Thursday, November 15, 2007

Essential Features on plotting according to John Gardner.

Here is a series of notes that I made from the chapter on plotting in John Gardner's book, THE ART OF FICTION.

Short Stories.

May be intellectual or energeic (My dictionary seems to spell that word without the second 'e'). Although the intellectual may be easier to write the allegorical tale may ultimately be disappointing. The energeic tale moves along more and is more satisfying.

Intellectual may consist of

A causal sequence of events - where later events are justified by earlier events - works best e.g. where the character tries to cope by using plan (a) and if that does not work use plan (b) etc.

The picaresque (where a clever rascal is followed going from one level to another in society showing absurdities in each) may lack a final energy.

Another alternative is the quest which relies on symbolic juxtaposition.

The surrealist story may be of three sorts:
(i) ideas in philosophical opposition translated into characters with events expressing the relationship between the two in concrete terms e.g. banker = materialism and a dove= spirituality and what happens when the two meet.
(ii) traditional allegorical emblems are explored quasi-realistically e.g. the salesman meets the Fisher-king.
(iii) a basic psychological principle is translated into reality.

The energeic made-up story can be arrived either by

working back from an ending (here the writer starts with a startling event for the climax, mulls over various ways of getting there (and tries them out) and may use characters as symbols).

or working forwards from an initial situation (the writer again works out possibilities towards a climax that is meaningful and convincing).

If either of these two methods are well-written than what will results is a persuasive piece of reality. In order to arrive at a piece of literature the writer must dig deeper (and this, I think is where the stuff of literature rather than populist fiction is generated). In other words the writer must closely examine a deeply-rooted idea. The imitation of reality is organised around some primary question or theme.


30 000- 50 000 words. Only the energeic style works here.

In Gardner's opinion the best novellas consists of continuous action with a series of climaxes each more intense than the last until the final climax.

Alternatives are a baby novel - consisting of different episodes with time breaks; or fictional pointilism - stories in snippets apparently at random but gradually amassing.


This should be a 'loose baggy monster' (Henry James). The closing movement should echo and resound with all that has gone on before - unexpected connections surface, hidden causes become plain and the outcome of actions become manifest.

Apart from the main energeic novel there are some where events are juxtaposed with just a symbolic or thematic relationship or are ordered on a musical principle where a key image is repeated.

The energeic novel is the most simple but also the 'hardest to fake'. Of the three parts: exposition, development and denouement the development is tackled first and the theme established.

The exposition is slipped in where possible by working out the character and characteristics of main players in the novel, showing everything of importance .

The action should get going immediately and the exposition should be completed before the climax.

The start should be decided after all the material is collected and should not be too far back or too close to the climax.

There should be planned rhythmical climaxes leading up to the final climax and then the denouement.

The architectronic novel - where there are two parallel energeic plots focused on central characters - should not be too neatly worked together otherwise they seem contrived.

Important details have to be repeated and pairs of combinations of character/event/setting can be used for their associative value for an economic effect. These associations may be on the theme of the novel.

The denouement, as well as the climax, should be fulfilling.

Although I find I did a lot of what he suggests (by accident, on my own) in my previous novels I have found it useful and reassuring to have the process described and discussed. My thought processes always seemed chaotic but now I see there can be something close to a rationale involved - which I like - and feel quite excited because I think I see places where I can improve.


Blogger PD Smith said...

thanks for that Clare - it sounds a fascinating book! In fact I think I'll go and look for a copy... Although I'm not sure I qualify as a 'young' writer anymore...!

Thu Nov 15, 09:40:00 am  
Anonymous Clare said...

No, me neither...but I didn't let that put me off! It's a really good book. I recommend.

Thu Nov 15, 10:30:00 am  
Anonymous adele geras said...

Definitely one for the bookshelf. And I adore 'how to write' read them and think: yes, I could do that! :)

Thu Nov 15, 12:01:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

Yes, Adele, it's inspiring. I read then go to sleep with my fingers crossed that I still feel like that the next morning!

Thu Nov 15, 05:56:00 pm  

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