Tag Archives: simultaneity in plot

How to Give a Story’s Plot Enough Fuel to Finish

18 Aug
Andrew Malan Milward's collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas and its role leading up to the Civil War and the aftershocks that are still present today.

Andrew Malan Milward’s collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas, from the burning of Lawrence to the aftershocks still present today.

As writers, we all eventually experience this moment: we’re sitting at the computer, and the story just quits. It won’t move forward, no matter how many guns we hang on the wall or strangers we have knock on the door. So what do we do? Very likely, go back to the beginning, searching for that wrong piece that has fouled everything up. It’s often the case, though, that the problem isn’t a wrong piece but not enough pieces. A story needs multiple plot threads, multiple questions for the reader to wonder about. The solution to writer’s block, then, is often to find ways to introduce more plot threads at the beginning of the story.

A terrific example for how this can be done is Andrew Malan Milward’s story, “I Was a Revolutionary.” It’s the final story in his new collection, I Was a Revolutionary, and was first published in Virginia Quarterly Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story has three primary plot lines, and each one is introduced right away. Here’s the first:

On the first day I tell them: “When searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola, Coronado was so disappointed by what he found in the land that would one day become Kansas that he strangled the guide who’d brought him here and turned around.”

No one laughs. Their blank stares communicate only this: It’s the first day of class. Don’t get cute.

The narrator is an adjunct instructor of Kansas history at the University of Kansas. He’s developed a passion for the subject, but his students are less than enthusiastic. Will he be able to get their attention, and, if so, what will happen? The first plot line is established.

Here’s the second line:

I check e-mail and find my wife has written. We used to speak openly and directly. Now we e-mail, and hers arrive with all the formality of a communiqué. Paul, I would like to get some more of my things this evening. Please leave the house from 7-8. —Linda. Strange to think of her across campus, over in Sociology, composing this terse missive. Stranger still to think that when the divorce papers arrive, we could, if so inclined, settle the whole matter via intracampus mail.

The narrator’s wife is divorcing him, and, as with all good divorce stories, being separated just mean they’re physical parted. They still work in the same place, which leads to the final plot line:

I’m debating whether to reply when Brad, the chair of the history department, pops in to say hello.

“Welcome back, partner. How was break?”

“Cold,” I say.

He laughs and asks if my eleven thirty went okay.

Brad toes a fine line between administrator and concerned colleague, a fact that seems to color any conversation I have with him. I shouldn’t complain; he’s always been pretty good to me. When the university hired Linda almost twenty-five years ago, he took me on as an instructor.

Not only does the narrator work in the same place as his soon-to-be ex-wife, but he is also, to some extent, dependent on her for his job, which his boss makes clear through awkward concern.

The story introduces these plots lines succinctly but clearly. This is important to remember because it would easy to read this story and several of the others in the collection and focus on the innovative way that Milward combines history with present action. This story in particular includes long lists of historical facts and events, and it might be tempting to view it as idiosyncratic or experimental—which it is, in a way. But it’s also quite deliberate about the way it introduces plot, which helps get the reader to buy in to its more unconventional qualities.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce multiple plot lines, using “I Was a Revolutionary” by Andrew Malan Milward as a model:

  1. Identify a primary plot line. In “I Was a Revolutionary,” this is probably the narrator’s divorce and deteriorating relationship with his wife. Because he’s getting divorced, his job is in jeopardy and he gets involved with two students in a way that he might previously have avoided. This also happens to be the most usual of the plot lines; marriage/divorce stories are a standard of pretty much every genre. So, consider which of your potential plot lines most resembles a standard plot line, one that would drive a popular film. Sum it up in a line.
  2. Build a plot line from the world of the plot. What is happening around this primary plot. In “I Was a Revolutionary,” the characters work at a university. This may have been deliberately chosen by Milward, or it might have just been a job he stumbled upon when writing the story—it doesn’t matter. Whatever exists around the plot, make it matter. Find a way to make its very existence hinge on the outcome of the primary plot. For example, if the divorce goes badly, we know the narrator’s job could be at risk. So, find a way to put the foundation of your characters’ lives at stake: jobs, home, children, whatever makes them happy or secure. Connect it to the primary plot.
  3. Build a plot line from the characters’ interests. This may be the most idiosyncratic plot line. As with the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects an obsession with Kansas history. Yet there it is, figuring dramatically in the story. Milward accomplishes this by making it relevant to the narrator: he was once part of the Weather Underground, and so when he discovers the revolutionary past of Kansas, he’s naturally drawn to it and feels compelled to share it with other revolutionary-minded individuals—in this case, his students. Of course, revolutionary is a hazardous career path, as is working with people whose fervor dwarfs your own. The important thing is that the narrator’s interest in Kansas history ties in with his job and, thus, his divorce. This may seem inevitable, but it’s not. Lots of people who are not college instructors visit war sites and re-enact battles. But Milward found a way to channel this interest into the world he’d created for the story. So, identify an interest or obsession in your character and a way to connect it to the world of your story.
  4. Play with the connections. If you build these plot lines from the same basic materials (the world of the story), then they will eventually collide, which is what you want.

Good luck.

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