Thursday, September 21, 2006

Plot - Ansen Dibell

I'm not a writer. I'm not even a failed writer, as that would imply I'd made some attempt to succeed at it. Every now and again I decide that the world would be a better place if subjected to my obviously limitless literary talent, so I dredge out my scribbled first-paragraph revisions, make some tweaks to the various background outlines and rewrite a couple of sentences, then get a bit bored and put it back in the box for another year. This being a very inefficient way of getting things written, I decided to do some proper homework into the mechanics of a story. Plot was recommended on some website or other (I'd love to give credit but I really can't remember where it was) as a structural how-to guide for writers, and it does a very good job of it indeed.

Most readers are perfectly capable of realising when a story works and when it doesn't. Identifying WHY something works is a lot more difficult - one of the fundamentals of good writing is that, like the palace plumbing, the mechanics should be invisible, and the only time you notice them is when something goes wrong and it begins to stink. Dibell introduces all kinds of tricks from the writers' secret toolbox, the things the reader never needs to see, but are essential for making a story work - circular plots, thematic symmetry, sleight of hand - and points out examples of these (used both well and badly) from literature and elsewhere as illustration. Much of this is very illuminating, and I now appreciate The Empire Strikes Back even more than before.

The emphasis is on the practical side of building a decent plot, which is much more useful than the nebulous directives of Take Up Thy Pen And Write, which other writers often propound. Dibell also has a nice turn of phrase and uses some very funny metaphors - my favourite was describing how a bad ending can ruin a whole book, in the same way that finding half a maggot in your apple can make you forget how nice the rest of it tasted... If I have any criticisms of this book at all, it's the number of spoilers for Lord of the Flies, which she uses for quite a few illustrations, but that's probably my own fault for not having read it yet. The information about submission to publishers is also rather out of date, but that's information that you can find out easily on the internet. I don't know whether any of these practical points will actually be of any use yet, but it's a good place to start. Now, where did I put that manuscript?



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