Forget the Plot

10/27/2013 at 4:21 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

A great animator-cartoonist once asked: “Can you remember, or care to remember, the plot of any great comedy?  Chaplin?  Woody Allen?  The Marx Brothers?  It’s all about character.  Personality is everything.”

Mark Twain wrote: “The writer merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality.  He knows the selected locality, and he trusts he can plunge those people into incidents with interesting results.”

For me, and I suspect for all writers who’ve come into their own (although not necessarily into money or critical acclaim), this is exactly how it is.  Someone, a character, a personality, enters my head and starts talking.  Sometimes a place comes first, or a time in history.  What does NOT come first is story, a plot, a structure.  I’m suddenly filled with a personality seemingly not my own who wants to act out her or his own story.  And I follow, often blindly, but I follow, always in the dark.

I’ve read writers who tell you that you can’t know your tale unless you know your ending.  They mean a goal.  Writing means reaching that goal.  I’ve read writers who tell you before you write a word you must write a detailed outline of all that will happen.  When I was young and had not come into my own, this kind of thing seemed true.  And I despaired.  I never know my ending.  As for an outline, well, one always dislikes a thing one cannot do.  I cannot write an outline because for me story is not a mechanism, a Lego structure, a feat of engineering.  A story is organic and it flows from the personality of my main character.  He or she knows what she wants.  I write as I’m told by some inner voice whispering as I go, trying to keep up.  I make wrong turns when I don’t listen, when I impose “me” on my character.  Hypatia of Alexandria fought back.   I knew I’d lost the story when I felt her struggle with me.  But when I stopped messing with Hypatia’s one true voice, the story once more wrote itself.

I have no idea if the advice I heard when I was young works for anyone.  All I know is that it doesn’t work for me and it’s lovely to know it didn’t work for Twain or for the man who created some of the world’s most iconic cartoon characters.

If it doesn’t work for you, stop doing it.  Sit in front your computer, your typewriter, your pad of real paper, and just listen.  Someone will begin speaking to you.  Write down what they say. And word by word, day by day, they will tell you a tale no one else has ever told before.



  1. Professor VJ Duke said,

    Thanks for the sharing this thought provoking post!

  2. kilongfellow said,

    Sorry, I laughed. And now I am more pleased than ever. You profess: ergot, you are a professor. The Punchy Lands, eh? Means many things. First I thought: where boxers go when they die, bringing along their friends the kangaroos. Then I thought: lands with true grit. Which brought me to sand storms. Leaving me with you, a mirage, in a swirling whirl of Haboob.

  3. pippintogg said,

    Interesting comments Ki. For my first novel I had an ending in mind but the journey to that was fluid. I tried to write as if the novel was a living entity so that the twists and turns were realistic. This made it exciting for me as when I hit upon an idea I just followed it to see if it would work. Our own lives are at the mercy of our actions, decisions and things beyond our control so in The Cry of the Loon things always felt fresh to me and although I did edit and redraft I never as if I was labouring. Ironically the second one that I am still working on had a compete 3000 word synopsis but it is still following the fluid route where I follow the paths. Its a bit like hiking a trail then seeing another that looks more interesting. You never know what is round the corner.

    • kilongfellow said,

      Only thing I quibble with here, pippintog, is your comment: “Our own lives are at the mercy of our actions.” For me, our actions are choices made from our oftentimes unconscious intent. The only mercy involved is the mercy we show to ourselves which translates into mercy for all – since all is connected.

      • pippintogg said,

        Good point. In hindsight it was not that well phrased. Guess we need editors here as well.

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