18 September 2014

incoherent ramblings about plot lines

This one's a mess, but let us begin.

I do not believe in plot lines. *

*This is sort of a lie. But. I am coming to terms with the fact that I don't totally believe it's a lie. There's a bit of truth in there, which I shall attempt to wrestle out In 100 Paragraphs or Fewer, beginning exactly now.

So here's what I do believe in. What I believe in (whole-heartedly, full-fledgedly, totally, completely, to an absurd degree) is character. 

We were driving and I said to him,
Look, you have no idea what's going to happen to you in life. And that's really terrifying and wonderful. But you do know who you are. Well, you kind of know. Imperfectly, Incompletely. But you do sort of know that.

And, having endured several thousand I Just Don't Care About Plot! rants over the course of our courtship, he finally, bless his heart, nodded.

Plot is extremely vital to storytelling. It is the lifeblood. It is the river that runs through the various estates of your characters' lives -- picks up a little bit here and there, brings things together, rips them apart, reconciles, ruins, alters indefinitely -- but, ultimately, it isn't there to show what your characters did, but who they are.

(If you were asking me, anyway.)

I think about Forrest Gump on a fairly regularly basis. (God bless the mother and father who played it in our darkened living room on a biweekly loop.) And so often when I am thinking about Forrest and his story, it's as much about the how-ness of it than the is-ness of it.

Ultimately, the storytelling device is a weaver's loom: Here, at the bus stop, sits Forrest, for what seems like a short eternity. He is waiting to go someplace. And while he is waiting, he recounts the stories of his life, to whomever will listen. And the story of how we know Forrest is caught up in these retold vignettes -- the sprawling Southern lawn, the childhood school buses. With Jenny in the field, in the tree. Peas and carrots. Scrubbing the floors with Bubba. Upon the water, kneeling, then on a boat. Running cross country. Running with Lieutenant Dan on his shoulder. Breaking from the shackles. Hopping the fence. Sometimes, running the wrong way. 

In his hind-sighted telling, there always seems to be movement. But the image that persists with me, is the bus stop. And caught up in this scene of transience, of in-betweens, the summation, the coming together of every string of plot, is that most indelible line --
Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. 

And what a perfect homage to his own life. To your life. And mine.

I tend to think of it like this. That this is why Forrest's tale of running and running and ceaselessly running -- is so very important. That character is the reason you could take this man through all these mundane and extraordinary plot points and gradually inch closer to the man himself, the quiet mammoth. (Because another man might have emerged a a louder mammoth. Leviathan. Proud.)

Plot is the road, or the loom, or the mandala, or the spinning plates, or the hurtling sea. But it is the thing that lingers -- that sits at the bus stop, that waits for what's next, that renders that satisfying line, that quiet mammoth -- this is the thing that remains.

Because...maybe you have an idea of a story of The Things That Will Happen. But at minimum, 100% of the time, your character will have a far, far better idea of The Little Things That Will Happen In Between.

Very often I am approached, when reading a book in a cafe -- and I am asked the most dreaded question,
What's that book about? 

(And people will ask you this about what you're writing, too.)

And when this happens, imagine how I shrivel to a mollusk. My inclination is to spit out the how-ness, not the is-ness, and this is mostly met by vacant stares.

I once had a man prod and prod, who wouldn't let it go -- but what's it ABOUT? -- and I finally said,
I'm sorry, but I don't want to do this anymore. 

And I left the shop, walked home slowly in the snow. I watched my own two feet make headway through the white dust, turned to see the tracks they left. And I thought how I had never, ever in my life had I said anything so boldly. Or so honestly.

And this rant, or whatever it is, is about character, in the end.

About my own.

It is about self-preservation. It is about how sometimes I sit down to write and feel so deeply, infinitely discouraged by Not Knowing. By having that character, but otherwise, nothing. Not knowing where things lead, or what will happen, or, the most horrifying of all self-doubts: will I ever figure that out? 

And this rant, or whatever it is, is also about telling you, it's OK to be there, too. It's all right to chuck that painting. Or blot it out, start over. You have tonight, and you have tomorrow. You only need to be good. Perfection is a dolt. You are on your way, and what a grander thing to still be waiting for the bus, than to have Ended Up Someplace. 

Because, in the end, the endgame is the remedy itself. To write. To keep writing. To not stop, ever, to keep running and running --

and sometimes to run the wrong way.


  1. I can't tell you how much you inspire me. It has been my dream for years to become an author, but plots and characters are just so hard. Thank you for this!
    xo Rachelle // Beloved Bluebird

  2. I love how deeply you have pondered this and how it affects the very core of who you are. I enjoy hearing your thoughts on it. Marko and I have had many a discussion on this very topic. In the end I completely agree with your thoughts on character... Because that is really how life works isn't it? Inspiring words, dearie.

  3. Character is indeed vital. I have read good books and watched good movies and yet something about them seems so vacant to me, and I've realised it is the lack of character. There are people in these stories I do not care about and yet while this amazing story is revolving around them, I do not care. Character is in itself a plot no? Forrest was always moving forward but the plot of his story wasn't the situations he saw himself in but rather the character he developed and that he shared with us.

    hmm...I don't think I'm making much sense but at least you did and at least I understood your beautiful ramblings. Thank you x

    1. Oh, absolutely. I've always felt that way. There's the old adage that character drives plot -- but I tend to think of it AS plot just as much as setting usually IS character. That's really what I was getting at here -- that ultimately the quiet mammoth IS the plot itself -- and not just a function of it. But you've of course expressed it with much more clarity, brevity -- things I most certainly need to work on! (I'm already rambling of course!)

      And I can relate to that feeling of vacancy. So often I find stories were the most fantastical storyline has been weaved...but the characters don't buttress it in any substantial way. As if they were a secondary thought, just inserted as mere actors. And, disappointingly, I also feel this is sometimes an editorial reaction to the fact that many readers actually enjoy this -- are very concerned with a riveting plot, but care less about full-blooded, fleshed-out characters. (I think this is also why I'm largely more attracted to slower-moving nonfiction works.)

      Oy, oy. I sure would love to meet you for coffee and book chatting some day. Adding it to my bucket list, sweet lady.