Supposedly, there are only 7 plots around from which all stories are constructed. You know – the rags-to-riches story, the redemption story, the requited (or occasionally unrequited) love story. Triumph over adversity, journey of discovery, mystery unravelled. An aphorism, to be sure, but probably grounded in some truth, as aphorisms tend to be. On the other hand, not particularly useful – it is like saying the blues has 12 bars and a base chord sequence. So what? There are a lot of blues still to waiting be wailed.
But this topic is one of abiding interests to writers of fiction, particularly after the pop and fizzle of the last novel. What next, you ask yourself. And from where. And if ever.
There is actually a website that will construct the structure of the story for you, based on time tested principles and plots. I think about this as I wrestle with my new book, now in painful labour. I stare sightlessly at interesting things in the real world that would otherwise elicit comment, because my brain in a deep thrash as to how to keep the arc aloft, how to keep my characters in voice, how to nurture the themes which interest me, how to balance tension and resolution, and most anxiously, how to keep the reader attached. The process is wildly volatile and in the end, a total mystery. Enough so that a website or course or book purporting to distill the rules should be distrusted with an attitude of extreme skepticism.
I have just finished Column McCann’s new novel Transatlantic. He won the National Book Award in the US a few years ago for the wonderful Let The Great World Spin. He is in that pristine group of exceptional novelists whose command of craft makes other writerly aspirants just that much more aware of their own failings, and how far they have yet to travel. We are not supposed to compare ourselves to others, we are supposed to be satisfied with the rare privilege to tell a story something and have it heard.
When McCann was casting around for a new idea for this book, I wonder whether the website would have come up with the goods for him to have imagined this plot:
Think I’ll slap together a little yarn about a couple of generations of Irish women, starting from a poor maid during the potato famine of 18th century and ending with her great great grandchild, now now at the end of her life in 2011. I’ll have an 18th Century fictional maid meet the real historical freed slave, intellectual and abolitionist Frederick Douglass during his visit to Ireland, where the seed of great American opportunity will be planted in her head. I’ll have her leave for the promised land in cheap steerage over the Atlantic and follow her life and times. And those of her daughter and her daughter and her daughter as poverty gives way to financial security and an eventual return to Ireland to face an all-encompassing loss. I’ll throw in a couple of chapters where one of these women meets Senator George Mitchell (still alive and well in real life) in Ireland as he facilitates the peace accords, so I can stir some my thoughts about the Troubles. I will dig deep into the depredations and keening mothers of the American Civil War in the 19th Century. Oh, and to prop up the middle generation of these woman I will insert a couple of real historical pioneering Irish pilots who flew one of the first transatlantic flights from Newfoundland to Ireland, but in this story they will carry a letter from one of our Irishwoman that will become a key to generational memory in the hands of a fading matriarch. My history will be exhaustively researched and imaginatively integrated into my fictional characters. And my readers will care deeply about these these women over their 150 year lifespan.
See how easy it is?