Word Counts, and Story & Plot
Getting the material down is the hardest part for me. Because of this, I often find it helpful to quantify my writing every day—either an amount of time or the number of words, depending on what I’m writing. I know a writer who gets good work down in one hour a day, but that hour is a planned part of every day, and the writer is ready for it. Here’s Aimee Bender getting at that: “I think the way to get the unconscious revved up is to make a little contract with time, i.e., I have to sit at the desk for this long every day, a set amount, and that’s just the law. I believe in laws like that. Then the unconscious knows what’s what … and it will follow those laws.”
And there’s this kind of famous quote from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it.”
I have always liked that bit from Hemingway and now there is plenty of psychological research that supports his idea. Our subconscious minds will work on the fiction for us while we’re living the other parts of our lives. That is why I often end my writing sessions by making notes (could be a list of words, a sentence fragment, a topic) or by asking myself a question about the piece I’m working on. I don’t try to answer that question. I just put it out there, get it in my head, and then I’m usually ready to go when I come back to the page.
In fact, much of my first novel was written while I was riding the subway back and forth to work. I never had time for more than a few sentences or corrections or notes, but I would do this twice a day and then input those pages at home at night—and then start the process over, every day. It took me over five years to finish that novel. I averaged fewer than twenty words a day during that time, but I just kept going and, eventually, it accumulated into a novel.
So let’s say the goal is to write one hundred words per day, one hundred good words. If I can be honest with myself about those one hundred words being quality writing, then, in two years, that accumulates into a solid novel or collection of stories. Or let’s say the goal is one page per day, one good page. At the end of the year, that novel is three hundred sixty-five pages long.
Story and Plot
Here’s Andy Devine: “We all know how the story ends. If you have the baby, then the baby will die. If you fall in love, then the love will end.” That kind of reminds me of this quote from Edna O’Brien in an interview with The Paris Review: “Fuck the plot.” And that reminds me of this quote from Sam Lipsyte: “I’m not really sure what plot is. Somebody told me once but I forgot.” All three of these writers are getting at the idea that it isn’t story and plot that makes writers. The idea is that it doesn’t matter what the story is or how the plot is constructed. The idea is also that the writer has to do more than tell a good story in an interesting way.
In spite of my affection for those three quotes, I still like to think about story and plot. They are still necessary elements of fiction and I still like it when things happen in fiction. In fact, I have always thought one of the great things about being a fiction writer is that you can make anything happen. Even if a particular fiction writer doesn’t privilege story and plot, there will still be scenes or episodes or incidents. Something will still happen in the fiction. It is unavoidable.
Before this stuff about story and plot goes any further, here are two definitions: (1) Story is what happens in chronological order. (2) Plot is the story, however it is arranged in the work of fiction.
Now let’s back up. Most serious discussions of plot begin with Aristotle’s Poetics, which says a plot must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Gustav Freytag tried to improve on that idea by breaking plot down into five parts—exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. The shape of Freytag’s idea is usually described as a pyramid or a triangle. A piece of fiction that fills out these five parts is often said to have a classical structure.
There’s a kind of contemporary revision of Freytag that is in the shape of an inverted checkmark. The inverted checkmark has the same five parts as Freytag’s pyramid, but the falling action and resolution take place much faster, which I like. I hate it when the ending takes too long, which can make a reader begin to feel manipulated by the writer and makes the reader want to stop reading.
(By the way, I feel the same way about openings—too much exposition and I begin to feel manipulated by the writer, which kind of ruins the reading experience. I’d much rather discover any necessary exposition along the way, as I’m reading. Any information that is actually important will be implied in the story’s action.)
The inverted checkmark is a clear improvement on Aristotle and Freytag. After all, the speed of narrative continues to increase (and this can be seen not only in fiction, but in film, television, etc.). Also, most contemporary readers have become so familiar with the opening exposition, as well as the falling action and the dénouement, that these aspects of the fiction need to be quick, clever, or somehow play with the reader’s expectations.
In a sense, the inverted checkmark needs an update as well. I’d like to create some new structure or shape that cuts out the exposition and shortens the ending. Kurt Vonnegut, if he were still alive, would agree with this: “Start as close to the end as possible.” I’ve always been partial to fiction that begins with the rising action and ends with the climax. This takes Freytag’s five parts down to two parts. The shape would be a backslash.
Let’s move on. As readers, we are mostly conditioned to receive narrative in chronological terms. Most works of fiction are chronological (though, of course, there are plenty of exceptions). Even if the fiction isn’t presented in chronological terms, the reader will generally rearrange the story into chronological order in the reading. Generally, the reader can’t help it. I’m mentioning chronology here because of flashbacks. I had a writing teacher who said a fiction writer should never use a flashback. She argued that a flashback’s darker purpose is exposition or explanation, which stalls the narrative. She advised this: If you need what’s back there in the flashback, then start back there. Flashbacks were probably amazing the first time a storyteller used them, but the effect of the flashback has been greatly diminished over the intervening years.
In a basic way, the narrative should always be moving forward. Here is how Janet Burroway suggests fiction writers do this: “In fiction, in order to engage our attention and sympathy, the protagonist must want, and want intensely. The thing that the character wants need not be violent or spectacular; it is the intensity of the wanting that introduces an element of danger.” That is a riff on a quote from Aristotle’s Poetics, but Luke Whisnant says it more simply: “Plot arises from the character’s pursuit of her desires.”
The desire/plot idea is pretty simple, but it’s a place to start. Also, it gets complicated pretty quickly if you listen to Connie Willis: “Every sentence should set the tone, define the character, and advance the plot. If it’s not doing all three, fix it, or cut it.” If there were one bit of advice to always remember as you write and revise, it would be something like that—every sentence should do three things. Of course, it doesn’t need to be the three things Willis suggests. It could also be setting, voice, narration, acoustics, etc. The idea is that every sentence should be doing multiple things.
In Bagombo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut gives us another way to think about plot: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water.” Now a character getting a glass of water may not be enough to keep the reader reading, but there’s still a useful idea there, especially if it’s combined with this quote from Ernest Hemingway: “Never confuse movement with action.” Simple movement (e.g., just getting a glass of water) does not drive the narrative. Action, however, has purpose (e.g., getting a glass of water because somebody is choking) and can create a kind of narrative urgency.
I often tell writers they have to make the reader want to turn the page and there are plenty of ways to do that. It can be because the reader wants to find out what happens next or because the writing is so funny the reader wants the next laugh or because the writing is so amazing the reader wants the next amazement.
Story can be anything, absolutely anything. Story is not reality. Story is only limited by what the writer can imagine and what the writer can make happen on the page. What is the story that is most yours? What story of yours most needs telling? What story are you most afraid to tell? Just remember it is fiction. Anything can happen in fiction.
Michael Kimball is the author of eight books, including Big Ray, Dear Everybody, Us, and, most recently, The One-Hour MFA. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Bomb, Prairie Schooner, New York Tyrant, etc. He is also responsible for the collaborative project Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple of documentaries, and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine.