How to Build a Simple Plot: Chris Offutt’s “Out of the Woods”

A young writer recently asked me for a simple explanation of plot. In common with many novice fiction writers (and with my own younger self), she was mystified by what a plot is, exactly, and how one might go about building one. 

The fact is, plot is not something that gets a lot of attention in most writing workshops. The assumption seems to be that plot is an obvious and basic aspect of fiction, and that writers ought to know instinctively how to do it. In some high literary circles, in fact, it’s almost as if the topic, like money or defecation, is not really fit to be discussed in polite company.

The answer I gave the student, which is the simplest explanation of plot I’ve ever heard, can be encapsulated in six letters: “ABCDDE”: Action, Background, Conflict, Development, Development, Epiphany. To illustrate how this works, let’s take a look at Chris Offutt’s excellent short story, “Out of the Woods.” I recommend that you take twenty minutes to familiarize yourself with the story before reading on, although you don’t have to in order to understand where we’re going.

As “Out of the Woods” begins, Gerald Bolin gets the door and four of his wife’s brothers are there:

“It’s Ory,” the oldest one said.  “He got shot and is in the hospital.  Somebody’s got to fetch him.”  
The brothers looked at Gerald from below their eyebrows . . . he still needed to prove his worth.

This short scene accomplishes two principal things.  It is a compelling action that draws the reader into the story, and it establishes the conflict, spelling out Gerald’s main dramatic need and placing a bomb under the reader’s chair that will remain there for the whole story.  Bringing Ory back is a test for Gerald, and if he does it right it will represent a rite of passage into the family’s well-guarded inner sanctum.  Will he be able to do it?  At what cost?  The stakes are high:

The oldest brother shot him a mean look.  The rest were back to looking down, as if they were carpenters gauging the amount of linoleum needed for a job.

The dramatic need established and the action sufficiently locked in, we get some background. We learn that Gerald is thirty and has never left his backwoods county.  We learn about the way he dresses: his ill-fitting suit confirms our suspicion that he’s something of a hick.  Then we quickly move into narrative description covering his journey out of the woods into the larger world, which is a strange and backward place: he feels as if he’s “watching spring in reverse” as he comes down from the Appalachians; he sees a shooting star and realizes he’s never seen one before because the steep hills have always blocked out the sky. 

So far the causality is clear: Ory shot + Gerald wants to be accepted by brothers + brothers and wife think he should go = Gerald goes.  When he arrives as the flatlands hospital he makes a daunting discovery: Ory has died of unexpected complications from the gunshot wound.  This development is compounded by another: Ory died $1200 in debt and Gerald doesn’t have the money to pay it off. 

The developments continue.  He asks to see Ory’s girlfriend—the one who shot him accidentally in a drunken argument—and when he visits her in jail he experiences a strange attraction to her.  She is exotic with her purple half-shaven hair and tattoos and nose ring and multiple earrings that remind Gerald of “a guide for a harness,” and Gerald feels sorry for her; there are hints that Ory was abusive, irrational, an ugly drunk.  Then there is a confrontation:

“Why do you do that?” he said. 
“No. Cut your hair and stick that thing in your nose.” 
“Shut up,” she said.  She began yelling.  “I don’t need you.  Get away from me.  Get out of here!”

Gerald experiences a sense of vertigo, realizing that he’s “two days from anything familiar.”   To review the causality so far: Ory shot + Gerald wants to be accepted by brothers + brothers and wife think he should go = Gerald goes.  Ory dead + Gerald meets woman who shot him + is attracted to her + she’s strange and exotic = he expresses concern by asking about her physical appearance + she yells at him = he experiences vertigo and self-examination, initiating the movement toward the final epiphany.

Gerald tells the sheriff he doesn’t want to press charges.  The sheriff wants to get rid of the body, but Gerald doesn’t have the money for a funeral home, or to pay off the $1200 debt, and of course he needs to get Ory back to the hills, so he suggests he take the body with him.  Causality: Sheriff desires to get rid of body + Gerald lacks the money to do so conventionally + his dramatic need, unchanged by death, to get Ory back to the family + the need to pay off the $1200 debt + the question of what to do with Ory’s car = the mutually agreeable solution that the sheriff will sell the car to pay off the debts and look the other way if Gerald takes the body away.

Gerald starts for home with the body in the back of his pickup; the descriptive passages highlight the disturbing and strangely seductive beauty of the flatlands.  He thinks about Ory and purple-haired Melanie back at the jail:

A pair of redwing blackbirds sat on a power line, courting each other, and Gerald wondered how birds knew to go to their own kind.  Maybe Ory knew he was in the wrong tree and that’s why he wanted Melanie to wear a wig.  Gerald tried to imagine her with blond hair.  He suddenly understood that he wanted her, had wanted her at the jailhouse.  He couldn’t figure why.  It bothered him that he had so much desire for a woman he didn’t consider attractive.

This passage represents a partial revelation of the epiphany: The redwing blackbirds trigger the recognition that he is attracted to the strange, the foreign, the exotic.  

A man comes up to Gerald and asks casually about the decaying corpse under the dirt in the back of the truck.  The man clearly thinks it’s a farm animal (though Gerald misses this) and speaks casually of renderers, garbage bags, and maladies, as if transporting dead corpses is standard operational procedure in the flatlands.  Gerald flees the weird land, resolving not to stop again until he’s home.  He passes through more backward-seeming landscape and finally returns to the comfort of the familiar. 

The story begins to reach a resolution.  As he drives up the home hill Gerald rehearses a story in his mind, making the details acceptable.  Ory had quit drinking and found a good job and was engaged to a nice blond girl.  He was killed teaching her to shoot a pistol.  Gerald’s ordeal is over, and despite Ory’s unexpected death the mission was a success:

Later, he could tell the truth to the oldest brother, who’d tell the rest.  They’d appreciate his public lie and he’d be in with the family.

And the story concludes with the full epiphany:

He got out of the truck and waited.  Everything was the same—the house, the trees, the people.  He recognized the leaves and the outline of the branches against the sky.  He knew how the light would fall, where the shadows would go.  The smell of the woods was familiar.  It would be this way forever.  Abruptly, as if doused by water, he knew why Ory had left.

The final passage works because we’ve been prepared throughout the story for Gerald’s realization: the passages describing the beautiful backwardness of the flatlands, for example (“watching spring in reverse;” “He’d been to winter and back,” etc), the inexplicable magnetism of the unattractive but exotic Melanie.  And yet it’s credible that this would be an epiphany—i.e., that it’s a big realization of something he didn’t know before—because we’ve seen his innocence in the way he dresses, the fact that he’s reached the age of thirty without ever leaving the county, and his conversations with the sheriff, Melanie, and the man who chats casually about corpses in truck beds.

By the final paragraph the mousetrap has been carefully laid: the lines of causality are clear and inevitable-feeling; the central dramatic need met and the conflict resolved; there are no lingering questions and yet the reader does wonder about the meaning of the story.  There have been hints and partial realizations throughout, references to disorientation and wonder at the strange surroundings.  The only thing missing is the epiphany, and when it comes one is satisfied and can close the book.

ABCDDE. Simple, right? Now YOU try it.


Why Write Novels, Anyway?

Why make the supreme investment of time and effort it takes to be a novelist now, when communications are so technologically oriented –when film and television and gaming, not books, seem to be the ascendant forms of communication, art, and entertainment?

When I was a student, I read hundreds of novels: science fiction, epic fantasy, historical fiction, mainstream literature, and, later, the classics. Often these novels seemed like way to escape from the difficulties of being a young person in America. Back then I discovered – though I wouldn’t have articulated it this way – that fiction, and especially novelistic fiction, has the power to strike an almost musical chord of emotions. The result is a kind of transportation effect, in which one is swept up into the world of a story.  The novelist John Gardner referred to this effect as the “vivid, continuous dream” of fiction. It’s a special feature of good novels; it gives them the power to colonize the reader’s imagination so completely that putting them down is like parting with a beloved friend.

Don’t get me wrong: film is a wonderful art. It’s a vital and fascinating art, and one of the great things about being human in the twenty-first century is the availability of so many good movies – and, lately, so many good and even great television series. But you can’t get the same kind of transportation effect from these visual narrative media that you can from a novel. The experience of watching a movie is nowhere near as deep as that of reading a novel; the kind of enrichment film offers is different, more superficial, and less comprehensive than that offered by literature. Why? Because the less imaginative exercise required to fully construct a scene, the more passive and removed the audience. The less of oneself one puts into something, the less one gets out of it. Good novels generate a connective electrical current; they create a living interface between two minds, and in the process, they give readers a personal stake in the creative process.

The novelist Robert Stone once told me that we all have two stories: the one we’re carrying around inside, and the one we’re experiencing in the exterior, material world. Where interior and exterior meet is where viable literature happens. With literature it’s possible to find yourself laughing and crying at the same time. And that’s just it. Film can’t fully capture the interior story. The world you inhabit when you read a good novel is unique. You and the author work together to create a one of a kind, intensely vivid landscape, a landscape that is troubling and beautiful and populated by fascinating characters undergoing deeply perilous journeys, external and internal. This world bewitches your consciousness. It complicates and enlarges your perspective.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote:

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”

Film can’t really do that, not in the same visceral, all-encompassing way, which is why novels are not going away any time soon. Novels meet a basic human need. They are an essential art form, because they offer a way of experiencing life not possible with any other art.

Narrative is an ancient craft. It’s one of the few aspects of consciousness that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal realm. Think about it. We evolved as a species sitting around a fire in a hostile wilderness. Unlike other animals, we had no particularly effective evolutionary tools – no armor or stinger or great speed or built-in camouflage – but we did inherit remarkably large and malleable brains. And make no mistake: storytelling became one of our best tools for survival. Telling stories about hunting, for example, allowed our early ancestors to encapsulate and remember important information. With stories, that information could be deployed repeatedly; it could be refined and perfected and applied to future hunts. Similar patterns of narrative would have been used for avoiding predators, locating new resources, and defeating rival groups. A man or a woman that could tell a good story was thus always welcome around the fire, and the ability to create compelling narratives became ingrained in our consciousness. Like any other evolutionary adaptation, this aspect of our brains was refined and elaborated over thousands of generations of natural selection, until it was capable of creating things of great beauty. Storytelling became the equivalent of a peacock’s tail, or a meadowlark’s song. The novel, of course, is just storytelling’s latest and most beautifully elaborated manifestation. 

Today, narrative is still crucial for our survival, because it helps us make sense of a universe teeming with random information. We live in a time where more knowledge is available to us than ever before. It’s an information superhighway out there. Narrative, in effect, is the molding of information into a shape that makes sense. Connecting the dots; identifying cause and effect. When things are plentiful, they’re cheap. When things are scarce, they command a higher price. Sure, there are a lot of novels being written, but these days, which is more scarce: information or narrative?

Words activate the imagination in a way pictures cannot. Viewing and hearing are relatively passive activities; reading is not. Reading, on a deep level, is communion. What writers read is like organic matter from the collective unconscious tamped down into the ground of their souls, which will bubble up in a transformed way, like crude oil, when it comes time to write their own stories. For writers and readers alike, novels increase our faculties of compassion and understanding; they allow us to imagine our way into solidarity with a greater human community. They enable us to conceive of new possibilities, to see the world or the universe in an entirely new light, and, therefore, to define the terms of our existence in a manner of our own choosing. There is a saying: Books are our grandfathers. Books are our teachers; they equip us to live independent, conscious, intentional, rich lives.  As the great Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her essay collection, The Wave in the Mind:

“We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.” 

This is the essential importance of novels in our age.


A Masterpiece of Dread: Inner Conflict and Micro-Tension in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

The Irish novelist Colm Toíbín once wrote:  “A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how those energies might be controlled, given shape.” 

The House of Mirth is an awesome illustration of this idea. As narrative, it is an unstoppable dynamo of conflict and dread, an elegant and emotionally merciless equation in which each finely wrought scene brings Lily Bart, Wharton’s highly sympathetic and hopelessly flawed protagonist, one jagged step closer to the tragic fall we understand from the beginning is inevitable.

The House of Mirth is an elegantly built page-turner, a masterpiece of excruciating dramatic irony. By the final chapters one can barely stand to read on, though of course one really has no choice but to do so. Much of the book’s exceptional tension is due to Wharton’s skill and discipline as a craftswoman of narrative structure. Each scene is full of conflict, each has a clear turning point, and each creates a marked change of fortune, bringing Miss Bart either closer to or more distant from her dramatic desires: wealth by marriage, the adulation of her peers, and permanent membership in the highest social echelons of her age and milieu.

The narrative arc is downward, and sharply defined. The chapters are short, like potato chips, so that you can’t just read one, you must finish the whole pile. And Wharton’s turn of the century New York society is so convincingly drawn that once immersed, the reader is hard-pressed to look away.

Wharton’s novel is also propulsive on the sentence-to-sentence level. I believe this is mostly attributable to something Donald Maass has called “micro-tension.” Micro-tension is the “unconscious apprehension” that a reader experiences when faced with a point of view protagonist’s conflicting feelings. Conflicting feelings produce a sense of unease, and according to Maass, the reader will keep turning pages in an unconscious quest to relieve that unease. If Maass’ analysis is correct (and I believe it is), then The House of Mirth provides an excellent case in point:

“For a clever man it was certainly a stupid beginning; and the idea that his awkwardness was due to the fear of her attaching a personal significance to his visit, chilled her pleasure in seeing him. Even under the most adverse conditions, that pleasure always made itself felt: she might hate him, but she had never been able to wish him out of the room. She was very near hating him now; yet the sound of his voice, the way the light fell on his thin dark hair, the way he sat and moved and wore his clothes—she was conscious that even these trivial things were inwoven with her deepest life. In his presence a sudden stillness came upon her, and the turmoil of her spirit ceased; but an impulse of resistance to this stealing influence now prompted her to say: ‘It's very good of you to present yourself in that capacity; but what makes you think I have anything particular to talk about?’”

Lily loves Selden and yet she hates him. She is attracted to him, and yet, because she is determined to marry for money, she will not permit herself to act upon that attraction. For these and other reasons, throughout the book, Lily Bart exists in an agonized state of indecision. And it’s not only Lily. Witness Selden’s own conflicted feelings:

“Selden's avoidance of Miss Bart had not been as unintentional as he had allowed his cousin to think. At first, indeed, while the memory of their last hour at Monte Carlo still held the full heat of his indignation, he had anxiously watched for her return; but she had disappointed him by lingering in England, and when she finally reappeared it happened that business had called him to the West, whence he came back only to learn that she was starting for Alaska with the Gormers. The revelation of this suddenly-established intimacy effectually chilled his desire to see her. If, at a moment when her whole life seemed to be breaking up, she could cheerfully commit its reconstruction to the Gormers, there was no reason why such accidents should ever strike her as irreparable. Every step she took seemed in fact to carry her farther from the region where, once or twice, he and she had met for an illumined moment; and the recognition of this fact, when its first pang had been surmounted, produced in him a sense of negative relief. It was much simpler for him to judge Miss Bart by her habitual conduct than by the rare deviations from it which had thrown her so disturbingly in his way; and every act of hers which made the recurrence of such deviations more unlikely, confirmed the sense of relief with which he returned to the conventional view of her.

     But Gerty Farish's words had sufficed to make him see how little this view was really his, and how impossible it was for him to live quietly with the thought of Lily Bart. To hear that she was in need of help—even such vague help as he could offer—was to be at once repossessed by that thought; and by the time he reached the street he had sufficiently convinced himself of the urgency of his cousin's appeal to turn his steps directly toward Lily's hotel.”

And so we are presented with characters struggling not only with the novel’s big questions – such as whether or not one is to compromise one’s integrity in the search for security – but also with related, fleeting, moment-to-moment questions, such as whether or not to forgive a potential lover, or how to handle a conversation with one. These micro-conflicts urge us on from sentence to sentence and page to page as we wait for the other shoe to drop. We are swept inexorably forward to the next turning point in Lily’s customized road to perdition.

Micro-tension is different from what we might think of as dramatic conflict, those bread-and-butter scenes wherein, for example, characters with clashing desires confront each other, there is a struggle, and one character wins and the other loses. Micro-tension is inward looking and smaller in scale. Yet working in concert with the boldly drawn structural conflicts underlying the narrative, it makes the fabric of the story exceptionally compelling.  Regardless of how it works, this is powerful writing. And The House of Mirth is proof that contemporary novelists still have a great deal to learn from Edith Wharton.