Day 11: Kurt Vonnegut and the Shape of Story: A Cure for the Manic Monday (particularly if you suffer from problems of plot)

What is plot?  How do we figure it out?  I’ve attempted to talk plot before in a number of different posts.  I’ve had a innumerable conversations with writers who say things like, “I suck at plot,” or “I don’t understand plot,” and I’ve been taught by plot-junkies (that’s you, Gregory Martin) about the importance of the Aristotilean plot structure.  I’ve even tried playing with school-like worksheets in order to school myself into following plot.  In other words, I have been trying to write about, post about, talk about, and figure out plot for years.  And mostly, my comprehension has fallen short.

And so, I am very grateful to Sidel, one of this year’s challengers, for sharing with me a Kurt Vonnegut infomercial on the shape of stories.  This, of course, lead me on a trail of Vonnegut-inspired happenings and this 4:36 minute lecture given by Vonnegut himself.  It is sooo worth watching.  Very funny and such a refreshing look at this tired topic:

What I love about Vonnegut’s take on story is the way he doesn’t force each work fit into a single arching shape.  He offers other views: The Man in a Hole, the Boy Meets Girl, the Kafka Story, the Cinderella Story.  It makes one feel like there are innumerable structures, each shared and recognized by writers and readers alike.  Not sure about you, but I find the idea quite freeing.

So, this Monday, why not think about your story in this manner?  As Sidsel asked, “Wouldn’t it be fun to take a well-known tale (or one of our own stories or life experiences) and re-tool it to fit a different shape, just to see what happens?”

Today’s Exercise:  Let’s try this out.  I think the exercise would be a useful undertaking for your own work or, as Sidsel suggests, the work of another popular work.  If you use it for your own story, this might also be a good way to think of scenes you’ll still need to scratch out.

Kurt Vonnegut's Story Axis

Kurt Vonnegut’s Story Axis

Also, if you are interested in sharing your plot shape, I’d love to see and share them on the blog. If I get enough images, I might compile them into a post or maybe even add them into the official Challenger’s page.  (Sorry poets.  Perhaps a fun practice for a prose poem?).  Interested?  Shoot me an email ( with your image attached.

I’ve heard it said that every now and again, its good to step back from the page and think in a more visual form.  Today, folks, why not give this idea a go?

Interested in more of Vonnegut’s insight on writing?  Check out:

Afternoon Exercise: Mapping Plot

For those who want to take your writing off the page, here’s a handout that I used in my English 321 course: Story Structure Handout

The handout helps you diagram your story through Good Ole Freytag’s triangle:

Designed to help with traditional story structure, I’ve found diagramming my stories particularly useful in the revision stage of writing.  See a gap?  Can’t answer a question?  You’re probably missing something.

The Arrangement of the Incidents: Two Photo Stories for Day 8

Oddly enough, I’ve found discussions over plot to be some of the most heated discussions I’ve had with other writers.  Should writers focus on plot?  Does plot matter?   Norman Mailer, for one, finds plots “rudimentary.”

“Whatever I’ve accomplished,” he said, “certainly does not depend on my virtuosity with plot.  Generally I don’t even have a plot.  What happens is that my characters engage in an action, and out of that action bits of plot sometimes adhere to the narrative.”

On the opposite end, John Irving advocates for

Plot, plot, and more plot.

During his Keynote address at NY’s AWP Conference a few years back, he event went so far as to claim that he believed so much in plot that he wrote backwards.  Yes, that’s right BACKWARDS.   As in, “I do not start a novel until I know the last line, and then I write the second to the last line, and then the third to last line until I have written the entire novel that way.”

While the definitions of “story” and “plot” seem to differ in every craft essay/book that I pick up, I think the easiest way to think about plot is to quote Aristotle who defines plot as “the arrangement of the incidents.”  Take, for example, the way the same “incidents” can create two different stories:

Story Version #1:

You come to a building.

And you wait….

You keep glancing down the path.  Where is she?

And you wait some more…

Until finally, there she is!  She has arrived! And you are so happy to see her that you forgive her lateness instantly.

Story Version #2

You have to understand, you say, I know she is always late, but she is very much worth waiting for.

Sometimes, you even try to arrive late yourself, but it never fails:

Although the path is long, there is no sign of her.

…and time passes…

And though the waiting can be taxing, when you finally see her, time stops.

Sometimes you wonder if waiting for her is the best part of your day.


Okay, so I went a bit overboard, but the point here is simple: the order of the incidents changes the emphasis of the story.  In these two differing versions, you are getting the same details, but the “story” has changed drastically.  In the first version, the narrative is linear.  It is driven by a need to know what will happen next.  You arrive.  You wait.  What are you waiting for?  Oh, the girl!  The second version, however, is not linear.  By beginning with the end, the voice has become more retrospective.  Rather than being about waiting, the story focuses on the girl worth waiting for.

Today, writers, let yourself play with the order of events in your work.  Rather than focusing on a linear series of events, what happens if you begin with the ending?  How does that change meaning?  How does it shift emphasis?

Our work does not have to be set in stone.  Let your world shift around, and see what transpires.

A Formula For Your Characters (that gets us into Plot)

A couple of years ago, I taught the Introduction to Creative Writing (English 224) at the University of New Mexico.  A multi-genre course, we used a multi-gengre book called Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway.  I share with you today a formula Burroway offered on character:

__(name)__ is a ___-year-old _(occupation)_ who wants _______.

Today Writers, try plugging each of your characters into this formula. (Poets, I’m not sure how this will work out for you, but perhaps give it a try.  Creative non-fiction people, remember to treat yourself as a character, too).

I like this formula for many reasons:

  1. The formula forces you to make decisions on your characters’ fundamentals: his or her name, age, occupation, and, most importantly, what he or she wants.  Since we’re halfway through this Writer’s March, perhaps its time to finalize some decisions.
  2. The formula is simple and my writing tends to be overly complicated.  Sometimes reminding myself of this formula helps me get back on track.  For instance, if I know what my characters want, I am more likely to know what should happen in the next scene.  Also, I am more likely to know where and how my characters conflict with each other.
  3. This formula also helps me when I am thinking through my story (or novel’s) plot.  Without going too much into the details of it.  Let’s not forget that plot is a function of a character’s wants.  Much of your story revolves around the obstacles that keep your character from reaching his or her goal(s).  Therefore, if you don’t know what your character wants, technically you don’t have a plot.  Trust me.  I learned this the hard way.

Keep in mind:  More often than not, a character’s wants drives your plot.  It tells you when the story should begin, what they should overcome, and when it should end.  And often, no desire = a bored reader.