Sunday, May 9, 2010


I’m going to get back to the Writing Works Conference next week because there are a few more topics that I would like to talk to you about. This week, though, we’re going to talk about something else. Last night I went to a reading by George Saunders and Robin Hemley at Ohio University’s annual Spring Literary Festival, and something very interesting struck me as I was listening to George Saunders read.

Both writers, first of all, were fabulously entertaining. Hemley’s new memoir, DO-OVER! – in which he relives painful moments from his childhood, only this time he does the things he wishes he had done at the time – is high on my list, now, of books I’d like to read. It’s George Saunders’s story, though, that brought up in my mind what I’d like to talk about this week: the importance of plot.

Now I didn’t have a chance to attend the lecture Saunders gave at the Lit. Fest. this year, but I’m told one of the things he talked about was his days as an MFA student and having decided that he needed to write in a more “literary” manner. He told a story (I hear tell) about writing a novel and trying to make it as literary and serious and MFA as possible. He realized after completing the novel that A) it wasn’t any good, and B) it just wasn’t the sort of thing he wanted to write. And that realization, it sounds like, was part of the impetus for his hugely successful career.

The story Saunders read at the reading was brilliant on all three of what I consider the key levels of fiction writing: character, language, and plot. The story was divided into sections that were written in the first person perspective of the three main characters. Saunders captured the voice and personality of each character perfectly through each character’s respective narration, so he absolutely hit the character and language side of fiction right off the bat. Partway through the story, though, it became clear that this story was in fact extremely plot driven – I just hadn’t noticed it at first because I was so drawn in by the voice of these characters.

What I consider to be one of the major problems with the graduate level workshop experience is that there tends to be so much focus put on character and language that many of the stories end up having no plot. I’m not exaggerating. I can remember workshopping a story one time where all of the students in workshop agreed that it was extremely boring, but most everybody except for me decided to see that as a good thing because it was a reflection of how empty this character’s life is. Alright, but boring is boring. If a class full of people who have advanced English level educations – people who tend to read more deeply and stick with things longer than the average reader – thinks your story is boring, that sounds like a problem to me.

So often in the MFA world, any sign of a plot gets written off as being “contrived” – one of those workshop buzzwords, like “cliché,” that pretty much loses all meaning about midway through your first semester in grad school. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t want your plot to be contrived (or cliché, for that matter), but good fiction should have a story arc. Good fiction should be about something.

Good fiction should also have well established characters and beautiful language, yes. All three of these important elements are there, I think you’ll find, in any really good story. But if all you’re doing is writing beautiful language or developing a really well rounded character, well, you don’t really have a story to tell, do you?


Justus said...

I wholeheartedly agree. Was the Saunders story the one about the girl getting grabbed and the neighbor boy seeing it?

I'm reading Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent right now. Evidently it's the book that more or less founded the modern legal thriller genre, and it's really well written. He was a Stegner fellow at Stanford before becoming a lawyer, so he really knows how to put language together, but he also knows that a gripping plot is essential.

Ashley Cowger said...

Yep, that's the story Saunders read. Isn't it awesome? He did such a great job of reading it, taking on a totally different voice for each of the three characters. I'll have to read that Scott Turrow book.

Justus said...

That was the story that turned me into a Saunders fan. I had read a couple of his other pieces in Best American or elsewhere and liked them, but I read that one in the New Yorker and it totally blew me away. Then I went out and got one of his collections.

Anonymous said...

a really interesting post.

i can't think of a booker prize winner that wasn't a damn good story too (the booker is the uk's sort-of 'top' literary award).

also - perhaps you could say that character comes alive, as well as through his particular language, through his actions i.e. being affected by events and in turn effecting them. this cycle could possibly pass off as a plot. in that respect you're bang-on to suggest the three necessary, indeed mutually inclusive, elements of a story.

another interesting insight into MFA workshops too!


Ashley Cowger said...

That's a really good point, Adam. Maybe the truth is that language and plot are really encompassed in the issue of character development, since both play into helping the reader know and understand a character. I've never thought about it like that, but you're totally right!

Justus said...

Yes, Adam, I agree. I've often heard and read that it's important to remember that character is revealed through action. This is part of the old "show, don't tell" maxim, which, although overstated, has some validity. We understand and learn about characters based on what they do, not merely what they think or how they use language. And there's a tendency among the literary crowd to have passive characters who sit around THINKING and don't actually DO much, which results in boring stories as well as boring characters (I've read a lot of MFA workshop stories with this problem, and I know I've been guilty of this too). But that Saunders story is a great example of digging deeply into characters' thoughts while having them DO something interesting.

Anonymous said...

An interesting point, Justus.

And what someone does doesn't have to be extreme in order to be a plot. James Bond might do plenty, and this is doubtless plot-tastic, but then what he does is expected within the context of his lifestyle. As is what your character does within the context of his lifestyle which might be no more than, for example, a series of blind-dates. Such a thing might be common, but provides enough for the character-language-plot thing.

Short stories are another prospect. I read in the book 'Writing in general and the short story in particular' by (I can't remember but he's basically written a real treat here) that the point is to have your character 'move'. What happens to him and what he does is of course limited, but somehow you must show that he's 'moved' in some way. I don't mean physically, of course, although that might work as a metaphor i.e. 'he leaves the bar' or whatever. For character movement I thought of an example that it could be something so simple as a different reaction to the same stimulus at the end of a story than at the beginning (e.g. the mailman again walking past his door without delivering). Of course the reaction has to be believable based on what he thought/did/saw/talked about in between. Because I don't know about you but doesn't it piss you off when you watch a film and the character acts totally inappropriately based on what you know about him, just to move the plot along or have something happen? Yes. So the trick is to make the 'movement', however relative-extreme, believable. That's right, you have to be a magician! lol!

Nevertheless if you don't mind me saying, Ashley, I think your blog is moving in a writer's struggles sort-of way. Informative, interesting, and moving. I found it when reading through Pedestal Mag's archives. I found your highly original story in there and followed the links to your website. Can I ask then, when is the next update of story-comparisons on that website?

Anonymous said...

from Adam, btw - i forgot to sign

Ashley Cowger said...

Thanks, Adam! I really like that "movement" idea. Reading your post seems to have loosened something in my mind about the main character in the novel I'm working on right now, and I've been excitedly banging away at the keyboard ever since. I plan to get the next set of stories/poems up on the website on or around July 1st.