Walk with me, won’t you?
The Boys and I talked about writing a series of opening posts on the subject of “Stuff YA People Like.” I decided to take a slight left turn from that plan and instead write on the subject of something I don’t like.
I don’t like plot.
No, really. I don’t. It bores the shit out of me.
I’ll explain if I can, but forgive me if I get a little long-winded and maybe spend too much time on setting and character development. They’re far more interesting.
Also let me know if the voice is bugging you. That happens, I suppose.
An anecdote: the other night, after putting my son to bed—I read him an old Pooh story, and I might talk about that in a minute, actually—I got into bed myself, propped up the pillows, and grabbed a book I’d been looking forward to starting.
(I’m not going to name names here. I’m not in the business of knocking associates in the field of writing for children and young adults.)
So the writing was pretty good, and I was intrigued by the narrator—the presumed protagonist. And then, on or about page five, I put my head back and groaned.
“I am so sick of plot,” I said to my wife. She might have chuckled. She probably didn’t. She probably sighed and rolled onto her side so she could read her book without seeing me gripe in her peripheral vision.
If I went on—I might have, actually—I’d have said, “No, I really am. Even when the characters are strong and the voice is gripping and the setting is rich, I still feel like plot gets in the way of my enjoyment of a story.”
Is it any wonder that my favorite books include The Catcher in the Rye? Most of Kafka? John Gardner’s oeuvre? These books had plots of a sort. I mean, Holden had his epiphany at the end. Josef K. was on, um, trial. I guess? And Gardner’s intellectual, brooding professor in the Southern Tier probably has to get some writing done or he’ll lose his tenure. Those are plots . . . kinda?
Well, they’re my kind of plots. Maybe we can call them “plods.”
But on page five of the aforementioned (anonymously) book, the plot stepped out from behind a screen, pulled off its pants, and waved them around over its head. It shouted, “Hey! I’m not wearing any pants! Look at me! This is the direction the story is going! Pay attention to me! No pants!”
And that’s what I’m on about: the whole pants-waving thing. Look, I know books have to have plots. I know the characters need to move through time and space, and they need to overcome challenges—or at least face challenges—and grow—or resist growth. I know all that. But do they need to do it so loudly, and with so many blatant hurdles, with long, twirlable mustaches in their way?
Like Pooh, for example. You’d think—or anyway, I’d think—that plots in stories for little kids are probably pretty freaking clear and plain, and that character development probably sits in the backseat, along with setting and voice. But oh man! The old Pooh stories—though they pretend to have plot (honestly, what kind of plot is “Pooh needs a birthday present for Eeyore”?)—are actually all about voice, setting, and character development. Milne’s voice, the characters’ personalities, and the image we have of Pooh Corner and the Hundred Acre Wood are far more memorable than any storyline in the entire collected works.
Also, Pooh and Piglet do a lot—a lot—of walking.
But okay. Those aren’t YA novels, are they? Those are for little kids and literature graduate students, The Catcher in the Rye’s reputation as a godfather of YA notwithstanding. Today, YA novels are for high-spirited teen readers (and their moms). So bring on the rippling love triangles!
“But wait,” I say, stopping to sit for a little while on a park bench. From this spot, I can see the sun going down over the city, way to my right, while on my left—over the rolling hills of the eastern suburbs—the sky is already dark. “Can’t plot be subtle? Does every book need an elevator pitch? If I can’t sum up my character’s journey—or, hopefully, my character’s numerous journeys—in a few quick, punchy words, does that mean I’ve made a great error in my story?”
Hell, maybe it does. Maybe that’s exactly what it means. Maybe my villains should be twirling their mustaches. Maybe love triangles should be clear, distinct choices—and maybe one corner should always be a bad guy, despite how good he looks in soccer shorts. Maybe my character’s journey needs to start on page one, and pull readers along like a zooming diesel engine, flying along the tracks, sometimes hitting a switch and veering wildly to a different line, and then hitting another switch and veering again, but with the destination—the climax, the satisfaction, the heroic finish—always in sight. Maybe the most exciting, most compelling, and most intense way to move through a story is just like that.
Yeah, it probably is. And lots of readers will probably pass by my small stories and board a diesel-driven train instead. But I think I’ll walk, because you see more stuff, and it’s impossible to hear yourself think over the sound of that locomotive anyway.