Craig, Scott, and Angelique talk about plot, character, writer's block, and famous writer quotes on today's literary deep dive!
you're listening to good sentences. Podcast. That's guaranteed to tickle your literary earhole and make you wish you'd listen to dear old mom when she said toe put down those lawn darts on and learn how to read. And now here, your hosts, neither of whom listened. Dear old mom, this is Craig A heart and S. J. Marengo. Welcome, everybody back to good sentences. We are. Scott and I are pleased to have, um, sort of a guest and sort of now. Ah, semi regular co host now, Angelique Lem, or thanks for joining us, Angelique.
Well, thanks for having me again. It makes me feel like a real writer,
and you are one, and we're gonna be talking about plot today, so well, looking forward to have you weigh in on that Scott has actually is our resident researcher and has done a lot of work on this, so I'm gonna turn this over to him, take it away,
give it so much. And yes, we are talking about plot. Craig and I did a little introduction to this. The fact that we were going to discuss plot and I had already done a little research by then. and it was already apparent to me that everybody and when I say everybody, I'm talking about the authors that had quotes on the Internet that I could find. That was my criteria. They come down basically on two sides of the subject. One is the very plot centric school where plot is the thing they work hardest on. Developing, they think is the most important, and the other is. The folks that think other things are is at least equally is important, and, uh, we'll get through some of them. But the first thing I wanted to do is I figured since we're talking about plot, let's look up what the dictionary says Plot is And I went to this up and coming reference work called the Oxford English Dictionary. I don't know if you guys have heard of that. They have several definitions. Of course, of the word, it's it's got a lot of different meanings, but the two that fit in the scope of our discussion it was primarily used first, and we're talking as earliest like the 15 forties to talk more about a synopsis of a story. The part that that you, you know, want to put together when you're telling somebody what the story's about wasn't until about 100 years later that it became to use the way I think most of us do now, which is the plan or scheme of any literary creation in Marion's Webster's Collegiate, which I've had since I was a freshman in college because it has all the dirty words in it. So I
still peter around.
I had a friend in college who actually underlined them all. I'm like,
friend in high school taught me how to constant Turkish.
Well, there you go. You
can get away with all sorts of stuff. No,
it was her mother said it was okay as long as it was in Turkish,
which is fine until you go to Turkey in there. But anyway, their definition is simply a plan or main story of a literary work. And I found a quote from Erica Jong. You guys remember her from back in the seventies, she said. Plot is just a fancy way of saying and then which I think is a pretty good definition. So to start out, how do you guys feel about those definitions? Do you think that sums it up pretty well.
I remember taking a writing class, uh, probably 20 years ago now. And, ah, they were really heavy on plot in terms of being a literary device to move action forward. In fact, one of the little pieces of homework we had to dio was to make assigned a hang over our writing space that said, Plot is a verb and you had to refer to that. If we ever get stuck, you don't know what to do. Just look at the by that sign. It never helped me. By the way it was just taking a wall space where my notes could have gone. They're pretty adamant about plot being the important thing.
Yeah, and and like I said, there's quite a few writers who feel that way. As I was sifting through the several 1,000,000,000 quotes that I found, I basically came to see that even though we do have the two camps, there's there's almost 1/3 camp, a kind of neutral Switzerland in the middle, and I think that's probably where I fall where they feel that plot is equally important as the other things, but not the driving importance. The first number One quote and it was identified as the number one quote on the website is working was from George Lucas, who, obviously the filmmaker, But he's also a storyteller. And he says storytelling is about two things. It's about character, and it's about plot. We'll revisit that a little bit more of that, that combination. But what do you think about that?
I would ask Anjali, can you separate character and plot?
Yes, but I think that you can have the most exciting plot in the world. But if nobody cares about your character, you're not gonna engage your audience. You you have to either love them or hate them or at least be interested in them and what's going on with them. I mean, you can have a great idea for a story, but if the character work isn't there, then you don't have anything that grabs you beyond the structure like I'm gonna write a story about. You know, if you take Outlander, I'm gonna write a story about a woman who goes back in time from 19 forties England Teoh, seventies sixties or 17 seventies Scotland and and you can't like OK, great. It's a great idea. So we got all sorts of wonderful things that can happen. But if we didn't care about Claire at all, you would kind of go. Why? So this is like great, But you have to engage. We like stories about people. We like to see ourselves in it. We like characters who look like us. We like characters who looked like someone we know. We like Teoh engage that way, but I think that I think for me, Claude is a structure, but I do it in a different order, I think. But I wrote down as we were starting this structure. But it's flexible, like a tractor set from our childhood in the sixties, like an Erector set where you can change things but not like Lincoln logs where you touch one. And they all fall that, like for anybody who doesn't remember reactors up like it's more like Legos than Lincoln logs. Lincoln Logs drove me crazy. Breathe out them and the roof goes, but I But I think I think that the idea of it being a device to move action forward is true. But I I just went back to look. There's ah woman I took a class from years ago. Martha Alderson, who's also known as the Plot Whisperer and I'll read you a clever she's His plot is how the dramatic action changes or transforms the protagonists emotional development over time, through cause and effect in a meaningful way.
That's another one. And I, you know, I mean, we could talk about what order we do things in. And when you bring up when you bring up George Lucas and and, you know, obviously a very, very classic storyteller in the classic, you know, adventure. Since I feel and I do agree with him, I think it's both. I think you can have fascinating characters, but the story doesn't grab you. You're like, so vice versa doesn't take you.
Do you think the importance of plot changes at all when you're talking between, say, genre fiction and literary fiction?
I have a problem with this distinction, which, being literary fiction, genre fiction and all I could say is in my mind. Ah, good story is a good story and people want to elevate it. And yes, there are stories that are just very, very basic. You killed my father. Prepare to die, right? Inigo Montoya's. The whole thing is about going. And if the story is just about him and he's just going to kill the guy who killed his father and maybe that isn't literary fiction is just escapist. It's fun and it's engaging, and it's interesting because he's interesting. If you take something else that you consider literature, I'm not going. I don't even know what literature is these days because they would say Hemingway, Steinbeck Dickins wrote popular fiction at the time that they wrote it. We made it right. The people who came 50 years later made it into something that is known as literary fiction. So growing, growing up with Dad and with his sales being what they were, he was out selling people in The New York Times that seller list for eons before he ever got on it, and part of that was because he was published first in paperback
for a long
time. Then he became published first in hardback and then paperback, and that allowed him the opportunity. But the thing is, is we recent jokingly say, You know, people are more interested in what two people do in bed than they are in the opening up of an entire country that was going to be followed by nobody ever thinks books have value that take place west of the Mississippi. And I looked at him and said, West of the Hudson City, it's really, really important and it must be literary, but like it is everything else, like the whole rest of the country. And that was And that was the Those New York Times best seller list will like that forever, you know? And that was It was literary fiction, you know? And then people were likely. Well, this guy sold 55 million copies. Maybe we should pay attention. You're kind of going, and I don't even know what the first. I don't know what the first I have to ask my brother that question they got on
our did. You mean?
Yeah, it If
both probably knows that one.
Bo knows all that stuff. Yeah, Dad used to talk about we have that would have this conversation and he'd say, You know, everybody would say that everything's been done and he said, and that there's no new ideas And he said, But here's the thing. They've only been like there were only like, 13 original plots and a lot of them in the beginning. You know, I had to do with God's right and act. Do with that kind of Inter playing in with the Greeks and the Romans and like Mount Olympus and the whole thing. And as we left those behind, you know, we got down to that basic boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. Guy goes on a journey and comes back, and it's really difficult to get back and all of those plots that we know and it's like writing a song. There are only so many notes, so it's very hard to make it new and fresh. So the thing that makes plot new and fresh is who's doing it?
That's a good point.
Bring things back to character,
and and I'm glad you guys did that so beautifully because I do have a couple of good character quotes were welcomes. Got thank you. One eyes from there were a couple of of authors that I had to look up. I'm ashamed to say, but one of them was Vanna Bonta, or either you guys familiar, and now well, the quote is the real story is not the plot, but how the characters unfold by it. Yeah, like that. And then and then related to that is what Elis McDermott says, which is characters primary. What happens as faras plot and events is not as intriguing to me as what's happening inside this particular person,
which becomes the price, you know,
And the last quotas. Harper Lee Someone Harper Lee
never won, but
something try to get a few decades later, and then she died. So had tells you what to do after you rate your fight first book. Don't write the 2nd 1 because within a year you're gone, only she, she said. Characters make their own plot. The dimension of the character determines the action of the novel
Boom. When you go,
Dad used to say that he would put a character in a situation and then see what happened.
See how that's that's key. It's not the plot. It's how the character reacts to it.
Yeah, it and that's and that's what it's like. It's like, um, you know, I don't probably beating a dead horse cause I talk about Hamilton a lot. I talk about Hamilton. A lot of Harry Potter a lot, and I think it's because people know it. People of all ages. No, it. And the thing about Hamilton is, you know, here's this guy. He keeps coming up in the news and he's all over Twitter right now. Um, and even ah, Andrew Cuomo shared a quote. So he was a guy whose circumstances should have led him to either killing himself or like going to see and vanishing, because the whole beginning of his life was just horrible. It's how he dealt with those circumstances that makes him unusual. And the whole reason Hamilton is exciting to an entire generation of students who got fascinated by the government and the beginning of the country and the beginning of the Treasury is because he's such an interesting guy and they could see themselves in him that brought everybody in. And then, of course, Lemon Wells. Magnificent expression. My dad didn't kibbles. Okay, so we have this conversation. Did my dad plot? Okay, so Dad's main training was in writing short stories and learning what didn't get sold, right? What didn't get taken and learning how to do it wrong, and then he started to learn how to do it, right. He wouldn't necessarily plot too much like he might write down a couple of notes. Um, and and there Certainly The interesting thing is, in their new versions of his I want to say that new printings of his novels coming out that are the lost treasures diversions, which means in the back there are notes about where that story came from, what he was doing when he wrote it, things in his own hands that that you can sort of see what he did. But what he tended to do most was he was started a story, and sometimes he would start it five or six times from page one until he got going in a direction that just took off for him. He wrote subconsciously and I think because he had, ah, form from short stories so completely ingrained in him, I don't think he ever really questioned things once he really got going. But sometimes as those beginnings were 78 chapters and and then he goes back and he'd start over. I don't know if he was copying or he just started with the same words because They're very, very, very similar. But he would He would just It was just Something would change along the way. I wish he was here, so I could, like have I'd have a 1,000,000,000 questions for him.
One of my favorite quotes and subsequent pictures of him was him saying that he could sit in the middle of Sunset Boulevard a believe in right. And so a magazine challenged him to do that. And he did. There's a picture of incident. There were this typewriter unfairly wrote like a page. And I guess the story goes and correct me if this is an inactive us A truck driver drove by, looked out his window. You must be Lula more.
Exactly. And it was people magazine.
Okay. Yeah, You
You have that on your instagram?
Yes. And Mick Jagger was on the cover, and I was It was hysterical. He's like that. Yep, we're going out. If you sat down with a little portable typewriter on his lap and he wrote a page in the middle of Sunset Boulevard.
Yet another reason. He's one of my literary heroes right there.
It's definitely worth worth being a hero.
Absolutely, there is. I think. I hope this is his quotes. I'm feeling like it is something about just sitting down and writing because the water doesn't run until you turn the faucet on or something like that. I believe that one,
that one. That one's all over the Internet. No, you just start writing the water. Doesn't yeah, doesn't flow without?
Yeah, there's definitely a few other folks who talk about that as faras just getting started and the plot follows more or less. Vanek, it said, I don't plot my books rigidly. Follow a comm preconceived structure. A novel mustn't be a closed system. It's a quest like that. Yeah, I thought that was pretty good and Ah, Tawni, Odell says. When I begin writing, I have no idea what my novels are ultimately going to be about. I don't have a plot. I never consider a theme. I don't make notes or outlines so that I could have probably scratched her name out and put in mine in this, please.
Yes, I remember an interview with a writer, and I wish I could remember who it Waas, who wrote his entire story longhand in the middle of a legal panned with Pat. He made three columns, a kind of white ish, one in the middle and two on the side. And he would write the entire story with dialogue and then write the dialogue along the side when he went back to do
that, getting a one page and like all this is way too much work.
I'd have been lost dividing the page in the three columns. Too much
one to forget it. One of the quotes you have for us there, Scott.
We've gone beautifully off target a couple of times in the stuff we
That's what we
talked about. Well, the stuff we talked about is better than the stuff I had written down. So believe me, that's why I'm thrilled it's going the way it is. I guess the only other world I'd want to share is the one I was hoping to close with, and we don't have to necessarily close right now. But, uh, this was from who was this from Lydia Malek? And she says, I love this. I advise if you're stymied by a passage or paragraph or plot point, whether it's for an assignment from the outside world or one that comes only from within. Get up from whatever. Wherever you're sitting, walk outdoors and do nothing but look at the sky for five minutes. Just Dayrit that thing, then execute a small bow and go back to work.
I guess I would ask Angelique plot when you're talking about plot. That's kind of where when people talk about right writer's block, that's where it comes into play. Are there is. There are many things that anything that you do to get over writer's block, Do you believe in Writer's block?
Okay, we'll forget that. Okay,
I'm going to be very honest. I do not believe in writer's block. I believe in in book block. I believe sometimes you can get to a place in your book and you're like, I have no idea and and that that can stop you for a bit. Um, And right now I mean, a lot of writers certainly are talking about how they can't right. Like, everybody is struggling because this, you know, with Corona virus is so overwhelmingly huge on so many levels that you would think with all this time, I'm not allowed to run around. We would be doing nothing but writing. I'm I'm cleaning and cooking. I couldn't write when I was sick and I couldn't read when I was sick, it was really, really difficult for me. I could I could scroll Twitter. I could watch the news, but I couldn't. I couldn't focus. And, you know, a fever for 14 days will do that too. But it But Thea other day I was like, Okay, I think I'm feeling claustrophobic because I have two books that need attention. One is a nonfiction piece. One is a middle grade mystery. I have incredible notes for both. I know what I need to do, and I am just balking. So I decided to give myself a break because I feel like even if we are feeling comfortable and we have enough food on the fridge and our, you know, our electricity is being paid were good, like solidly, financially stable at this moment, not stressing about anything. This spectre is still here and and it changes are our mindset. And so I thought Okay, I'm feeling claustrophobic, like I'm not supposed to leave my house. Yes, I could go walk my neighborhood, but like No, I'm not not driving anybody to school not doing all this thing. So I'm I'm feeling I don't feel stifled, but I just feel like there's there's parameters that are very specific and going to look and rework a book is putting me in parameters that are very specific. So I just decided that I would start a story which I have not given myself the joy of doing because I have been doing these rewrites for, like, three years. So I haven't just sort of gone. Where does this page take me? And I thought, Well, if I was, you know, I'm going to do that. I'm going to start. I'm just gonna start. I'm just gonna right? What if what if Pandemic. And what if 9 11 and both of them. I wrote about three pages on a couple of notes on the side, and then they put them aside. And then I sat down the road. Two blonde posts. Yeah, and I thought this is you know, it is that thing of just the physical action. How are you write? Writing hand written, writing on a keyboard. Whatever you dio keeps you from going, only gotta know where to go and sometimes when I don't know where to go with the story. But I know there's a scene that's coming that I haven't written yet. Like I I know this. This has to take place, all right, or I got a bit of back story that isn't going to necessarily be in the book, but I want I want to see it. I want to flesh it out. I'll just open ended Word, Doc New New Not Nude, a
new feature and heard about Well, technically,
they're note until you start putting letters in there.
So I'm going to dress the word and just get yourself the freedom of, you know, writing this scene from this character's childhood or writing this scene between these two carriages that's coming. But I haven't gotten there yet in the story, and that will bring me back into to write again. So I I feel like, um, I honestly feel that writer's block is an excuse, and it's kind of like going, Oh, I didn't have time today to clean my bathroom because I was too thes scrolling Twitter and looking at what was on ants about New York and, uh, California. And so I couldn't know, like I could have listened to the news conference while I clean the bathroom. So I feel like this is the same. This is the same thing. It's like I can't go any further right now because I don't know where this goes. Okay, fine. But you know, there's a piece of history for that character you could write. You know, there's a scene coming up that you could write. You could start another story just for the heck of it to get it down because it's been ticking at the back of your head. I just feel like there is. I don't believe in it. I and I think it's I do think it's an excuse. I think it's a you know, I'm I would almost say Cop out. You know, what is that quote about how we're not afraid of failing were afraid of our own power, and they were afraid like what happens? What happens if the three of us become a successful as my dad or J. K. Rowling or Kurt Vonnegut or Dickins, or are we afraid of it? Are we are getting air stay in the story because those characters need you to work their life out
right? That's a That's a good point. And it brings me to something that I wanted to talk about, harkening back to the Facebook Live that you did. Ah, while back on character development. The thing that that I realized in retrospect, when we finished was that that group of people that got together to do that basically and answering your 25 questions the worksheet you have on your website we wrote his story. The plot became self evident as we learned more and more about what do we call him? J. Dog. Aziz, we've learned, learned more and more about J Dog. His story appeared before our eyes. It was amazing.
It's really you know, it's my I love teaching that class because it's always different and it energizes me, and I can teach it to, you know, seven year old six year olds and I can teach it to, you know, adults. It's like everybody can can enjoy it because it's this creations, this collaborative creation. It was interesting, cause I just go back to that one question You say, you know, no care that one of the things about characters, no character will do anything that isn't in his own, but he doesn't perceive is in his own best interests. And somebody in my class in Dallas and the Dallas Fort Worth conference said, What if it's ah, you know, it's Ah, Marine or on Army guy and And he jumps on a bomber. He jumps on
a grenade or something, Right? Right,
right. How is that? His own best interest. And I started to answer it. Then I stopped and I said, Is there anybody in here? You have military in this room. And what I wasn't I said, would you please explain this because you're I don't want it? I don't want to explain it wrong, and you're going to tell him better. And so he went on about saying, You know, your you become part of a unit on what is best for the unit is what you dio and there is no there would be no thought process.
There wouldn't be because you're right that the unit is what matters.
The unit is you right? Are the unit that you are these guys. You are all you know. It's in walking to head. I am negan. No but on the positive way are all this person. But it's It's this person that is made up of lots of people.