So, I think anyone who’s read my posts on Tuesday and Thursday probably know that I’m totally obsessed with this new book I’m reading for my fiction writing class. It’s called The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, and it was first published in 1983, which definitely makes for an interesting read. (I also think that the author may be in love with cows, but that is another matter.)
I’ve already talked about the first two chapters of John Gardner’s book in my previous posts, but for this one I think I’ll talk a little about the third chapter. The title of the chapter is “Interest and Truth,” and Gardner focuses much of it on how plot piques the writer’s (and hopefully the reader’s) interest and reveals the “truth” of a given story.
According to Gardner, there are three primary ways a writer (of a “conventional” story) determines plot: “by borrowing some traditional plot or an action from real life (the method of the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and many other writers, ancient and modern); by working his way back from his story’s climax, or by groping his way forward from an initial situation” (57).
Gardner spends the rest of the chapter detailing how a writer can take a well-known story—say, the myth of Helen of Troy—and shed new light on it.
A given writer may find his interest stirred by almost any of the story’s main events. Troy was a rich, cosmopolitan city; in its ruins, archeologists found jade, among other things, proving that Trojan traders had contacts as far away as China. The Achaians, on the other hand, whom Helen left when she fled from her husband with her Trojan lover, Paris, were cowherds, goatherds, raiders—from the Trojan point of view crude barbarians. How surprised Helen must have been, to say nothing of how Paris and his father the king felt, when her people dropped everything, called together relatives from far and wide, left their lean-tos and harsh, stone towns, and came after her with a thousand ships. That moment, her alarm at the news, might make a story. (58)
So, your “homework” for today: write a short story (of any length) using Gardner’s example, or a similarly well-known story packed with complex avenues that could never be fully explored.