I prefer plot.
During our poetry section, I found myself very frustrated. I had never really liked poetry. When I told people I was a writer or writing was a hobby of mine, they'd always say, "Yeah, I like writing poetry, too." Like normal people don't write stories, novels even? I have come to the conclusion that the world of writing must be like the world of introvert - we are outnumbered 3 to 1 by extroverts. My creative writing class did not deviate from the norm. Poems that I liked, most of the class hated. Poems I hated, the class loved. It was a difficult spot, and I often felt like a devil's advocate. I never really came to terms to be the minority in the class, and so, for that section, curbed my number of negative comment so as to avoid seeming contrary.
Then, about a month ago, I was talking to my suitemate, a fellow English major. We were discussing my non-fiction piece for the class, and she noted my handling of emotions. "There were times when an extreme emotion was present, but instead of talking about the emotion, you would focus on the feel of the steering wheel under your fingers or the irritation of your car radio's light." She said she really liked this because it wasn't the way she would have handled writing the situation. I was more concrete oriented. She was more emotional. But both conveyed intensity.
That's when the light came on in my head (I remind myself that this is a blog and I can use cliches PX). It was what had troubled me during our poetry section. So much poetry is dedicated to dwelling on the feelings, the emotions, when I would rather to show emotion and desire through actions and visible behavior. Much of poetry just doesn't make sense to me. Just like math is hard to grasp for some people and for others it's music or a language. When people say they "feel" the poetry rather than understand it, I don't feel anything. And neither do I understand it. But I do understand plot.
Internal Conflicts are Emotions
My short story piece taught me this one. The longer story can be found in The Nothing Character, but the short of it is that I really didn't know what an internal conflict was. I supposed it was something connect to personality, something that has to be overcome about the self whether that be violence or shyness or bluntness. Naturally, these are all things we'd want to moderate, but I came upon the problem when I tried to use shyness as my internal conflict. The issue with it is that it can be externally fixed. Someone else talking to this person fixes the problem, if only for that one moment, but that one moment is the story. So the real question is, what is the motivation behind the shyness? Turns out it's an emotion. Fear would be a common one. But it could be anger at the world or depression. It can't be snobbery. Snobbery isn't an emotion but the manifestation of some belief or personality issue. It can be part of the shyness, but it is not the internal conflict pushing the story forwards.
Short Sentences and Paragraphs Heighten Tension
Seems pretty simple, but it's amazing the difference between a knowledge that is felt and a knowledge that is known. Between my non-fiction piece and reading another friend's non-fiction piece, I have become acutely aware of the intensity created by clipped sentenced, short paragraphs, and quick alternating scenes. I don't know if the reader really does read faster or if it is simply a perception of more things happening in less space, but shorter sentences quicken the pace and ramp up tensions. It gets shorter. And shorter. Shorter. Until the reader is panting on the side of the road in exhaustion.
One fun thing that I've seen writers do in our reading assignments is mess with the climax by refusing to shorten sentences. Instead, the climax comes and goes, and the reader is forced to look back and examine exactly when the tone changed. It doesn't make for much of a page turner to do that, but it is an option.
Give the Reader Time to Breathe
I have something embarrassing to share with you all. Please understand and be forgiving.
I read a time-traveling romance novel this semester.
*Keep in mind, it's my first! I don't even remember how it got into my hands. This was my first time stepping into the romance section, and it was absolutely horrifying, but the book I got was worth (?) it. Nearly every line causes me to laugh. But, as I imagined would happen, the book is starting to get on my nerves. The author has the habit of repeating literary formats. She has this [paragraph, one-liner, one-liner] form (*see here) that is about to drive me up a wall. But the other thing that has driven me to a hiatus from the book is that everything in the book is extreme. I'm completely exhausted. It's relaxing now to go read my textbooks and dense literature. Rarely does she have long lines; everything is clipped and short.
*Yes, it is a page turner.
*But it is also a headache.
I didn't put this knowledge into practice though until my English major suitemate was helping me edit my non-fiction piece. The intensity was rising, rising, and we're looking at the page, and she says, "Put a little more description or something in here. Your characters have been saying really important things; give your reader time to soak it in." That's when she suggested to expound on my emotions, and instead I described the feel of the steering wheel under my hand and the brightness of my radio's light in the dark.
I remember being really worried when I first started college that my English major studies would have little pertinence to me as a writer. I had never experienced a class that taught me how to write. That had only happened by experience, personal time spent analyzing novels, and reading books on narrative, theme, etc. (NOT "How to Write" books). It's really encouraging to see that my (parent's) money is advancing me closer towards my desired career. And it's just as fun just to learn these things. It's a constant reminder to me of why I'm an English major and how much I really do love to write.