But What Happens?
Story is honorable and trustworthy;
plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.
― Stephen King
Last week my writers’ group happened to coincide with Halloween, and whether it was the holiday or the fact that it was unseasonably warm and pouring, our little intrepid band was remarkably light on pages. OK, truthfully, they were nonexistent. Hey, shit happens, right? So we spent a couple of hours talking – always a pleasure with intelligent, creative people – about politics, films, and, of course, the books on our respective nightstands and kindles. I’d just finished reading an extraordinary collection of short stories, “The Witch and Other Stories,” by one of my favorite writers, Anton Chekhov.
One of my fellows asked, “What are they about?”
A proper question – the sort of thing we writers have to answer every time we craft a query/cover letter or get button-holed in a conference elevator – but one which often gives me fits. More and more, we seem to live in a literal and literary worlds where something has to happen every page, paragraph, even line. Stillness, reflection, these are strains we seldom allow our turn-pagers. (You can imagine my delight when Alice Munro got the Nobel this year – a testament to the power of stillness.)
I thought for a moment and gleefully – must be my Russian blood – couldn’t come up with an answer. Chekhov and plot have always had a tangential relationship. His plays – The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, The Seagull – are two-hour explorations of life, love, and survival. Disarmingly simple.
The good doctor’s stories are the same, even more so. People come together, move apart, and in between, they survive as best they can. What happens? Life.
In our high-octane world that demands action every five minutes, is that enough? Absolutely.
Of course some will say that low-action stories are best left to “literary” fiction. And, from a publishing perspective there is some truth to that. After all, a mystery is about solving a crime; a romance is about winning and losing love, and most fantasy books these days are 600 pages of swords, sorcery, and noble quests.
Every agent or publisher will insist you have to be able to sell your story, to distill the plot into 50 words or less. Better yet, into one sentence. But what does that really convey? Moby-Dick is about a guy obsessed with killing the whale that cost him his leg. Right?
We all need ‘plot’ but in the end, it is just the skeleton of the work – the connect-the-dots image begging for lines to give it form. In the end it is not the ‘what’ of a telling, it is the ‘how.’ It is not the distance of the journey, it is the people you meet along the way. It is the words.
“Remember,” Ray Bradbury wisely wrote, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”