How to Write Plot by Answering the “Why” Question

5 Nov
Tiphanie Yanique's story "How to Escape from a Leper Colony" was first published at Boston Review.

Tiphanie Yanique was born in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and lives in Brooklyn. She was the 2010 recipient of the prestigious Rona Jaffe Prize in Fiction.

When we talk about plot, the focus is often on what happens–setting it up, teasing the reader with what will happen next, creating suspense. Sometimes, though, plot is built upon the question of why things happen.

Tiphanie Yanique’s story “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” perfectly demonstrates how to build plot by answering the why question. The story was first published at Boston Review, where it won the journal’s annual short story contest. It was eventually included in Tiphanie Yanique’s story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony (Graywolf Press). It’s as good a story as you’ll ever read. You can find it here at Boston Review.

How the Story Works

The title of the story—”How to Escape from a Leper Colony”—makes clear what will happen in the story:  someone, almost certainly the narrator, will try to escape the island. The question is why. The answer, of course, will be some version of Because they must or Because they have no choice. But that is not enough. The driving impulse to escape must be more than a plot mechanism. It must originate from the characters’ sense of themselves and their world—even if the cause is due to external events.

Here is how Yanique introduces the characters’ attitudes toward what will eventually happen:

“What evil thing Lazaro will do later we will forgive him for, because we know his past and because we know he is one of us.”

That sentence sets up two important ideas:

  1. Something has happened in Lazaro’s past that shapes his sense of the present
  2. He (and the narrator and others) are part of a group—which suggests that there is another group with different ideas about what will happen.

So, what is the belief system or attitude of Lazaro’s group? Much of the story is spent developing the particular way the group members view the world, and in this passage, that attitude comes into sharp focus:

“From my mother I learned that Christians love leprosy. Christians are not so passionate about polio or cholera. But Jesus had touched lepers. Jesus cured lepers. Leprosy gives the pious a chance to be Christ-like. Only lepers hate leprosy. Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.”

Because the story so clearly establishes the characters and their attitudes, the events of the story become not simply things that happen but the so-called straw that breaks the camel’s back. In other words, the plot is driven by the characters’ reactions to what happens.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s discover the attitudes of our character(s) using “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” as a model.

  1. Identity the source of the character’s trouble. In high school, many of us learned about literary conflicts: man vs. man, man vs nature, man vs self, man vs. society. While these aren’t particular useful outside of a classroom, they can point us in the right direction. Who or what is your character at odds with?
  2. Identity when the trouble began. You might create a timeline. At the least, you should know if the conflict is old or relatively new. All conflicts warp (or, to put it more positively, conflicts shape) a character’s sense of him/herself in the world. The older the conflict, the stronger the resentment or attitude is likely to be.
  3. Identify the character’s group. All people tend to classify themselves into groups, and those groups often take “an us vs. them” philosophy. The groups can be based on large ideas like class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or politics, or they can be based on behaviors. Try defining the group with a phrase such as “The kind of people who…” or “The kind of person who…” For example, there are the kind of the people who love Neil Diamond and those who do not. There are the kind of people who are kind to everyone and those who are not—the kind of people who like to try new food and those who do not.
  4. Introduce the conflict and let the character comment on it both as a member of the group and as someone with a history with the conflict. Think of the story’s conflict as being like herpes. The root problem–the virus–never goes away, and so the conflict occurs when the symptoms reappear. In many stories and novels, the characters’ problem is chronic, a reoccurrence or new manifestation of something he/she has been dealing with for a long time. Try reintroducing the problem–a new occurrence or manifestation of it–and let the character talk about it as someone experienced with dealing with it. Then, let the character view the conflict through the prism of the group beliefs. If it’s herpes, and the group is defined by people who complain and those who do not complain, you might write this: “There wasn’t any point in whining or moaning about it. You just had to get on with things, and people who couldn’t do that–well, he wasn’t going to hang out with those kind of people.”

Play around with these different steps. Try commenting on the conflict in a variety of ways. Once you find a comment that resonates with your character, you may find that the plot (and the way forward into the story) becomes clearer.

Good luck and have fun.

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5 Responses to “How to Write Plot by Answering the “Why” Question”

  1. Duckie Brewer November 6, 2013 at 8:02 p11 #

    Thank you so much for volunteering your time at the Kyle Public Library this evening! You are a wealth of information, and I’ll definitely use some of these for a warm up or two!

    • michaelnoll1 November 6, 2013 at 8:02 p11 #

      My pleasure! If you find any exercises that are especially helpful, definitely let me know.

    • michaelnoll1 November 6, 2013 at 8:02 p11 #

      And, let me know how the novel writing goes!

      • Duckie Brewer November 6, 2013 at 8:02 p11 #

        Will do! I’ve been teaching in Title I schools for seven years, and I quit this summer to really give writing a chance. It’s been a terrifying and amazing change, so I really appreciated your advice on ways to plug into a writing community. I also work on my Master’s during the summer at the Bread Loaf School of English/Middlebury, and I graduate this summer. I’m trying to decide between pursuing an MFA or a PhD in Rhetoric next. If you have any advice on creative writing programs, it would fall on thankful ears.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How to Write a Love Story | Read to Write Stories - April 1, 2014

    […] might seem less common (or, again, confined to historical fiction), but they are still used (as in this beautiful story by Tiphanie Yanique). And, relationships in science fiction and fantasy stories (between different […]

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