I’ve been thinking a lot about sentences – moreso than usual. A piece of advice that’s help me greatly in past weeks is this: When you’re stuck on plot, work on the sentences you’ve already written. Work on revision.
It seems counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t you be brainstorming? Shouldn’t you be writing things on index cards and rearranging them on the floor of your living room? I tried tonight to find the source of said advice, and the closest I came was this five-year-old interview with George Saunders, on the Between the Covers podcast:
I don’t get plot. I don’t understand it, I don’t like it, whenever I try to come up with it outside of a story it makes me crazy. So one thing I’ve found is if you spend a lot of time creating and then revising one of these voice-driven monologues, and really working with it as text, trying to make it sing, what happens I think is that the lens gets very fine, and a very small tendency in the person’s character will sort of get heightened a little bit and that’s where plot comes from.
To me the most important words in that quote are “outside of a story.” You can do your plotting outside of a story, but the ideas you come up with are like the ones you come up with when you’ve had too much caffeine, or the ones people come up with to “fix” a place they don’t reside: They might sound nice and be well-intentioned but they occupy a different reality. They aren’t what the story needs.
Saunders is saying that you have to live there. You have to inhabit the story and characters so deeply that they tell you what the plot should be. And one really great way to inhabit a story? Sentence-level revision. Nailing down the characters’ voices. Making the text sing, enough that you then have something to listen to.
From the same interview:
I always thought if you could keep your conceptualizing mind – you know, the writer mind that wants to pull the big manure truck with your politics and thematics in it and dump it on the reader – if you can keep that quiet, then things like meaning and politics – they’re almost like really shy animals. They’ll come out of the woods but you have to stay really still. You have to pretend like you’re not interested in them. Don’t bother me right now, I’m trying to make a joke or I’m trying to make this living room. And because of course you the writer has all those [political and thematic] things going on, they will leach in. They will come in honestly but they won’t be abstract. They’ll be intimately linked with action and character.