January 5th, 2015

Wonderbook and the Seven Point Plot Outline

I've been reading Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer and came across this sentence, talking about the trend for "efficient" methods to spark creativity:

"In the worst creative writing books, this method is expressed in seven-point plot outlines and other easy shortcuts…"  And a side-note explains the seven-point plot outline: "A simple try-fail structure… that has become a paint-by-numbers approach."

I was very cheered by this, for reasons that go back nearly twenty-five years.  In 1992 I taught for a week at Clarion.  I'd read the students' submission stories before coming out to teach, and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of good writers they'd managed to attract.  (This doesn't happen every year, believe me.)  So I was very puzzled when I started reading the stories they'd written for my week.  Not that they were terrible, but there was something missing, or something twisted out of true, about most of them.

It took a while, but I finally found out what was going on.  The people who had taught the week before had pushed the seven point plot outline.  I'm going to introduce you to the mysteries of the outline, but if you're a writer, I want to beg you not to use it.  The reasons for this will become apparent shortly…

The seven point plot outline states that a story consists of 1) a setting and 2) a character, who has 3) a problem.  The character 4) tries and 5) fails to solve this problem.  (4 and 5 can be repeated any number of times.)  Finally, the character 6) solves the problem, and 7) gets their reward.

So the stories I got that week consisted of a character trying and failing to solve a problem.  There was no rising tension, no sense of the stakes continually increasing.  And the characters and setting were wildly divergent, to the point where you wondered just what the hell that person was doing in that place.  It was almost as if the writers had chosen their settings and characters at random -- and I later found out that some of them had done just that.

It was, as Jeff says, a paint-by-numbers approach to writing.  According to the plot outline, you could write a story about a drunk coming home and trying to fit his key into the lock.  He tries and fails and tries and fails until he finally manages to open the door.  And his reward, I guess, is that he gets to sleep in his own bed.

Worst of all, there was no imagination in these stories, no creativity, no joy of discovery. None of those exhilarating moments when you reach for something strange or terrible or beautiful, and discover you've written a story that surprises even you.

But I didn't say anything to the class.  I didn't condemn the plot outline.  I had a sense that being professional meant not arguing with another teacher, that the students would go home with everything they had learned and sort it all out and then decide what worked best for them.  I did mention rising tension, and I pointed out a few places where it could have been used.  There was one story where the character and setting meshed beautifully, where the story existed as a perfect and harmonious whole, and I could have used it as a counter-example, but I never did.  I still feel guilty about that.

Jeff VanderMeer was in that class -- and you can get a sense of how good the writers were that he was just one of the students who stood out by the quality of his writing, and not the only one.  And now, over twenty years later, I find out that he, at least, had caught on to how pernicious this approach is.  So -- thank you, Jeff.  I can't tell you how heartened I am by this.