The Art of Fiction: Someone Wants Something…

August 1, 2006
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The Art of Fiction:

Someone Wants Something . . .

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

August 2006

"I've noticed there are a number of issues students ask about again and again . . . "

—Lenard-Cook

It's summer conference season, and like a lot of other writers, I've been crisscrossing the country to teach classes, lead workshops, and indulge in the great pleasure of reading others' works-in-progress and revisions. Along the way, I've noticed there are a number of issues students ask about again and again, so I thought I'd devote my next few columns to my own sometimes quirky approaches to some of these problems.

What's Your Story?

When students read their work aloud in my workshops, I allow them to preface with only whether the selection comes from the beginning, middle, or end, and if the work is a novel, short story, or memoir excerpt. This means no explaining, no plot synopses, no character sketches, and, most important, no apologies. This allows me to hear if these things are on the page, as they should be.

"Scenes that aren't yet fully developed often lack fullness because the author hasn't yet discovered what the fiction is about."

—Lenard-Cook

Scenes that aren't yet fully developed often lack fullness because the author hasn't yet discovered what the fiction is about. As the author, you should be able to answer the question of what your fiction is about in one sentence. That's right-one simple sentence. I've found that if a writer starts synopsizing his or her fiction in answer to this question, it signals there's still work to do.

But how do you arrive at that one simple sentence? The following All Purpose Formula for Plot may help.

Plot is Desire Moved by Character.

Someone wants something. Something stands in his/her way. The someone does or doesn't get the something.

"This sounds simple, but in fact the key . . . lies in the toughest part of the equation: who wants what."

—Lenard-Cook

This sounds simple, but in fact the key to numbers 2 and 3 lies in the toughest part of the equation: who wants what. Let's try this formula out on a fiction most of you likely know, Ernest Hemingway's novella, The Old Man and the Sea.

Santiago wants to catch a fish, something he hasn't done in 84 days. The larger fishing boats are now more successful than solo fishermen like Santiago, and his young protégé has been forced by his parents to join the crew of one of these. On his 85th day, after a fierce struggle in which he and the fish "become one," Santiago catches his marlin, but sharks eat the fish to bone by the time he gets to shore.

The next step is to combine these three sentences into one that will answer the question "what's it about?" My answer is that The Old Man and the Sea is about an old fisherman who, in the process of catching a fish he must, learns that there is more to fishing (and life) than just the catching of the fish. Hence plot— Santiago's struggle—is desire—he wants to catch a fish—moved by character—he's old and tired but determined.

". . . complex stories are not just business as usual."

—Lenard-Cook

Complexity is a Fact of Life—and Fiction

As evidenced by the deceptively simple example above, complex stories are not just "business as usual." Like Santiago, complex characters have complex desires, which of necessity generate complex stories that turn at every scene. In fictions like The Old Man and the Sea where this is successfully accomplished, these complex scenes ultimately move in unexpected directions that nonetheless will seem inevitable to the reader once they've occurred.

Look at the complexities evident in the brief synoptic sentences above. Santiago doesn't just want to catch a fish, he hasn't caught one in over three months. The larger boats aren't just snagging more fish, their success has meant Santiago's young protégé can no longer accompany him, which means Santiago must instead go out alone on his mission. And while Santiago ultimately does get his fish, in their struggle he realizes that his mission and the fish's are really the same—survival. In a final twist, the fish is reduced to bone and Santiago to a battered, tired old man, evidence, nonetheless, that he, unlike the fish, is still alive.

"You don't have to be a Hemingway to try this yourself."

—Lenard-Cook

Hemingway's genius is that each of these unexpected turns seems inevitable. The reader, especially one who seeks happy endings, may be disappointed by the outcome of the novella, but its plot ultimately moves toward the only possible outcome for this character's desire and motivation.

You don't have to be a Hemingway to try this yourself. All you need to do is answer these three questions, and your plot will unfold before you. What does your protagonist want? What stands in his or her way? And does or doesn't s/he get it?

Plot is desire moved by character. It's as simple as…as catching a fish.

About

Lisa Lenard-Cook

Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, a selection of NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series, and the countywide choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, where she is currently adapting Dissonance for the stage.

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Copyright 2006-2008 by Lisa Lenard-Cook and Authorlink.

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