Some weeks back a student come to me in the writing center who wanted to talk about short stories and fiction. I showed him how plot works, we spoke of scene and sequence.
This student told me James Joyce's short story, The Dead, was the reason the student wrote. The best story he'd ever read--and, he added--he didn't think it followed the classic plot arch or short story form. Luckily, I had Dublinders on mu bookshelf at home--not mine, may partners.
While The Dead is a nuanced and difficult story to parse, it still follows the plot structure we see commonly today, albeit with a couple variations.
The most glaring aspect of this story to me is that very little happens in terms of the physical plot. People go to a party, they dance, the protagonist makes a speech, everyone eats and goes home. However, within this frame is a story of modern times and modern people being haunted by antiquity. I call it "Good Old Day Syndrome," which is the belief that there was a time in the past when everything was better. There are constant allusions to the quality of the people and art of yesteryear. Though the protagonist feels he is part of this golden era, at least due to his educated status.
When it comes to plot form, works in a slightly different way, which is to say the main incident that creates tension in the story doesn't come about until half way through the story. In fact, conflict is introduced continuously between the protagonist and others earlier in the story. The inciting incident typically changes the course of action, or the behavior of the protagonist from his/her typical routine to something "special," or at least interesting to read. But this story does away with this construct, and establishes the yearning for the past time and again before the inciting incident takes place. The graphic below charts the plot emotionally and physically.
This is what I've made of this story, but I'd be curious of other opinions. It's a clever tale--though not one I particularly enjoyed reading.
I love my cat because
he is always home when
I have a bad day. He
does not care about
the social network or
the people on the street.
My cat does the little
things. He is the only one
to be a little more excited
to be. He is the only
person I know. He has a
little more than I can
say. To my heart
he is a good person.
Scene in narrative prose seems to be the biggest hurdle for young or new writers. The explanation of the piece is too commonly lumped in among the exposition.
The other day I was working with a young woman at the writing center who had a premise with so much potential. The scene was set, there was action, however none of it led anywhere. It was constantly interrupted by exposition and explanations.
The tools of a scene, the sentences that propel a scene forward are not obvious ones. The detailed actions a protagonist takes that tell the reader about the situation, about the protagonist's lives and wants and needs are not always obvious. The actions that can show a reader how a character feels is so much more powerful than the line, "She was jealous."
For instance, the young woman's piece in question was about a young girl, 6th grade, and her furry at her new, infant brother for being the center of attention. A common thought, and common occurrence, but what can the author show the reader in this story that will set it apart. If, say, the girl goes around the house taking the pictures of the newly born off the all, that would tell the reader something about how this girl feels.
Another interesting aspect is one of blocking. The young woman had a bedroom set up in her mind that the protagonist enters, but the room was populated with many duplicate items, which made it difficult for the author to explain how the character interacted with the room. This gets into scene in the sense of how people move around a space and how we describe said space. It is always easier to describe a space that only has one of everything. Or at least if it has more than one, chair, for instance, one of these chairs may have a cigarette burn on one of the arm rests. If the distinction of which is which and where, is important then added detail will help set them apart.