Skip to main content

Plot is Not a Four-Letter Word


By Derek Nikitas, Director, Bluegrass Writers Studio

Didn’t see that coming?

I lucked out in grad school. A handful of my professors weren’t allergic to plot. They understood and explained the deep value of narrative structure, traditional and experimental.  

Often, workshops focus on the finished draft with little mention of process. Strategizing itself is sometimes met with suspicion. But still, some of my deepest insights into story came from sessions where my mentors addressed the scaffolding of story, the blueprint, even before it was written. We worked through faults in story logic and rifts in causality, the “contract with the reader,” dips in interest and the fundamental importance of the turn, the rhetoric of character action, the setups, the payoffs.   

Just enough to whet my appetite (suspense!). After grad school I made a study of plot. Yes, there are the “Master Storyteller” formula books that everyone scoffs at, but that’s only the surface glaze. I delved into screenwriting and, yes, even formal poetry, for the secrets those genres reveal about structure. Long ago, I realized this was a lifelong pursuit.

Just this week in my class, we’re discussing John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. We’ve had productive insights about plot. We’ve noted how Green withholds information until the most impactful moments.  We’ve talked about paragraph-level plotting, the micro reveals and reversals that can happen inside a single sentence. We’ve discussed genre expectations, how Green indulges in them, bends them, breaks them, undermines them and refreshes them. We’ve realized how plot is a necessary intensification of reality.

Later this semester, my students will dissect the plot of a whole novel. It’s not the most exciting assignment, sure, but it’s often one of the most productive. My first dissection was Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and I’m still reaping the rewards of that effort.

Apparently, this sort of study is rare—and that’s a shame. Good grad school mentors are often experts at the nuances of language and character and imagery, at encouraging writers to bare their souls, their subconscious. This is vital work, and it’s very much what we do here at the Bluegrass Writers Studio.

But in many programs there’s an odd blind spot for plot. You could earn an MFA without ever hearing about withholding and misdirection, or the uses of astonishment, or ever cracking open Aristotle’s Poetics. You could forget that fiction is a game you play with your readers. You could forget readers.

Why all this suspicion? Well, plot is a sneaky thing. It unfurls the multi-colored ribbon with one hand while pocketing your wallet with the other. Done poorly, it smacks of the inorganic and contrived. But that’s all the more reason to learn its pitfalls and pranks, to recognize that it is the vehicle for meaning and interest in narrative, even if it isn’t the driver.

Plot is hard to master. It’s not mere formulas or three-act structures. It’s a whole system of rhetoric and signs, a machine of moving and interdependent parts. Some of it is blissfully subconscious for the writer, but much of it is calculated, especially in the revision stage. The mind as well as the heart.

I admit it. I’m an evangelist for the power of plot. Mentors can’t help but have their areas of expertise, and I guess this is mine. I don’t pretend to speak for my colleagues in the Bluegrass Writers Studio, and that’s good. Any good program should boast of a diversity of teaching styles and approaches—but I’m glad to do my part. I’m looking forward to do it all again in my novel writing course this Fall.

The Bluegrass Writers Studio low-residency MFA in Creative Writing is currently filling out our roster of new participants for the Summer and Fall 2014 semesters.

To learn more about us, click here.

To apply, click here.

Contact Information

Kristen Thompson

Published on February 06, 2014

Open /*deleted href=#openmobile*/