What makes a plot “arthritic”?

In my post on Ann Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread I quoted the Washington Post’s assessment (at the beginning of a rave review) that its plot was “arthritic”  I don’t know what that means.  Presumably the reviewer is talking about the events of the novel, which are standard-issue Ann Tyler: ordinary people working their way through ordinary problems.  But isn’t that what most literary fiction is about?  Alice McDermott’s Somewhere and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, for example, are no different, except in their locations.  (I talk about them briefly here and here.)

Maybe the reviewer doesn’t like how Tyler lays out the structure of the events?  But that can’t be it.  The structure is perfectly comprehensible, but she fractures the time sequence and the points of view in interesting and modern ways.  The novel begins by hopping forward through time a bit, and it ends unexpectedtly with two deep flashbacks, one with about the grandparents, who are dead long before the main action begins, and the other about how the parents fell in love, decades before the action begins.  And it ends with a brief scene that gives us the first point of view section of a main character (perhaps the main character).  Again, this is similar to what McDermott and Strout do in their novels, which hop around endlessly in their time sequences.

Ultimately, I think the reviewer just felt the need to make a glancing reference to Tyler’s age.  She’s been writing fine novels for 50 years, and she knows what she’s doing.

I wish I could do it.


Pull on a thread, unravel a subplot

My writing group sits by the fire, drinking Whale’s Tail and eating cashews.  They have read my latest chapters, and it’s time to comment on them.  They like them!  That’s great, because the first draft is almost done and lots of stuff is starting to come together.

There’s just this one teensy tiny plot thread that doesn’t seem quite right.  Do I need to add a sentence?  Do I need to explain a motivation a little more?  Well, no, that doesn’t quite do it.  What if my hero does this?  What if the female character does that?  What if something happened in a previous chapter to set things up better?  Her husband — what if he does something?  But wait, we haven’t even met the husband!  And suddenly he’s the key to everything!  How did that happen?

By the time I finish my Whale’s Tail I have another whole subplot to write, and I am further away from finishing my novel than when I started drinking.  Time for another Whale’s Tail.

Thanks a lot, writing group!

But that would be too easy: Dan Brown’s “I could kill you now, Mr. Bond” problem

The Heat is a hilarious movie that doesn’t bother much with plausibility. Towards the end Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy track down the bad guys to a warehouse, kill a few of them, but then get captured by the #2 bad guy.  He could simply shoot them, of course, but he decides to tie them up and torture them first.  Oh, no!  The torture is about to begin when he is called upstairs to a meeting with the #1 bad guy.  So Sandra and Melissa get to exchange some snappy dialog, figure out how to untie themselves, and carry on with the plot.

This is a standard action movie sequence.  The hero doesn’t get killed as the climax approaches; he gets tied up.  My friend Craig Gardner calls this the “I could kill you now, Mr. Bond” moment.  The evil mastermind has Bond in his clutches, but his hubris makes him say something like: “I could kill you now, Mr. Bond.  But that would be too easy.  Instead, I will let you watch as I carry out my plan for world domination. And then you will die a slow, horrible death.”

The evil mastermind’s hubris always leads to his downfall in these movies, of course.  And in the meantime we get to see the hero extricate himself from a difficult situation just in the nick of time to save the world.

Dan Brown’s Inferno is an action novel that features a standard evil mastermind with plenty of hubris.  Stripped of its endless lessons about art and literature and history and geography, it’s a James Bond novel.  Except that Brown makes a lot of odd plotting decisions that, for me at least, screw up this basic plot structure completely and fundamentally ruin the novel.  Spoiler alert: don’t read on if you are going to care about this plot:

  • First and foremost, the entire plot is predicated on the evil mastermind’s hubris, not just the climactic scene where he decides to keep the hero alive.  Nothing that happens in the book has to happen, except that this guy decides to leave some clever clues behind, mainly because he can.  He could simply have carried out his evil plan without telling anyone.
  • Second, and almost as bad, all the hero’s running around trying to stop the evil plan doesn’t amount to anything whatsoever because the evil plan has already successfully taken place by the time the novel starts.  We just don’t find out until page 400 or so.  So the action is doubly pointless.  Robert Langdon has raced around Florence and Venice and Istanbul for absolutely no reason.
  • Next, the evil mastermind is dead by the time the plot starts.  So there is no opportunity for a climactic confrontation, and his explanations for what he is doing all take place in flashback.
  • Finally–and I find this deeply weird–Brown seems to agree with the evil mastermind.  Well, Brown seems to be saying, his methods may not have been the best, but his analysis of the overpopulation problem was accurate, and obviously something more needs to be done . . .   He never allows any of the good guys to offer a convincing rebuttal to that analysis, although surely one exists (I could do a better job than the good guys, frankly).

So we spend the novel rooting for Langdon to succeed, but ultimately we find out that he couldn’t have succeeded, and we probably wouldn’t have wanted him to succeed.  What a letdown.

An Organic Plot (Note: This is about writing, not gardening)

I mentioned “organic plots” in this post about the novel Maine. The idea is that, in novels like Maine, the plot grows organically out of the characters and the way they interact; it isn’t a structure (or, at least, it doesn’t feel like a structure) imposed by the author on the characters.  I have never taken a writing course, so I don’t know how academics talk about plots, so this is just the way I view the matter.

My novels — thrillers, mysteries, private-eye novels — are about as far from organic plotting as you can get.  In them, plot and character have about equal weight.  Often I need to invent characters specifically to fill a role in the plot I’ve constructed.  I do occasionally rejigger the plot to fit a character, but after a certain point in the writing the plot doesn’t give me a whole lot of room for rejiggering.  So the plot and characters basically have to be developed together.

I don’t want to say that one model is better than the other.  I suppose an organically plotted novel has a better chance of being good than a highly plotted one; a plot without interesting, believable characters is worthless, but characters without a good plot will still hold my interest.  On the other hand, the most satisfying novels to me are the ones that manage to seamlessly combine both plot and characterization.  That’s hard to do!

So here’s a wisp of a novel idea that came to me during my morning run a few weeks ago.  If I were to actually write it (I’m not going to), it would have an organic plot, although it would (I think) have more structure than a novel like Maine

It’s the late 70s.  A wife gives a thirtieth birthday dinner for her new husband.  She invites three or four other couples that they know, and they talk about current events, popular music, their hopes and dreams.  In the course of the dinner we learn about the characters as seen through the eyes of the wife. At the end, exhilarated by the success of the dinner, she says: “Let’s make this a tradition!  See you all in ten years!”

We then move to the 80s, and his fortieth birthday dinner.  Same people, different point-of-view character.  We learn what has happened to them in the meantime, and we know them more deeply than we did from the first snapshot of them ten years ago.

So, we do this two more times, up to more or less the present day.  Characters die; characters are divorced and replaced.  Some are successful; others are not.  Some of the things we thought we had learned about them turn out to not be true.  Some people surprise us; some never change/  Everyone gets older.  And so on.

This is not a bad structure for a novel, I think.  It’s probably influenced by the play/movie Same Time Next Year, which I’ve never seen.  Its organic-ness is obvious, right?  The only actual events are those that take place during the dinner parties.  People talk and eat and drink and listen to music.  And the point-of-view characters remember and judge.  But by the end we know a ton of stuff about them and (if the thing is done right) we hope that everything turns out well for them.  That’s the idea, anyway.  As I said, I’m not going to write this novel — feel free to write it yourself!  But if I did, I’d have to approach it differently from the way I usually approach things.  It would have to start with the characters, and only when they were deeply realized would I start to figure out how they interact.

“Maine” and plotting

In my previous post about the novel Maine (by J. Courtney Sullivan) I was complaining about its lack of verisimilitude.  I’ve now finished the book, and things got better on that front, although she talks at one point about “Irish Need Not Apply” signs; those signs are much more typically worded “No Irish Need Apply.”

OK, not a big deal.

Sullivan does a pretty good job of recreating the famous Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942, which becomes a central incident in the narrative.  (My grandfather was a police captain in Boston back then and was on duty that night; he was worried that my mother and father (not then married) were celebrating at the nightclub, because my father had attended Holy Cross, which upset the heavily favored Boston College football team at Fenway Park that afternoon. The football game also figures in Sullivan’s retelling of the fire.)

On a scale of “threw the book across the room in disgust without finishing it” to “eagerly devoured the book and only wished it could be longer,” I rate Maine “had no problem finishing it, but wished it was 100 pages shorter.”  I don’t think the characters or, the plot justify the 500-page length.  Here’s the plot:

Three women (daughter, grand-daughter, and daughter-in-law) separately make their way up to Maine to visit the family matriarch at their summer home.  They argue about a couple of big issues in their lives.  Then they leave.

That’s about it.  It’s what I think of as an organic plot–it flows out of the characters rather than being imposed upon them.  I’m not complaining about that kind of plot, but I want more resolution than Maine offers.  The plot extends backward in the narrative as well as forward, which is also fairly standard.  A point-of-view character pours a cup of coffee and thinks about the past.  Another point-of-view character checks her email and thinks about the past.  Eventually we know a whole lot about these four people, how they think about each other and all the other people in their family, all of which informs the final confrontations.

This is all fine, except the final confrontations just don’t give us the payoff we’re looking for.  The problem is that nothing fundamental changes as a result of the confrontations.  The ending isn’t sappy, with all the conflicts of a lifetime somehow neatly resolved, but that doesn’t mean the ending is satisfying.  Take the Cocoanut Grove incident.  This turns out to be the motivating event in the matriarch’s life; everything that happens afterward–her marriage, her drinking, the way she treats her kids–flows from the secret she has held inside her about the fire.  She finally tells a priest the secret.  And then–nothing.  After 450 pages, I was looking for a bit of a payoff.  But she doesn’t change; nothing changes.

My guess is that the author fell in love with the outsized multi-generational Irish-American family whose story she was telling, and ultimately she couldn’t impose enough order on that story to make us care as much as she did.

But then, I’m a guy, and this is a book about women.  Maybe a couple of strong male characters would have changed my mind, but they pretty much don’t exist in Maine.  Sullivan should stretch herself and try a male point-of-view character in her next novel.  I’d give it a read!