He wore his red fireman boots and his golden raincoat. He walked with his head down. His uncle, a kind, phlegmatic man with the hangdog mien of a mortician, stood by the truck, his meaty forearms crossed over his chest, his Army Surplus boots planted widely apart and a butcher’s apron still on under his jacket. The apron was stained with brownish blood.
His aunt had her head turned, and she appeared convulsive, as if shivering. Joel could see beyond them the windows of the house-shaped trailer ablaze with lights, creamy in the burgeoning dusk, and he could see also an orange-and-white ambulance parked out front. The air was purple, the color of thunderstorms. Small bubbles were popping in the puddles he walked through, and box elder leaves lay enameled across the asphalt, tiny frameworks of leaves pitched like ribcages in the grass. An odor of iron hung in the air, mixed with the mealy odor of leaves. Feathers of mist blew off the cliffs above, and these details he would remember all his life.
His uncle didn’t say a word to him as he proceeded up, only adjusted his orbital eyeglasses and gripped Joel by the shoulder, as if trying to break a chip off. Joel turned to his aunt, who looked back at him with tear-shattered eyes. She blinked slowly, to gather herself, then told him that he would be spending the night with them, that they would all have dinner together and later a movie, if he wanted, and after that he would sleep at their house, in the guest room, and would not have to go to school the next day.
And so later that evening, in a diner eighty-five miles north, while his aunt held onto his dead fingers and his uncle smoked Marlboros without surcease, Joel sat in a crimson leather booth staring out at the watery lot beyond. The table beneath his arms reeked of bleach. Rain had completely stippled the glass, flatworms of water now sliding across the windowpane. A pink replica of the drugstore sign across the street lay slurred over the pavement. The gutters below were sluicing with liquid gold. Joel ate a piping-hot grilled cheese sandwich and potato chips; he drank milk. He watched his uncle crush with the back of his fork a lunar volcano of mashed potatoes and then flood the potatoes with molten gravy. After dinner, they all went to a movie Joel would not remember, throughout the entirety of which his aunt sat weeping in her chair. Thunder trundled down the sky above like rubber wheels across an attic floor.
Next morning outdoors, his uncle told Joel that his mother Angela had died in the night, a series of strokes, he said, these are what had killed her. Joel did not know what a stroke was, but what he pictured were large clots of blood chugging down her windpipe, and glottal sounds, her air totally cut off.
He thought: my pretty mother is dead.
He was driven back home that same day and spent the rest of the afternoon alone in his bedroom, staring out the window. The rain was still coming down. His window screen was an incomplete crossword puzzle. He stared vacantly into the gusting sheets, yellow hummingbirds rocketing through. Shortly before dark, the rain slackened and finally the sky began to clear. The clouds whirled away like cannon smoke. The temperature dropped. Joel walked out into the cold. Soon he began to run. And Joel was running, running. He ran north along the river road, toward a sky collapsed over distant lands, where gas burn-offs from an oil refinery cast cherry and apricot tints upon the low-hanging cloud base. Around him, the world went icy and green. The gutters were still sloshing with liquefied ore. Bottlenecked geese splattered up from a nearby river and then ascended high over his head, thin skeins he watched flap madly against the wind, shifting and fading with muted honks.
Like that my life has changed, he thought, she is no longer. My mother is no longer. He couldn’t wrap his mind around it — and perhaps that is why now, all these years later, approaching early middle-age, he finds himself so strangely touched by the rain, touched and saddened.
Plot is not memoir.
Plot is not diary.
Plot is not journal.
Plot is not history.
Plot is not erotica.
Plot is not dialogue.
Plot is not essay.
Plot is not philosophy.
Plot is not chronicle.
Plot is not action alone.
Plot is something very specific: it is the method by which you present your story. It’s a purposeful sequence of events — and in a well-plotted story, those events all connect logically and culminate in a specific goal or climax.
Plot is selective in the actions presented. The author is the selector.
Plot is purpose.
For this reason, plot requires adversity, obstruction, struggles, obstacles, conflict. Conflict is clash. A clash of what?
A clash of desires.
Plot is a clash of desires.
Clash is drama. And drama is what holds the reader’s interest.
As Kurt Vonnegut said:
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.
Plot is neither random events, nor is it a series of conversations — even if those conversations are in and of themselves interesting. It is not a catalog of day-to-day, minute-by-minute activities.
Novels are by definition about human action. If, therefore, the subject of the story isn’t dramatized in terms of action, it won’t be a successful story.
Plotting, however, does happen along a spectrum, and for this reason there are degrees of plot-versus-plotlessness. Thus, of a story that has a sequence of actions which aren’t motivated by purposeful action but rather by accidents, it’s perfectly appropriate to call this a plotless story.
A story that has a sequence of events which does progress purposefully, or even semi-purposefully, and yet which is ultimately resolved by pure chance, it’s appropriate to call a poorly or thinly plotted story. (The Godfather is an example of a thinly plotted story.)
To dismiss plot, as many do, because it’s invented, or to describe plot as an unnecessary contrivance, is like dismissing chess because it has rules you must follow.
Plots are invented because humans need to see human life in an encapsulated form. That’s what plots do: they encapsulate, via the writer’s selection of events, the human experience, and they turn what in life might happen over the course of years into a condensed piece that can be experienced quickly.
Seven o’clock in the evening. A hot and moth-populated mountain night. Gasteneau sat alone in a rundown motel on the outskirts of town, a cheap room that he’d rented for this reason, because it was cheap, and because he could have it by the day or by the week, and because it was spacious and commanded a view of the outlying plains.
Outside, it was not dark yet, but all his shades were pulled. He sat in a corner of the room upon an old sofa. He sat fully dressed and with his hair combed back, as if he was going somewhere, but he did not move and had not moved for some time. On the arm of the sofa lay a black cigarette lighter and a pair of pliers. He appeared lost in his thoughts, his face haggard and ill-at-ease. An iron band of pain tightened around his head. He was sure now that he had not been imagining things after all, his old sickness was indeed lurking there, just beneath the surface, pulling at him persistently, and it was only with a great concentration of will that he could fend it off.
He had been sitting in the room the entire day, growing more and more uneasy. He had trained himself to wait in this way, motionless, hour after hour, like a prisoner. But something else was happening as well: an old injury to the big toe of his left foot had begun reasserting itself, nothing serious at first, a minor ache, but building and building until at this moment his toe was pounding away with each beat of his heart. It was a running injury caused from his toes banging repeatedly against the tops of his tennis shoes—except this time, as had happened once before, when he was in the army, in addition to the bruising, the toe itself had become infected, so that blood could freely flow in but could not escape. Periungal hematoma. The words kept running through the corridors of his brain, volleying, it felt to him, around the acoustical concavities of his skull.
Half an hour passed, one hour. A moth landed on his face, its touch light and dry. He did not brush it away. The room grew dark. The walls were filled with shadows. Finally, he reached up and snapped on the overhead light. He leaned forward and removed his shoes. He sat barefoot. His big toe, feeling to him now rather like an epicenter from which great waves of pain ceaselessly and concentrically pulsed, had become turgid and huge, the nail obsidian-black.
“Jesus,” he said aloud. He’d been afraid to look, and now he grew frightened.
At that moment, his gaze, shifting to the right, saw reflected in the dead cyclopean eye of the television screen a white envelope as it was being slid beneath his door. He gasped, turned his head.
He stared for thirty seconds, almost afraid to move. Had he not been paying attention, he may very well have missed it; for it had been pushed beneath the door in such a way as to slide under a nearby dresser, where it might have gone unnoticed, perhaps for years.
But he was paying attention, he was always paying attention.
He stood up and hobbled over to the door. He opened it a crack and peered out.
It was very dark. Still, he thought he caught the tailend of a long coat flapping once in the breeze; then it disappeared around the corner of the open hallway. Upon second thought, he was not sure. His palm, still clutching the doorknob, felt clammy. In the east, the moon was hovering up, pared so thinly now and with the earthshine so bright that the moon itself looked like silver pincers delicately a large gray ball.
Joel’s head swam. He did not trust his vision. All day long, in fact, he had been watching multicolored planets orbit slowly in front of his eyes and then explode without a sound. His toe was a live scorpion hanging off the end of his foot. It even occurred to him that maybe the envelope was not there after all.
He bent down to look.
There the envelope lay, peeking out from beneath the dresser. He closed the door, dead-bolted and chain-locked it. He reached down. He placed his fingernail on the corner of the envelope and eased it out. The carpet had cigarette burns here and there across it. His head as he bent over throbbed in unison with his toe. He slit the envelope open with his pinky. A small note on thick paper fell out into his hand. It said:
God is dead.
You are going to die.
His body went cold. His scalp numbed. He felt as if he might lose consciousness at any moment. He looked down again at the note in his hand. He reread it:
I learned a few things that might interest you.
Coffee at The Clear Sky, 11:00 AM?
He squished his eyes shut and rubbed his eyes. After several minutes, he read the note a third time:
God is dead.
You are going to die.
What the hell was going on? He tried to think; he could not think; he could not process anything. Greatly perturbed, he set the envelope and the note on the dresser and went for the pliers. He reached up and removed a framed seascape from the wall and then wiggled out the thin nail that the picture had been hanging upon. He sat back down on the sofa and, holding the end of the nail with the pliers, ran a lighter flame all along the nail-tip. His brows were deeply knitted.
In the army, they had fixed his toe roughly this same way, years ago.
In no time, he had the thin metal pulsing hot-pink. Large beads of sweat stood out along his forehead and along his upper lip, and the flame was reflected individually in each bead. His brow glowed like expensive wood.
He dropped the cigarette lighter onto the floor and leaned forward. Blood poured into his head. Sweat dripped onto the carpet. He looked once more at his toe: from the swelling, the skin was stretched out so taut that the whole top part of the toe glinted dully, the color of lead, a leaden ball. Another peristaltic wave of lightheadedness coursed through him. He closed his eyes, waiting for it to knock him over or to pass. It passed. He opened his eyes slowly. Concentrate, he thought, you’ve got to stay focused. He squeezed the pliers as tightly as he was able, and then without further reflection he jammed the molten metal through the top of his toenail and down into the flesh, extracted it. It took three seconds. A tiny geyser of infected pus and blood erupted, the engorged tissue squealing thinly, like a hog fetus, and then a blinding flash of white-hot light filled his vision, and after that all he saw was black.
Editor’s note: That was excerpted from Chapter 9 of this book:
Suspense, which isn’t a genre but a specific manifestation of plot, is when you can’t put the book down because you must learn what happens next. Suspense is when you’re champing at the bit.
Here are five ways to keep readers in suspense:
5. Arrange your events in such a way that readers will wonder about the outcome.
If a storyteller gives away all that’s going to happen, the story won’t hold interest. But neither will the storyteller hold interest if he doesn’t give you any idea where the story is heading. Feed readers information gradually — which is to say, release your information in a step-by-step fashion, so that the reader will gobble up your information like so many breadcrumbs.
4. Misdirect your reader.
If you think a story is going one way but the story takes a drastic turn, you will continue reading.
3. Make the events of your story meaningful.
An event is something that happens in actuality. If, for example, your main character drives down to the bar and that is all, this IS an event. But it’s not a very meaningful one. If, however, your main character sits down at the bar and the lady next to him immediately throws a drink in his face and says “You bastard!” — well, that is a more meaningful event, provided there’s a motive behind it and you the writer disclose the source of the conflict.
2. Create interesting characters.
Characters who possess strong qualities go a long way in holding a reader’s interest.
1. Give readers something to worry about.
A professional writer I once over-served says he begins every story NOT by establishing a plot-line but by establishing “a line of anxiety.” By this he means, a sequence of events that will cause people to worry. In order to manage such a thing, you must create a clash which in reason will interest your reader. I say “in reason” because inconsequential events — such as getting your scalp massaged or your knob polished — are really not strong enough to make your readers worry.
Holding the reader’s interest is the total goal. In determining whether an event is interesting, ask yourself this: Is there any good reason why I myself would be interested in this episode? Are the values presented herein significant enough to worry about?
Life is an unceasing sequence of single actions, said Ludwig von Mises.
And so is plot.
But unlike life, plot is selective — and what that means, among other things, is that the author is the selector.
The author chooses the actions his characters undertake.
This, incidentally, is one of the primary ways that fiction differs from journalism, and it’s why “the pressure to record” is not — contrary to what the Naturalist School of Art would have you believe — the primary function of art.
Art creates. Journalism records.
In life, there are a great many actions which are mundane and of no major consequence — whether it’s walking around the block, or scratching your back, or brushing your teeth, or yawning.
Art by definition selects OUT the insignificant, and thereby grants significance to those issues the artist has chosen to focus upon. Art isolates and clarifies those issues, condensing into one single unit what in life might be spread out over a period of years, or even decades.
That, in a nutshell, is the purpose and power of art.
A novel, even a short novel, is a story about human beings in action. If, therefore, your story isn’t presented by means of physical action, it isn’t a novel. It may be a journal, it may be an epistle, it may be a memoir, it may be a diary, and it may be many other interesting things as well. But it is not a novel.
It’s important to note here that physical action doesn’t necessarily just mean fist-fights, car chases, and sex-scenes.
Physical action means that humans are engaged in purposeful action — which is to say, your characters are engaged in the pursuit of values.
Whether you’re writing a potboiler, a romance, a horror, a mystery, a psychological thriller, a sci-fi book, or a literary novel, you must appeal to something real in the body of human experience.
Life, said Nietszche, is a process of valuing. “When we speak of ‘values’ we do so under the inspiration and from the perspective of life” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).
In my experience, the most talented editors are able to flesh out those parts of the story that have always troubled the writer even when the writer has never quite been able to put her finger on exactly what is troubling her. Virtually every manuscript I’ve ever written or worked upon has had issues with pacing. The reason for this, I’ve come to believe, is that writing a book of any length requires, perforce, a certain myopia. And yet sustaining a narrative pace for hundreds or even ONE hundred pages requires the exact opposite of myopia: it requires a kind of far-sightedness. Very often, writers are simply too caught up in the details of their story to see how the overall pace flows.
That, I now think, is the greatest value of an editor: to show where the story grinds to a standstill.
Moby Dick is an example of a poorly paced book.
It is, at times, extraordinarily well written from a stylistic perspective, and Moby Dick remains erudite and interesting on a great many levels, but the fact is, Moby Dick is not even really a novel. It’s a treatise: it’s a treatise on truth, it’s a treatise on whales, it’s a treatise on America, it’s a treatise on God, and it’s a treatise on many other things as well. But it’s not a novel.
Think of pacing as a journey; and will your readers go along? Quoting editor-turned-agent Betsy Lerner:
The challenge of sustaining a certain pace and rhythm throughout an entire book can be staggering, and most writers are too involved with the details to see where the story flags. I like to imagine the narrative as a trip. Just as the ride feels shorter on the way home, a phenomenon all school-age children remark on, even though it is exactly the same number of miles as the trip away, the reader expects that time will pass more rapidly as the book heads toward the finish. Once we know the way, the scenery rolls by like so much wallpaper. Your editor should help you see when the writing has turned into wallpaper (Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees).
Dear Ray Harvey: Well, it took me five months but I finally finished reading More and More unto the Perfect Day and I wish to compliment you! Though it is a challenging and not easy read, it is rewarding and gives much food for thought to say the least. Your story reminded me a little (sometimes) of David Lynch, and I believe I remember you once answered a question about David Lynch, don’t I? Do you still have that?
– John Kronk
Dear John Kronk: Thank you! If you liked my book, please tell your friends about it: if your friends like it, get new friends.
The following is probably the post you’re referring to:
Dear Sir: Who’s the better filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch?
– P. Durango
Dear P. Durango: Are you kidding? But there’s no comparison. That’s like asking me: who of those two has better hair?
As a filmmaker, David Lynch possesses innumerable shortcomings, foremost of which is the fact that he’s an obscurantist extraordinaire — and this is no small thing.
The symbolic in art, you see, must never supersede the literal — or to put that another way, the symbolic meaning must always remain secondary to the literal meaning, and the literal must hold up on its own without reference to the symbolic. When an artist makes the symbolic meaning the tail that wags the dog, as David Lynch so often does, she defaults on art’s primary function: making the abstract concrete.
Yet for all this, David Lynch is not only the better filmmaker: he’s better by light years.
Quentin Tarantino barely makes it above average. He makes good B movies.
It’s true that Tarantino can tell a story (at times, not consistently). This isn’t really his problem. His problem is that he lacks any sort of real depth.
If theme is the meaning that a story’s events add up to — and it is — then Tarantino’s movies are almost all themeless because they add up to nothing. They’re action movies, which, even as action movies go, are often boring and wildly gratuitous. (Inglorious Basterds was a notable exception.)
Tarantino’s dialogue at its best is good, but it, too, is inconsistent. Pulp Fiction, slightly campy now, remains by far his best movie.
Reservoir Dogs? You can see certain skills at work there, in flashes, despite its wobbly plot. But there’s no getting around the fact that Quentin Tarantino could never in a million years create Wild at Heart and Sailor Ripley, let alone the John Merrick that David Lynch gave us in his awesome version of the Elephant Man — John Merrick dancing alone in his room with tophat and cane, the pure poignancy of which scene is unforgettable.
Tarantino has yet to match Pulp Fiction. It seems to me now that he never will.
Pulp Fiction spawned a thousand imitators — and for good reason: it was funny and it was original. And yet its appeal has dated a little: many scenes still hold up and are as fresh today as they were fifteen years ago. But an almost equal number (i.e. “The Bonnie Situation”) have grown stale and are unconvincing. Time has sunk them.
The David Lynch of Twin Peaks and the David Lynch of Blue Velvet has a depth and intelligence that Tarantino cannot match. Wild at Heart, which is half a decade older than Pulp Fiction, has proven more durable by far.
Just incidentally, Quentin Tarantino’s “The Man From Hollywood” (his Four Rooms contribution) was taken from a Roald Dahl short story called “The Gambler,” and if you want to see where Tarantino got his idea for the ending of Reservoir Dogs, please watch this movie, which was based on the novel by Lawrence Block.
Anton Chekhov answered that question this way:
You could write a story about this ashtray, and a man and a woman. The man and the woman are always the two poles of your story. The North Pole and the South. Every story has these two poles — a he and she.
The late Raymond Carver, who worshiped at the shrine of Anton Chekhov, undertook Chekhov’s challenge, and here’s what Ray Carver came up with:
They’re alone at the kitchen table in her friend’s
apartment. They’ll be alone for another hour, and then
her friend will be back. Outside, it’s raining -
the rain coming down like needles, melting last week’s
snow. They’re smoking and using the ashtray. . . Maybe
just one of them is smoking . . . He’s smoking! Never
mind. Anyway, the ashtray is filling up with
cigarettes and ashes.
She’s ready to break into tears at any minute.
To plead with him, in fact, though she’s proud
And has never asked for anything in her life.
He sees what’s coming, recognizes the signs -
a catch in her voice as she brings her fingers
to her locket, the one her mother left her.
He pushes back his chair, gets up, goes over to
the window . . . He wishes it were tomorrow and he
were at the races. He wishes he was out walking,
using his umbrella . . . He strokes his mustache
and wishes he were anywhere except here. But
he doesn’t have and choice in the matter. He’s got
to put a good face on this for everybody’s sake.
God knows, he never meant for things to come
to this. But it’s sink or swim now. A wrong
move and he stands to lose her friend, too.
Her breathing slows. She watches him but
doesn’t say anything. She knows, or thinks she
knows, where this is leading. She passes a hand
over her eyes, leans forward and puts her head
in her hands. She’s done this a few times
before, but has no idea it’s something
that drives him wild. He looks away and grinds
his teeth. He lights a cigarette, shakes out
the match, stands a minute longer at the window.
Then walks back to the table and sits
down with a sigh. He drops the match in the ashtray.
She reaches for his hand, and he lets her
take it. Why not? Where’s the harm?
Let her. His mind’s made up. She covers his
fingers with kisses, tears fall on to his wrist.
He draws on his cigarette and looks at her
as a man would look indifferently on
a cloud, a tree, or a field of oats at sunset.
He narrows his eyes against the smoke. From time
to time he uses the ashtray as he waits
for her to finish weeping.
The first thing you’ll no doubt have noticed about this piece is that it’s well written and poignant.
The second thing you’ll have noticed is that it’s not so much a story as it is a poem — specifically, a narrative poem. I chose it here, along with Chekhov’s semi-famous quote, because it illustrates an important point: namely, conflict is the crux of storytelling.
If you don’t have a sufficiently complicated conflict, you won’t have enough material for a story. That, I believe, is what happened here.
Chekhov’s suggestion — which is his version of what we call a Situation — isn’t complex enough to build a story upon. One would need more adversity — more obstacle — to launch a truly compelling story.
Plots derive from characters under adversity.
But it’s important to emphasize that adversity need not be expressed in terms of pure physical action. Adversity means conflict. That conflict can be psychological, emotional, physical, or all three.
Here is an example of how we might improve Chekhov’s situation:
You could write a story about this ashtray, which is heart-shaped and has a hairline crack down the center, and a man and a woman, who does not love the man, though she’s married to him, and though he loves her …
There’s a game that certain writers like to play, and it’s not called Hide-The-Salami (although that game is popular among certain writers as well, myself perhaps foremost among them). In the game I’m talking about, someone — anyone — comes up with a random list of words or components, and the writer is then asked to create a story using these words. For example:
A knife, a monk, an abandoned building, a beautiful woman, a strange light, a handwritten letter, a bloodstain.
For many writers — even experienced writers — the immediate temptation here is to cram all these elements into the very beginning, so that the mission is accomplished.
“In the abandoned building, illuminated by a strange light, a beautiful woman with a bloodstain on her blouse held a knife to a monk’s throat. The monk did not look at her but stared down at a handwritten letter, which the beautiful woman could not see.”
Almost invariably what ends up happening next is that the writer panics a little over where the story is going to go from there, and thus the writer begins to create more and ever more characters, and to add to the increasing complexity, until by the end of the game, the writer cannot keep everything she’s devised in her head. The new ideas, which in and of themselves may be perfectly sound, spin out of control, and the story loses cohesiveness.
The most edifying aspect of this game is streamlining.
What some writers who play this game have learned is that it’s best to sprinkle the elements all throughout the story.
A compelling story can be told with relatively few elements provided the writer creates a believable Situation, with a compelling conflict. Conflict is at the heart of storytelling, and plots, let us never forget, derive from characters under adversity.