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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » No stories with plots, please.

   
Author Topic: No stories with plots, please.
Rick Norwood
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I got the following rejection note from On Spec -- valuable information, especially since they will not accept submissions unless accompanied by Canadian postage stamps. "The story isn't really our style. It is plot-driven and we prefer work to be character-driven. Try a different market."

Confirms something I've long suspected, and helps me decide which stories to send them in the future.

P.S. I currently have 19 stories out to 19 different magazines, with three stories "in the works". While by nature I am a fairly stable person, the write in me seems to have serious manic/depressive swings.


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innesjen
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Okay, this might reveal how much of a novice I am, but I thought all stories were plot driven. What does character driven mean? Is it just where we get to meet and explore a character, but there is no conflict and resolution?
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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innesjen, OSC's M.I.C.E. story categories may help you there. He discusses them in both CHARACTER AND VIEWPOINT and HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, and I'd recommend you read the relevant sections from each book in that order.

As a paraphrase of how he defines character stories, however, I will tell you now that he believes character stories involve roles. They are either about characters who desire a role that they don't have and what they do to achieve that role, ending with either success or a realization that the role is not achievable or desirable after all, or about characters who are thrust into an undesirable role and what they do to deal with that, ending with either accepting the new role or finding a way to achieve a more desirable role.

Does that make sense?

OSC's definition of milieu, idea, and event stories would tend to put them in the "plot-driven" category because they are about the setting, or the idea (gadget, mystery, puzzle, etc) or the world-changing event more than they are about the characters who experience or explore those things.

I hope this helps.


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Christine
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innesjen, when a character drives a story they are deep, rounded, and have motivations/desires/impulses which dictate what will happen next. Instead of things happening to the character, the character goes out and does things.

Good stories can be plot driven rather than character driven, but sometimes plot driven stories have the feeling of an author reaching into them and moving things around.

In this case, we're really not talking about story structure or the like.


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innesjen
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Okay, I think I get it. Thank you
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MartinV
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I find Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire to be quite character-driven.
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Merlion-Emrys
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Not to derail (I would consider this related but some may not) the title of this thread attracted my attention because of something I noticed when I recently did a spate of reading a couple of the markets I frequently submit to.

I noticed that a majority had little or nothing along the lines of a plot, as I understand the concept. Nor did the majority have resolutions to their endings (of course in some cases that would have been hard because no real plot was introducde to resolve.)

Furthermore a number of them weren't really what I'd call "character driven" either...and in fact just didn't really seem to make much sense at all (maybe I'm just dense.)


Also...I got a rejection from Beneath Ceasless Skies saying that they prefer stories in a 3rd person close style...which my story was, at least as I've been given to understand the technical meaning of that concept. But they went on to say various things about being "in the characters head" etc and I realized a lot of the talk about POV isn't just about wanting close POV, its about wanting totally character oriented stories. They want, it some times seems to me, stories that spend a lot of time on the inner thoughts of very self absorbed characters.


Anyway, it seems that plot is becoming an increasingly secondary concept in stories. Now I will say plenty of markets do talk about strong plots as well, but it seems like straightforward narrative storytelling isn't much in favor these days. Its especially ironic for me because a fear of being able to construct plots was a major obstacle to my starting to write. And then I find out, one doesnt really need plots to sell stories...


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Christine
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I've heard of a trend in stories with no plots, although I haven't read one. I will say, though, that from a certain perspective I understand the turning from plot-driven and to very deeply immersed character-driven stories. In this new age of movies and flair, the biggest thing that a book can do that a movie cannot is get us into the thoughts, attitudes, and motivations of a character. I find it a bit dismissive to say that the characters are "self-absorbed." Frankly, I think about myself and what is happening to me a lot and I imagine that most people do. In fact, when I think about other things going on, I have reactions to them colored by my personality and my experiences. Last night I was explaining TV commercials to my almost 3-year-old. I told him, "They're trying to sell you something so you can't always believe what they say." I distrust people who are trying to sell me things as a matter of course. Not everyone feels that way. It's just one aspect of my personality, but I'm trying to highlight the idea that in CLOSE third person POV, absolutely everything that happens is colored by the POV character's perceptions.
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extrinsic
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In story, plot equals dramatic structure. Story is to plot as plot is to dramatic structure, all qualities of the same specimen. Dictionary definitions of what's dramatic don't do the ramifications of plot much service for a writer. The term dramatic has negative connotations too. A dictionary of synonyms, not a thesarus, serves my purpose of understanding what dramatic means. Synonym dictionaries relate the shades of meaning that synonyms have relative to one another.

"Dramatic, Theatrical, Histrionic, Melodramatic mean having a character or an effect like that of acted plays. Dramatic applies to situations in life and literature that stir the emotions deeply <A dramtatic meeting of world leaders>. Theatrical implies a crude appeal through artificiality in gesture or expression <A theatrical oration>. Histrionic applies to tones, gestures, and emotions and suggests a deliberate affectation or staginess <A histrionic show of grief>. Melodramatic suggests an exaggerated or an inappropriate theatricalism <made a melodramatic plea>." An abbreviated version of a dictionary of synonyms entry from Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary. My 1942 Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms has a far more extensive entry for dramatic.

The term plot as used relative to dramatic structure originated about 1649. It emerged from the word plat, meaning a narrative description of a well-defined piece of land (a plot of land) filed with the local deeds and records repository. A plot is also a graphical representation, a Cartesian graph, in story, a graph of the dramatic structure of a narrative. In 1863, Gustav Freytag introduced a graph of the dramatic structure of the stories up to his time. Known as the Freytag Pyramid, the modern idealized version represents stories' evolution since then.

The modern Freytag Pyramid is an isosceles triangle. The bottom edge represents the elapsed time of a story. The left edge represents rising action. And the right edge represents falling action. The left vertex represents the inciting moment. The top vertex, climax. Right vertex, denouement or resolution. The X-axis corresponds to causation. The Y-axis, tension.

Rigid adherence to the Freytag Pryamid, though, might result in a wooden, two-dimensional plot. Good stories are three-dimensional. Going back to the synonym definition, Dramatic applies to situations in life and literature that stir the emotions deeply. Emotional stimulation and causation over time equal tension. Emotional stimulation charted on a graph is the plane perpendicularly crossing both the time plane and the tension plane of a dramatic structure, the Z-axis. A regular tetrahedron represents an idealized three-dimensional plot.

A plot's emotional stimulation might derive from any of the emotions: sadness, fear, anger, joy, surprise, love, basic emotions according to Parrott, W. (2001), Emotions in Social Psychology, Psychology Press, Philadelphia. For a more comprehensive listing of primary, seconday, and tertiary emotions see http://changingminds.org/explanations/emotions/basic%20emotions.htm

An emotional response might come from any of the seven ways that social beings interact: codeterminate, cooperate, coordinate, contention, conflict, confrontation, conflagration. In each are distinct emotional response clusters deriving from antagonism. Antagonism isn't solely in the lower four interactions. This narrative is a form of antagonism, albeit intended as a codeterminate one. Codeterminate: accomplishing a mutually shared goal through mutually determined efforts. A copyeditor is an antagonist to a writer and vice versa. The goal being a mechanically tight grammatical style in a manuscript or transcript.

Here's the point, the emotional structure and the dramatic structure of a story ideally coincide so tightly that they're inseparable. A mechanically well-constructed story with an illogical emotional structure disengages a reader, if the reader ever engaged to begin with. And that's what drives a plot, be it one of the MICE, or whatever emotionally stimulates a reader, establishing a connection with, maintaining the connection with, and satisfying the emotional needs of a reader.

Now, I've read many anecdotes related to rejection slips. The reasons for rejection are mostly nonsensical. But underneath them is a germ of wisdom. In the example cited at the top of this thread, I interpret it to mean that the plot wasn't right for the house. Does that mean they only publish stories with character-oriented emotional premises? Probably not, though likely the majority are. Most submission guidelines insist that potential submitters read their publications. Seems like a trap to increase circulation. But it's not. It's to encourage a writer to determine the publication's creative slant.

A story about the daily travails of a denizen of the hinterlands won't fly in The New Yorker, unless it's about a denizen of a mega metropolis suffering the confounding travails of the hinterlands. The New Yorker's slant is toward stories of characters dealing with everyday life in the indifferent crushing madness of the world's largest population center. The New Yorker publishes stories set in other places: New Delhi, Singapore, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Buenos Aries, Paris, Baghdad, Moscow, Beijing. There's a pattern. Mega metropolises. Gosh, milieu stories that are character oriented? Emotionally appeals to The New Yorker's readers, doesn't it?

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited October 21, 2008).]


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Spaceman
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I think that those of us without an MFA degree have zero concept of story sans plot. The literary folks thrive on these stories. A story with plot is by definition not worthy of any artistic merit. If you sell more than five copies of a book, you are a sell-out. This from observation at the last non-genre literary conference I attended.

Whatever. So call me a sell-out. I'd rather be read than be considered artistic.

(edited to fix a typo.)

[This message has been edited by Spaceman (edited October 19, 2008).]


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extrinsic
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By definition, the purpose of a plot is to stimulate emotion. The art of storytelling is the art of stimulating emotion. Even the crudest tall tale told by a young child caught with a hand in the cookie jar is emotionally stimulating; therefore, art. Daddy said I could have a cookie. Precious.
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arriki
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Much as I hate to say this about the very markets I'm trying to sell to -- I find most of what they publish virtually unreadable.

Am I being a snob? Perhaps.

But...I want stories with plots AND interesting characters.
I find myself sometimes turning to my personal library and reading old novels. I worry that what I do write is for another, older audience and age. Sigh.

On the other hand, I notice how few truly sf novels (new ones) make it onto the shelves these days. And most of those seem to be gaming- and war-related stories.


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tchernabyelo
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I don't think there's any benefit in worrying about what "literary" or "non-genre" people say or don't say about plot "versus" character. "Great literature" of the past is work where character and plot fuse together - whether it be "Great Expectations", or "Pride and Prejudice", or "The Great Gatsby", or "Of Mice and Men" (I make no comment as to whetehr I like or dislike any of these examples; I merely quote them as being generally regarded as "great literature" by the consensus of both the "literary elite" (if such a thing exists) and popular, lasting appeal).

Modern proponents of "literary" writing who claim to eschew plot do so, I believe, because they aren't understanding what "Plot" really is - they seem to think of plot as something that (say) low-brow thrillers have, where characters are deemed perfunctory, serving only to occupy roles in a plot structure. But "plot" is about event, and about the interweaving of event to create all the things that make stories truly memorable - tension, drama, dramatic irony (the things that makes Shakespeare's best plays so memorable). Character without event is nothing, and I can't honestly say I can rememebr reading any stories recently where there are is no actual plot, but there are instances where plot is certainly subservient to character - just as I have read stories where character is clearly subservient to plot (much of Hollywood's output tends to conform to this; the characters are deliberately designed to serve the purposes of a standard plot structure - mismatched cops forced to work together to solve a case, anyone?).

I suspect that (at least in some cases) the "we like character-oriented stories" is not saying "we don't want plot-driven stories", but is saying "we really would like to see some interesting and non-generic characters every once in a while". There are magazines out there that get hundreds of stories in every week, and one of the ways you can make your story stand out is by creating a different and compelling character.


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philocinemas
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Maybe these magazine editors are big Seinfeld fans -

This discussion reminds me of the definitive episode when George tries to sell Jerry's show idea to some producers by saying "it's about nothing".


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WouldBe
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I've read a fair amount of short literary fiction lately. The non-endings range from, 'did he pull the trigger or not?' to, 'what the hell, dude? that was just a scene/character sketch'. The former, and several shades from that one, are fine with me. (No fictional characters were harmed in the production of this story.) The latter can be annoying, especially the ones that are so distant from a conclusion that you wonder if it was a posthumously published, unfinished story.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Just remember, please, quirks do not a compelling character make.
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philocinemas
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I came upon this quote today and I was reminded of this thread. I thought it was quite ironic to see who wrote it:

"The plotless story is rather like free verse, or abstract art, or atonal music. Something is given up that most people imagine to be inseparable from the art form, but which, if done well (and my goodness, is it hard to do it well), transcends the form and gives enormous satisfaction to those who can follow the writer into the more rarefied realms of the art."

- Isaac Asimov


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