A few thoughts on plot…

It’s dawned on me that along with providing me with a space to feature my writing this can be a place to put my writing about writing!

This will be the first such post.

In a recent online conversation with colleagues in England and Ireland, I found myself saying something about our expectations that our stories have heroes, or anti-heroes – plus ça change….

We were talking about the ways we are conditioned, habituated, to expect, to find; well, Something for Nothing! That we will find a leader, or a savior, or anybody, anything at all; that will do it for us. It’s pernicious. It is a perfect example of the way our stories determine our lives. I’ve resisted this conceptually. I’ve also felt the pressure to have my novels conform to this expectation to ensure they sell. I hadn’t made the connection between these factors in quite this same way before.

Of course! One leads to the other. Resisting the first without addressing the second leaves everyone confused. It’s a common problem when addressing unexamined assumptions. Unless we are clear in every aspect of how we are challenging an assumption we risk sowing confusion.

I asked them if they could think of a story that wasn’t about a hero. The only one we came up with on the spot was my suggestion of Stone Soup. Please let me know of any you consider relevant!

As I see it, Stone Soup is not about a hero. The beggar is a catalyst. He does not “save the village.” The gift that begins as his serendipitous discovery of making soup from a stone sparks a dynamic among the villagers that awakens their sense of community, their joy in conviviality, their understanding that their lives are there to be dwelt in, not a care to be held in abeyance as they pity themselves and resent their neighbor’s lot. I’ve likened this to the task of the artist today, not to posture as a celebrity or prodigy, but to be someone with unique and necessary abilities to catalyze changes in our awareness.

Writing this now – one of the benefits of revisiting an insight, a base-line benefit of writing at any time! I see that it would be easy enough to read Stone Soup as a heroic tale, at least broadly so. The Beggar gets what he wants. He looks good in front of others. He becomes storied and his feats are renowned.

This is why, perhaps, we need stories that cannot be read ambiguously as hero stories while at the same time not coming across as failed hero stories. We need to thwart our habitual expectation of finding a hero, and all that implies, while providing – with some sort of sharp clarity –  some other form of completion.

The entire notion of completion requires attention. How are our expectations of completion tied to all the other expectations and assumptions we make about stories and life?

In a hero-driven story completion comes with the end of the hero’s arc. We have been through the hero’s journey and we have arrived. I see this is an integral part of the failure of the hero story! Life is not like that. This sense of completion, that we can arrive at stasis and continue to live, that this could possibly be an “ideal” state! These are just the sort of assumptions we need to imagine our way out of. They perpetuate our delusions, the ones that return us again and again to the Juggernaut of business-as-usual.

So, is the notion of completion as completely failed as that of the hero? Maybe a way through this is to distinguish between completion within the story, and a satisfying conclusion of our experience of a story.

We are driven to stories, novels certainly, by the power plot and character hold over us to draw us in. We identify with who and what and we are there. The whole idea of this abruptly coming to an end on a “last” page leaves us in a precarious state. The ending supplied by a conventional heroic arc gives us a “safe” landing. We are able to judge our experience of the story by how the ending for the characters has allowed us to end our experience in a way that satisfies us, that, in the overwrought, tired phrase, gives us closure.

How else can we land?

Tragedy. I’ve always been drawn to tragedy as a form. In a tragedy there is an arc, but it does not leave the villain safely landed. We arrive at our completion through achieving a sense of righteousness restored. Or, if there isn’t a clear villain, but a likeable character trapped by Fate; we are left with an emotional catharsis. Our vicarious experience of the – failed hero’s? – fall acting as a preview and stand-in for our own.

Righteousness is something I’ve explored elsewhere. It isn’t something I’d promote or feature in my writing except to show its flaws and the dangers inherent in resorting to its blandishments!

Fate, and fall, seem problematical at first blush. Why is that?

Fall may be the easier of the two to ferret out. The Fall refers back to Gilgamesh’s Dream. It is a cry of anguish and a descent into shame and guilt at having destroyed nature. It establishes a wish-fulfillment fantasy that our sin can be atoned. That it will be set aside in another world beyond this one. This has been a primary driver in the mechanism that has consistently beaten us back away from any possible re-engagement with life, with what is. It has consistently channeled whatever lingering sense of having done wrong we may carry onto a path that restores our profound Egotism. The same Egotism that led to The Fall in the first place.

Is Fate just a cousin of The Fall? Is it just another outlet for displacement, channeling our awareness back into another “acceptable” avenue of escape from responsibility?

Perhaps not totally. It has been, in the form of Nemesis, The Defender against hubris. But it does insist on our careful scrutiny….

To be continued…


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