Dr. Sterne is a prolific writer and a teacher of writing. We’re excited to have her submit an essay to our site. This post is an opportunity for writers, authors, and academic writers to get some great advice from an expert in her field. It’s also an opportunity for graduate students who are writing dissertations to get her books and check out her links.
By Noelle Sterne, Ph.D.
Okay, I admit it. I plan my day around favorite night-soap television shows. But the longer I’ve been writing, the more I find myself almost involuntarily critiquing everything I watch.
Even though I’m not consciously “working” (although I probably should be instead of staring at the screen), I can rarely turn off my EIE—Exacting Internal Editor. So, instead of trying to tame her or put her to bed early, I decided to yield and learn from her.
My EIE always catches one characteristic of so many shows—the predictability of the plot. I offer you her wisdom so we both can become more alert to the signals of those groaningly predictable plots and avoid them in our own stories and novels.
An Example: Love
Take love, a timeless, universal subject. In a recent movie, the young woman with great hair and tight jeans from the city goes West to sell the ranch her father left her. She encounters and battles instantly with the gruff foreman who’s loyal to the ranch, the land, and the legacy. He’s adamant about not selling and responds to the city intruder only in disdainful monosyllables. Of course, he’s handsome and tall in the saddle.
Count on it: the more it’s hate at first sight, the more you can bet they’ll end up in an open-mouthed clinch.
Settings may change:
- In city department store at Christmas, lonely saleswoman (with great hair and conservative tight suit) and very un-Christmas spirited out-of-work-executive Santa. Of course, despite his fashionable scruff, he’s square-jawed.
- In the newsroom, novice idealistic newspaper reporter (with great hair and tight slacks and sweater set) fresh out of women’s college and cynical veteran, chain-smoking Pulitzer winner. Of course, although unkempt, he’s irresistible with that bad boy look.
- In the pits, impassioned first-time female race driver (with great hair and tight jumpsuit) and multi-Indie-winner misogynist team lead driver. Of course, although his face is a constant scowl, it can’t hide his darkly striking demeanor.
- On Planet X9OR5-GF, novice female astronaut (with great hair peeking from her helmet and tight spacesuit) and shiny-green-skinned muscular alien leader. He nevertheless radiates irresistible charisma.
Can you already write the scenes between them? From big angry sparks to grudging acceptance to grudging amusement to succumbing to the attraction to the inevitable quarrel or misunderstanding and threat of breakup to—finally—bonfire of passion.
How Many Plots Can We Think Up?
Experts vary in recording from 1 to 3 to 7 to 20 to 36 basic plots in literature. I like nineteenth-century French writer and critic Georges Polti’s chronicle of 35, with multiple literary examples and sub-situations, relieved by his extensive, entertaining commentary. (My translated edition is 1945, Boston: The Writer Publications.)
This classic book, with many later imitations, is a gem for ideas, intertwining of subplots, and cliché-checking. My love examples above are variations of Polti’s Number 28, “Obstacles to Love,” and (E) “Incompatibility of Temper of the Lovers.”
So, how can you use them freshly?
Love, in all its exasperating twists, is certainly worth writing about. But when you do, although you probably can’t escape one or more of Polti’s variations, the trick and challenge are to freshen it and make it relevant to your time and your experience.
How? Several ways:
- See Polti for different perspectives. Or other books: Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories; James Scott Bell with nine plot variations in his Plot and Structure; Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them.
- Look at Shakespeare, both comedies and tragedies. Study fine films. “The African Queen” (1952) portrays a masterful mismatching gone sweet. “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) shows us clashing environments, social classes, and lifestyles. “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) illustrates the terror of letting love in. And “Gran Torino” (2008) shows us a broader kind of love, of humanity, beyond prejudices, and between generations.
- Explore ramifications and consider different approaches. For example: Is the choice college or marriage? Is the location the small town you grew up in near your grandparents’ homestead or an island in Melanesia, with unknown languages and no cable?
- Ask yourself provocative questions that can shape your theme: How to balance love and its responsibilities and follow one’s bliss? How to overcome lifelong discrimination and let love in? How to triumph over past poor relationships and take the heady leap? What hard choices have you or others made? How have they resolved them . . . or not?
- Talk to family members. You may get astonishing surprises. Often grandparents, great aunts, and other relatives have had remarkable experiences of love they never shared. These might have been in prison camps, wartime, poverty, or other dire circumstances. Even if their memories are bittersweet, your relatives would probably welcome an eager listener.
Yes, love is one of the most timeworn of plots but it deserves to be written about always. With your immersion in the story and deepest honesty, you will write a love story in which the ending can’t be predicted by any regular TV watcher.
Kiss and Make Art
Not fighting our Exacting Internal Editor, we can learn from television watching almost in spite of ourselves. When we study the story arcs of most popular shows and movies, we sharpen our sensitivity and editorial savvy. Our analyses show us what not to do and challenge our ingenuity to make our story or novel stand out above the pap.
When we allow our Exacting Internal Editor the room, we won’t feel so guilty about watching television. And when we do get back to our story or novel and finally send it out, an editor or agent won’t quickly predict our plot but will instead fall in love with our work and ask us to continue the relationship.
Dr. Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. Website: http://www.trustyourlifenow.com/
Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams. Unity Books, 2011.
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