Saturday, October 20, 2012

Plot? Who needs it? - Guest Post from Phil Tate

Plot? Who needs it?
by Phil Tate

I can crank out short stories in three weeks or so, from inception to final polishing, and I’ve had some success with publishing them, too, including in the final issue of The Battered Suitcase. But I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, and I’ve had nothing but trouble writing one agents like. It’s taken a few years, but I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong. It has to do with the way I write, which is influenced to some degree by the software I use. I write on a Mac, and anything will do for short stories, but I wanted something more sophisticated for novels, so I bought Scrivener, a wonderfully complex program that makes child’s play of organizing and reorganizing chapters and scenes. I love it, and I wouldn’t use anything else, but here’s how I use it. I write a scene. I click a button to create another one. I write that. This goes on an on, hundreds of scenes, all of them wonderful and polished and profound. Each one is self contained (kind of like a short story) and invariably shows character development and growth, introduces or reinforces symbols, continues motifs, etc. But what I have had trouble with is the overall arc of the story, the big novel-sized story. The increasing tension, the climb toward a climax, an overall thrust or momentum or whatever you call it. Maybe you call it plot. That’s where my trouble is. Voice? You got that down. Character? Realistic, authentic, interesting. Dialogue? A real knack for that. But plot? Oh, my.

Some years ago I was at a workshop led by Natalie Goldberg, and she told a similar story: "Natalie, you have to have a plot!" her friends told her, and everyone laughed, including me, because it was so obvious. How could anyone write a novel without plot? Ha, ha. Well, I’ve found out. It’s pretty easy, actually. Just keep writing those wonderful scenes, one at a time, and forget that people want something simple. They want, as in Winter’s Bone, a girl who desperately needs to find her father, or as in Moby Dick, a man who must kill a whale. Readers want a reason to keep turning pages. They want to find out what happens. It’s not enough to watch them grow up.

So I set out to write Winter’s Bone and Moby Dick, only I started with two teenage girls fighting for survival. Their mother dies, their father left them years ago, and the girls set off to find him. But they never do. I mean, after all those flawless, enlightening scenes, including beer and sex and perverts, who needs him?

Tate’s stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Narrative, Black Warrior Review, and others. He has three novels packed with great scenes (and a little plot). See more at

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