Lessons from the Writing Workshop #8:   Plot and the Novel

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #8: Plot and the Novel

When I began to write my first novel, I didn’t know anything about writing a novel. I had read hundreds of novels, but had always allowed myself to be immersed in the story and hadn’t studied their construction. My early writing education took place within a feminist context—with wonderful instructors such as Marge Piercy and Deena Metzger—and had focused more on permission and experimentation than on literary technique.

I hadn’t planned on writing novels. It was just that an idea appeared to me and said, “I need to be a novel.” Even then, I knew better than to argue with my writing. This was a novel that imagined a reunion of 1970s feminists reconvening in the late 80s to consider what they had and had not accomplished. So I wrote a draft and revised it, and a friend introduced me to a literary agent who was also a feminist. I sent her my draft, then flew to New York to meet with her.

In the back of the taxi on the way to that appointment, I was Marlo Thomas in “That Girl,” living of the dream of being in New York, meeting with someone whom I was certain would become my literary agent. If I’d been wearing a hat I would have thrown it into the air.

At the meeting, the agent sat across from me with my manuscript in front of her. She shoved it across the table and said, “Put a murder in it.” I was outraged. I wasn’t writing detective fiction; I was writing about feminism. I was stunned. I hope I managed to be polite. I stumbled back down the stairs to the street, my bright imagined future disappearing before my eyes.

It took a long time for me to understand what that agent was talking about, and that she was right. The missing ingredient in that novel was plot. A bunch of women gather to talk about feminism—so what?

I had come of age during a moment when writers were disavowing plot; they were creating stories in which people sat around and talked about things and nothing happened. These were writers who had likely been trained in the device of plot, and were trying something new, suspending that element of story. I was a writer who hadn’t been trained in that element, and I needed to learn how it worked.

I came to understand that a story is a record of change, and that change, no matter how subtle or how obvious, needs to be present. Plot is the device that allows you to demonstrate that change.

Sometimes I call it the engine that powers the car. It doesn’t matter how pearlized the paint job or how shiny the rims—without an engine, the car won’t go anywhere.

Readers want to know what they are investing their time in. They want to have a pay-off for reading. The protagonist needs to have a quest (something they want, something they’re seeking) and this helps to establish a central question for the story: will the protagonist achieve their quest?

Readers also want to know what’s at stake, what does the protagonist stand to gain or lose by how that question is answered. It’s the stakes that make them care.

I recently read the first 80 pages of a student’s novel. She had a compelling voice, a powerful situation and believable characters, but each scene read like an episode, one after the next, without a sense of what we were building toward. I suggested she give her protagonist a quest, something she is working toward or hoping for, to give the pages more dramatic momentum.

Sometimes students push back, just as I initially did with the agent’s advice. They think I am asking them to reduce their complex meanings into a simplistic formula. But that’s not the case. A novel has more to say than its plot would indicate; the elements of character, setting, and theme, in particular, work to deliver those layers of meaning. When we go for a drive, it is the scenery along the way and the destination that we care about; but it’s the engine, the plot, that allows us to move down the road.

Eventually I wrote my first novel again (well, several more times) and I took the agent’s advice. I put a murder into that novel, the rape and murder of the daughter of one of those 1970s feminists. Suddenly the women had a compelling reason to gather, they had a reason for evaluating their movement, and we had a question: who had committed this murder?

If this were “That Girl,” Marlo Thomas would have gone back to the agent, shown her the new draft of the first novel and been signed on the spot. She would have tossed her hat up into a blue sky. Reality is always more complicated. That first novel, The Labrys Reunion, was eventually published, but it took twenty-one years from the time I first conceived of it. But that story can be the subject of another blog post, one called “Patience.”


Text by Terry Wolverton
Drawing by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #7: Blocks

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #7: Blocks

It happens to all creative people at one time or another: We turn on the faucet and nothing pours out. We hear the wind blowing across the arid desert. We feel empty. Disconnected. Blocked.

We may feel we have no ideas. We may feel that what we’re producing is terrible. We may feel bored. Or terrified.

If we have a flair for the dramatic (and most creative people do) we may panic, think our creativity has deserted us and is Never. Coming. Back.

As a writing teacher, I have heard (and sometimes uttered) these laments more times that I can count, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about some different kinds of blocks and how to work with them.

  1. Disturbances in the Field — Life does sometimes get in the way. If you are physically ill or emotionally upset, if you have a heavy deadline at work, if you are moving or giving birth, you may find this interferes with your ability to be creative.
  • If the interruption is finite, a few days or a couple of weeks, you might just give yourself a break and take some time away from your creative practice, or decide to just devote a small amount of time each day to doing exercises without an expectation of producing a product.
  • If the interruption is of a long or uncertain duration, it’s worth it to figure out how you can navigate your circumstances so that you can maintain a creative practice. Sometimes this is a matter of devoting a limited amount of time (I once wrote the first draft of a novel in increments of half an hour a day) or finding a space outside your environment to work in (libraries, coffee shops, public gardens are a few ideas).
  • If I’m really busy, it can be hard to connect immediately to my own creativity, so engaging in meditation or creative play (dancing around my living room, sculpting a ball of Play-Doh into the form of a cat) can help shift me into a different part of my brain.
  • If you find that something is always going on that disrupts your creativity, then it might be worth looking at whether there is fear involved (see #4 below).
  1. Perfectionism — We think what we write is supposed to be “good” as soon as it comes onto the page or screen. But as soon as I start trying to be “good,” I freeze.
    Sometimes I have to tell myself that I am going to write the worst first draft anyone has ever seen (knowing that I can always make it better during the revision process) in order to free myself up to write something. Putting aside the ego and writing badly is a great way around a block.


  1. Lack of information — You’re inspired to write a story set in Iceland one hundred years ago. But you don’t know anything about Iceland one hundred years ago.
    It is reasonable to conduct research and make that part of your creative process. Go to your local library and ask the librarian to help you find resources. You don’t have to know everything before you start writing. Even a little research can get you started, then you can alternate between research and writing.
  1. Fear — Fear is the biggest block. We fear the content of what we are writing about. We fear the ambition of our writing projects. We fear the power of the work that wants to come through us. We fear falling short of our expectations. Fear has many manifestations. If you think it’s boredom, it’s probably fear that is masking itself as boredom.
    The first strategy is to name it, to look it in the eye, acknowledge it
    • The second strategy is to figure out just who is afraid—is it you now, or is it some younger version of yourself (“my sixth grade teacher told me I would never be able to write anything people would want to read”)?
    • If it’s you right now that is afraid, ponder this saying from 12-Step meetings: F.E.A.R. stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. Where might you be buying in to false evidence? One way we do this is to get ahead of ourselves (“What if I write this, and it becomes a bestseller, and my mom’s friends tell her what I said about her?”) In the present, your only concern is to write the work; everything else is an imagined future that might not play out that way at all.
    • If it’s your younger self who is afraid, find out what they need from you to feel more secure. Just as you would comfort a child who had a nightmare, you can soothe the younger being who is in you, reassuring them that the monster is not real and you are there to protect them. Ask that younger self to help you with the project; enlist them to cooperate with you instead of resisting.


  1. My favorite quote about blocks comes from the poet Judy Grahn (if you don’t know her, you’ll want to), who said, “When the apple tree isn’t bearing apples, no one says that tree has a fruit block.” She was referring to the fact that, like plants, humans have seasons, a time to be creative and a time to go fallow. The expectation that we are like factories and will churn out product 365 days a year is a distortion of natural cycles. We all need time to restore our energies, refuel our imaginations. Sometimes we need to be taking in the beauty of nature, new experiences, new places, reading books or engaging with art/music/performance by others. It might not be a block at all; you might just be in need of rest or nourishment.


Text by Terry Wolverton

Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.


Lessons from the Writing Workshop #6: Conflict

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #6: Conflict

As writers, we talk a lot about conflict when we’re crafting our stories. Your protagonist wants something, but obstacles prevent them (or delay them) from attaining it or achieving their goal. Then they have to take action to try to overcome those obstacles.

In the work of emerging writers, I will sometimes see protagonists who have no goal. Or protagonists who face no opposition. Or protagonists who take no action. The stories are often beautifully written but they have little momentum and little for the reader to wonder about.

Why conflict? A lot of writers tell me they don’t really like conflict and don’t want to bring it into their work. However, it is through facing challenges and figuring out how to surmount them that we grow and change. We can see it in our own lives; when everything is just humming along, you might grow a little complacent. But then a relationship change occurs, or we move, or lose our job, or get ill, and we have to find the resources within ourselves to meet that challenge.

Story is a record of change. We tell story to learn how to initiate, respond to or manage change. If everything is fine, you don’t really need a story about it. “How was your day?” someone might ask. “Oh, pretty good, I guess.” We have nothing to say. But if there’s been conflict, we have a story to tell, “I was standing in line at the bank, and this guy came in with a gun and tried to rob it!”

Even in the natural world, stresses in the environment spur evolution in plants and animals and ecosystems. So, too, we want our characters to evolve in our stories.

The four classic conflicts are:

Person vs. Person

Somebody doesn’t want your protagonist to get what they want. This antagonist may be well-meaning (a parent who fears if their kid goes to art school instead of law school, the kid won’t be able to earn a living) or of ill intent (the rival who wants the job your protagonist is up for.)

Person vs. Society

Your protagonist is an outsider in some way, not accepted by the family, the community, or the culture. This alienation stands in the way of the protagonist achieving their quest.

Person vs. Nature

There are forces you can’t argue with and Nature is one of them. The storm is going to come, the fire is spreading, the earth shakes open beneath your feet. How is your protagonist going to survive, and will they save others?

Person vs. Self

Many stories, including many memoirs, revolve around this conflict: how am I going to get over myself or get out of my own way? It may be defensive patterns, ignorance, or unhealed emotional wounds that are the obstacles to the protagonist getting what they want. In the course of the story they will either overcome this, or they will resign themselves to not achieving their goal.

In many cases, such internal conflict can be generated in the difference between what the protagonist expected and what actually happens. I was sure they were going to agree to publish my book but they didn’t. Or I thought I could get across town in 20 minutes but it took me 45 and I missed my court date. Some writers fear that conflict means they have to add fights or big action scenes, but not every story requires that. Internal tension can provide the conflict some stories need.

Even poetry can benefit from tension or conflict. These might come through a narrative element similar to those described above, but might also come from other techniques:
• putting words together that seem to conflict: “a harsh tenderness,” “the arid lake”;
• using words with dissonant sounds, a combination of soft and hard—“janky sweetness”;
• combining long lines and short lines or disrupting rhythmic patterns.
A reader may not be consciously aware of your use of these kind of non-narrative techniques, but it will lend the poem the friction you seek.

When conflict arises, we never quite know what’s going to happen, and this serves to engage the reading in wanting to find out.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Drawing by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.


Lessons from the Writing Workshop #5: Writing Emotion

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #5: Writing Emotion

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #5

In a workshop the other day we were talking about the best ways to convey strong emotion in your written work. “The goal,” I said to a student, “is to evoke emotion in the reader, not to tell the reader that the writer or the character felt emotional.”

Emotion is difficult to write about. Words like “sad, mad, happy” are abstract; they convey information but not experience. It’s important to remember that the word “Feeling” can refer to either emotion or sensation, and one very effective way to describe emotion is through the physical sensations produced.

If I write, “As if by its own volition, her fist began to curl and clench. Her face grew hot and her arm cocked back, readying itself to punch; she willed it to remain at her side,” a reader will understand palpably the character’s anger because they will have an experience of it.

If I write, “A wounded bird is trapped in the cavern of my chest,” a reader will have a more vivid experience than if I just said, “I feel sad.” The former offers a particularity of sadness that, while not literal, a reader can imagine. Figurative language (metaphor, simile, things not literally true) can be a powerful technique to convey emotion: “It always seemed to be raining outside his bedroom window.”

While we want the character or poetic persona to be emotional, and the writing to evoke emotions in the reader, the author should try to keep their emotions out of it. A rule of thumb is that the more an author’s emotions are present in the work, the less room there is for the reader’s emotions. Part of the reason for this is that the author may be doing all the work for the reader, telling them how to feel, which leaves no space for the reader’s engagement in the work.

Another pitfall is sentimentality, which I would describe as “received emotion.” That is, as writers, we lapse into the expected feeling. Grandma has died and everyone is sad. This is nothing against Grandma, but life is more complex than that. Grandma has died and I feel guilty that I didn’t bring her groceries every week like I promised I would. Or Grandma has died and I never had the courage to come out to her. Or Grandma has died and I’m so relieved I won’t have to smell the liver and onions she cooked anymore. Or I never really liked Grandma all that much anyway. The reader has nothing to learn from the easy sentiment, but much to learn from the complex truth of human emotions.

An additional technique writers use is the “objective correlative.” First identified by T.S. Eliot (though he was not the first to use it), this is the strategy of describing an object as a way of conveying the emotion of a scene: A couple is in trouble, their relationship is coming apart. Rather than offering an analysis of their dynamics, the author sends them out for dinner and one of them orders a steak. But the meat is over-cooked, it is dry and can barely be chewed, indigestible. The steak correlates to the feeling about the failing relationship, but the author keeps us focused on the inedible steak. The reader feels the character’s disappointment, frustration, hunger unsated, all without resorting to interpretive language that tells rather than shows. So much can happen with that steak: the character can eat it until they feel sick; they can throw it on the floor; they can use it to provoke an argument with the waitress.

In Jenefer Robinson’s Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, she argues that literature both requires us to use our emotions in order to understand it, and at the same time literature educates and improves our emotions as well as our ability to cope with them. Readers of poetry and literary prose are looking to have their emotions aroused; it is one of the great benefits of literature to provide a mirror of one’s inner life and a safe place to externalize it. Writers cultivate the skills to facilitate this emotional experience for the reader.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.