Monday, November 22, 2010

Ursula LeGuin: The Conflict and The Plot

I've been finishing one novel and starting another, so I'm in the mode of thinking about fiction lately. I seem to be able to either write fiction or non-fiction, but not both at once. Not easily, anyway.

Below are some words of wisdom from Ursula K. LeGuin, words that make me feel much, much better, because although I write stories, I don't always write about conflict per se. Sometimes, to me, there are better things to think about, and when people tell me that to make a successful piece of fiction I need to have plot! I need to crank up the conflict! then some part of me deep inside says, "Oh, yeah?"-- and I just can't shut it up. Like the title of the book this quote comes from (Steering the Craft), I have an internal guidance system which takes me where I must go. Perhaps as a result, I do have trouble selling stories: the nice comments from genre editors I've gotten is that the story is too slow, or that not enough happens. From the occasional literary editors, what I've heard is that because the story contains speculative elements, they can't use it (though I'm much more likely to get form rejections from literary editors).

I don't mind rejections, and I'm actually pleased that I'm getting comments and personalized rejections nowadays. Believe me, it is so wonderful to be getting these nice letters now, after all the years of form rejections; however, reading these words below, especially from one of the writers I most admire, makes me want to go on trying anyway. And the words make me want to turn back against the tide of pressure I've been floating in, the one that urges plot! plot! plot! perhaps at the expense of other things: they make me want to think again about the actual words I'm using, the phrases, the intricate, tiny narratives in tiny situations that fascinate me.

I love wisdom; I love people who have gotten old enough to have this kind of perspective. I love people who are well-read and incredibly eloquent, talking about things that matter deeply to me. Steering the Craft has been a marvelous read, and these words ring, not only true, but resoundingly.

"I define story as a narrative of events (external or psychological) which moves through time or implies the passage of time, and which involves change.

"I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax.

"Climax is one kind of pleasure; plot is one kind of story. A strong, shapely plot is a pleasure in itself. It can be reused generation after generation. It provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable.

"But most serious modern fictions can’t be reduced to a plot, or retold without fatal loss except in their own words. The story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves.

"Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

"Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

"We don’t have to have the rigid structure of a plot to tell a story, but we do need a focus. What is it about? Who is it about? This focus, explicit or implicit, is the center to which all the events, characters, sayings, doings of the story originally or finally refer. It may be or may not be a simple or a single thing or person or idea. We may not be able to define it. If it’s a complex subject it probably can’t be expressed in any words at all except all the words of the story. But it is there.

"And a story equally needs what Jill Paton Walsh calls a trajectory — not necessarily an outline or synopsis to follow, but a movement to follow: the shape of a movement, whether it be straight ahead or roundabout or recurrent or eccentric, a movement which never ceases, from which no passage departs entirely or for long, and to which all passages contribute in some way. This trajectory is the shape of the story as a whole. It moves always to its end, and its end is implied in its beginning.

"Crowding and leaping have to do with the focus and the trajectory. Everything that is crowded in to enrich the story sensually, intellectually, emotionally, should be in focus — part of the central focus of the story. And every leap should be along the trajectory, following the shape and movement of the whole."

I'll leave you with that taste in your mouth, rather than even trying to reach that level of eloquence. Phew.

1 comment:

Dave said...

I sympathize with you. I write the stories I want to write and I think a lot happens in them, though there is seldom any conflict. I like to write about people I have met and the stories I heard from them,and the experiences in my own travel, real experiences even if they are sometimes done up as fiction. They don't seem to be what people are publishing these days, but I don't need any trees to die for me and I am happy to write for my own pleasure and the occasional amusement of my friends. And I learn something from almost everything I write, either about the craft or about myself.

Anyway, you have a blog: publish yourself. I like your view of the world.

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