The last of my four part series on plotting, fresh from notes from my “Plotting the Novel” seminar at Boston’s Grub Street. Grub Street is truly leading the way in teaching the novel, and you can find out more about their courses and other offerings at www.grubstreet.org. The course has four parts: Yearning, The Launch, Conflict, and Consequences.
Note: Each section includes an in-class exercise under the “how,” though I often alter these exercises as we work. I’ve tried to synthesize terms since the writing community as a whole lacks such synthesis. A list of articles by the named authors follows this post. I believe students need to be able to identify the heart of these various writing elements no matter which labels their past or future teachers attach to them. Ok, here we go:
What: The “unraveling”—the character’s reaction to and/or consequences of the Climax. Usually, you have four options (see Sexton):
· Protagonist wins Desire and is happy about it
· Protagonist loses Desire and is unhappy about it
· Protagonist wins Desire and is unhappy about it
· Protagonist loses Desire and is happy about it
Notice that this loss/gain and your Protagonist’s reaction to it will tell your reader a great deal about the relationship between the Protagonist’s Abstract Desire (most likely the truer Desire) and Concrete Desire. For example, your Protagonist may realize that marrying Ted isn’t what she wanted at all; what she was truly looking for was Freedom, possibly the opposite of what the marriage ends up offering her. The Denouement allows you to emphasize this deeper need.
Why: Without a Denouement, your novel will appear unfinished and unsatisfying.
When: After the Climax.
How: You may have more choices in presenting your Denouement than you think. If your story is more contemporary and/or ironic, you may want to choose either the third or fourth of Sexton’s combinations above. Also, much of your Protagonist’s probable reaction to the loss or winning of his/her Desire may be forecasted by earlier events and actions. Therefore, your Denouement merely has to sketch the barest of your Protagonist’s reaction—preferably in external gesture, action—for the reader to understand what it means.
Overall, consider following:
1. Determine your Protagonist’s reaction to the Climax
2. Determine the time and place of your Denouement. For example, does it occur five minutes after the Climax, five days, five years?
3. Finally, freewrite your Protagonist’s reaction. Again, it’s better to keep our view of this reaction as external, by watching the Protagonist do something. Otherwise, you risk writing an Aesop’s fable (ie. In the end, he learned that love could never exist if one didn’t truly love oneself. He would remember this lesson for the rest of his life). Yuck! The idea might be true, but the execution of it is purely Hallmark Daytime Special.
11. “Complexified Equilibrium” (Barth)
What: A new state of being different from the Ground Situation even if only in the eyes of the reader (can be the same as the denouement).
Why: You may have heard this idea many times: Your Protagonist needs to change. However, this idea of “change” is far more complex and interesting than that old adage lets on. In fact, your Protagonist may not change at all. He may be the same stubborn old fart he always was. And in truth, people don’t change that easily, so be true to your sense of reality, be true to the possibilities of your character, in considering the idea of “change.”
Other choices: Although your Protagonist doesn’t necessary have to change, something does. Otherwise, we’ll feel we’ve traveled the distance through your novel for no reason at all. Why not stop reading at page 20? The idea of change gives meaning and significance to the Protagonist’s pursuit of his/her Desire, lends substance to the risks entailed, and offers a payoff to your reader for the journey. Therefore, if your Protagonist doesn’t change, perhaps our sense of him does. Perhaps his characterization has deepened to such an extent that may seem frightening, hilarious, sad, etc.
Whether your Protagonist changes or not, certainly his/her situation has. At the end of a novel, the Protagonist can never return to that old seesaw, that old Unstable Ground Situation, because the situation has either disappeared or changed altogether, or your Protagonist’s feelings about it have been entirely altered. The Protagonist’s new situation is therefore more “complex” than the initial one. It is also just as unstable, and just as long lasting as the situation, even possibly permanent (or until you write the sequel). Remember though, the instability of this final equilibrium is important if you want your reader’s to believe it. The idea of someone flying off to marry his/her lifelong love and attain true and everlasting happiness is fine and good for fairy tales, but if the reader senses a thinness or lack of complexity to this new situation, they may just throw the book across the room.
When: The end of your novel, revealed most and/or lasting through the final moments.
Consider the following questions and do some freewriting on the final four:
· What was my Unstable Ground Situation?
· How has the Climax changed my Unstable Ground Situation?
· What is my Protagonist’s new situation?
· How is this new situation a shift forward or backward from the original?
· How does the reader know that this new situation is lasting, significant, even permanent?
Barth, John. “Incremental Perturbations: How to Know Whether You’ve Got a Plot.” Ed. Julie
Checkoway. Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the
Advanced Writing Program. Cincinnati, OH: Story Press, 1999.
Butler, Robert Olen. “Yearning.” From Where You Dream. New York: Grove Press, 2005. 39-61.
Gerard, Philip. “An Architecture of Light: Structuring the Novel.” Ed. Julie Checkoway. Creating
Fiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Advanced Writing Program.
Cincinnati, OH: Story Press, 1999.
Sexton, Adam “Story Structure: ‘Araby’.” Master Class in Fiction Writing. New York: