Sunday, January 9, 2011

Solving the Plot versus Exploring the Soul

Fiction is a delicate art.  "Pure" fiction - the kind of literary works that focus entirely on the exploration of human nature - is by nature unpredictable.  Genre fiction, in contrast, is sometimes seen as a kind of mechanical stepchild.  This perception is due to the somewhat artificial rules of the genre writing - just as mysteries require criminals and romance novels demand lovers, science fiction lives on robots and aliens while fantasy is carried on the backs of dragons.

When writing stories set in the alternative realities of speculative fiction, we must be careful that the so-called "rules of engagement" genre don't blind us to the primary goal of quality fiction: revealing a deeper understanding of the human experience.

Plot: "Solving the Story" versus "Exploring the Maze of the Human Soul"
This week, we'll plunge into the first of our three novels with a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night.  Unlike the majority of Vonnegut's work, Mother Night contains no elements of science fiction.  There are exactly zero instances of aliens, time travel, or visits to other planets.  I've chosen this work because, stripped of the science fiction elements, it readily reveals the writing technique which mark Vonnegut's best writing: a blunt attention to detail which is directly tied to the voice of the narrator.

The advantage of Vonnegut's style is that we feel an intimate connection with the narrators of his stories.  In Mother Night, Howard W. Campbell is at times cheerful, depressed, and angry.  As he relates the story of his life, he rages against painful memories and thoughtless people, attaching emotional charge to each detail.  Because of this, we don't just hear the facts of what happened, we experience them emotionally.  In the hands of another author, a story like this could have been written more as a biography, and the details alone would provide a compelling story.  But the story wouldn't hold our attention as well.  There is the mystery of why George Kraft and Doctor Lionel J.D. Jones are suddenly so interested in our narrator, but solving that mystery only provides some of the reward of the tale.  Most of our interest instead locks onto Campbell's explanations of why he lived the life he did.  As he reminisces on Hitler and Goebbels and the other Nazis he worked for, we see a certain tragic humanity to his existence.  These memories then inform our perspective as Campbell navigates the very complicated present.  It isn't enough that he faces Neo-Nazis and Soviet operatives and the mysteries of love - these adventures help us understand Campbell well enough to make sense of his last act on Earth.

In our own writing, we should aim to achieve the same interplay between plot and existence.  As a story unfolds, you want to reveal new and ever-changing facets of the characters to your readers.  You'll note that almost all the stories I've chosen for this course involve unexpected twists in characterization.  But pay close attention to the plots of popular books, movies, and television shows, particularly in science fiction and fantasy.  Many stories in popular culture - particularly Hollywood blockbusters - devote so much time to "solving the story" that little attention is given to revealing character change.  When aliens attack, we take it for granted that the hero will try to save the Earth - what else can he do?  When a plague of nanites starts turning human beings into multicellular robots, the temptation is to simply reveal - step-by-step - how the heroes manufacture an electromagnetic pulse large enough to save the planet.  And don't forget the dragons and evil wizards of fantasy - a writer can construct endless journeys in search of magical weapons and mystical aid, and each step of that journey can be driven by the simple need to kill the bad guys.

In this course, our goal will be to use such "conventional" stories for revealing the inner lives of our characters.  Maybe our hero happens to be one of the aliens, and he isn't quite sure the Earth deserves to be saved.  Or maybe those pesky nanites have promised to cure grandma's heart disease if our protagonists simply "stay out of the way."  Then we come to those evil wizards.  Honestly, why are they so evil?  What drives them to conquer the world?  Is it really that much fun sitting around in a dark tower all alone except for that retinue of mute goblins guarding the door?  Probably not.  And as for those dragons:
Well you see, Mr. Knight-in-Shining-Armor, the maiden we tied to the stake was a bit of a blabbermouth.  It's not at all worth your while to save her.  You'll just piss off the dragon, and he'll most likely eat you.  But charge on, if you must - we'll be drinking mead down here in the fallout shelter until the danger's passed...

Related Links:
Kurt Vonnegut and Mother Night
Day 1 Lesson Plan

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