by Stephen Parrish
I encountered some writing advice recently that suggested writers who struggle with plot should treat it like a sleeping bear. Approach stealthily, guardedly. Describe the setting, the bear’s surroundings: a cerulean sky, the cool grass beneath your protagonist’s feet, oak branches creaking obligingly in a gusting breeze. Describe everything but the bear. Trace your protagonist’s ancestors back to the Abolitionist, the Indian Fighter, the Puritan who hopped off the boat. Ignore that bear!
Set up your Monopoly board with Community Chest cards shuffled and stacked on their rectangle, Chance cards shuffled and stacked on theirs. The boot and the thimble and the top hat lined up at Go. Money doled out from the bank. Ready, set . . . gently—tenderly!—nudge the bear.
Follow this advice, and you, too, will struggle with plot.
It’s probably the most common mistake made by beginning fiction writers: they feel the need to set up the story, to create a world in which everything will make sense to the reader. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules of creative writing was “Start as close to the end as possible.” If there’s a world to build, if there are things the reader needs to know, they’ll reveal themselves as the story progresses. If they don’t, you probably didn’t need them: telling the reader a character is cool-headed isn’t necessary unless the character gets into a fix and needs a cool head. In which case it’s best to show her being cool-headed, through her words and actions.
Start as close to the end as possible. Start with something happening. Kick the bear.
Plot formulas abound. Most are intimidating because they’re complicated. This is all you need:
1. The protagonist wants something. The more he or she wants it, the better for the story.
2. An obstacle is preventing the protagonist from getting what he or she wants. The bigger the obstacle, the better for the story.
3. The protagonist overcomes the obstacle and reaches his or her goal. Or not. Either way, the protagonist is changed as a result of the experience. The more significant the change, the better for the story.
That’s it. If you’ve got those, you’ve got a plot. All that remains is to work hard, be true to your vision, and kick a few bears.
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Stephen Parrish is the editor of The Lascaux Review, which actively seeks multicultural stories, poems, and essays. The review is conducting a flash fiction contest from 6 to 20 March 2014 at www.lascauxflash.com.