Thursday, October 29, 2009

Patterns

Tuesday was my last class in this particular session of teaching at Hugo House, and an interesting question came up in class. One story, extremely well written, did not seem to come together at the end as a complete story. Or maybe it did. A few students said yes, a few said no, some waited to see what I would say.

What I said was this: Different literary genres, as well as different readers, expect different degrees of pattern. All art imposes some pattern on life, or else you end up with something like Borges's story in which a man decides to make a map. He puts in so much detail that the map ends up being indistinguishable from the real thing. Real life is messy: Plot lines start and stop, peter out, become confused, are ended abruptly and without resolution by death, feature coincidences, never reach a climax, have nothing to do with each other, etc. It is the job of fiction to impose pattern on the mess that is real life.

However, impose too much pattern and your story seems mechanical, contrived, formulaic (life is not a formula). Impose too little pattern and readers say "It seems so diffuse," "There was no satisfying resolution," "What are you trying to say?" or "It just ended without going anywhere." To complicate the issue further, some genres expect a more rigid pattern (romance, mysteries) than do others (literary fiction). A good part of plotting is finding the right pattern for your story, in your genre, for your material.

None of which was much help in deciding what to do with the story we critiqued in class. The author will have to do that. I wish her luck.

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