Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Plot's The Thing

By Pat Browning

Last Wednesday I was guest speaker at a creative writing class sponsored by the city recreation department. We gathered at the senior center to talk about short stories.

Fortunately I had a tape of Marcia Preston's workshop at the 2001Win-Win Conference in Fresno, Calif. Title: "One Way To Plot A Saleable Short Story." Macia is an Oklahoma novelist, and former publisher of ByLine Magazine.

In her tape, Marcia explains commercial fiction and discusses a 5-step structure for a commercial short story. It’s a structure she learned from a book by an OU professor named Foster Harris.

Curiosity being part of a writer's DNA, I looked up Foster Harris on His name was William Foster-Harris, and his book is THE BASIC PATTERNS OF PLOT. It’s out of print, but there's a used paperback available for $181.71 (plus $3.99 S&H) from a bookseller in Baltimore, and 3 used hardcover copies from $32.95 to $89.95.

Further intrigued, I did a quick Internet search for Foster-Harris. I’m amazed at the life he led and the writing he did. At I found this:

**1903-1978. Educator, author, oilman, editor of an oil-related newspaper. Born in the Chickasaw Nation Indian Territory. Died in Norman, Oklahoma.**

Foster Harris wrote constantly during the 1920, 30s and 40s. His bibliography is longer than my arm and includes several novelettes. Obviously, he knew what he was talking about. He spoke from successful experience.

At Wednesday’s program we discussed the 5 steps:
Quoting Marcia: “These are really 5 steps for pre-writing, building a skeleton that we can hang a story on. These are the bones. How you put the flesh on them is up to you. That’s where the writing comes in.”

The 5 steps and Marcia’s examples.

1. Pick a character – an engaging, sympathetic lead character with whom the reader can identify and from whose point of view the story is told.
Ex: Jason, teenage boy, looking forward to his senior year in high school.

2. Give the character a major goal or big dream.
Ex. Jason wants to start on his basketball team. He knows he’s too short for college or pro basketball, but wants to finish his high school career as a starter.

3.There must be a conflict. Something stands in the character’s way.
Ex. First day of practice, Jason sees a new kid, Brian, who was a starter at another school and has transferred to Jason’s school. He’s taller than Jason, too.

4. “The plot thickens.” Find a way to raise the tension, and force character to take action, that will cause him either to fail or to succeed.
Ex. Jason thinks of a way to show up the new kid. He challenges Brian to a one-on-one after school, knowing the coaches will be hanging around. Brian wins the one-on-one, dunking the ball into the basket right over Jason’s head. The tension is like a roller coaster, climbing up, up, up.

5. Climax. Brian now thinks of Jason as a friend, and confides that if he doesn’t pass his history exam he’ll be ineligible for the team. He asks Jason to help him prep for the exam.
Ex. Jason’s dilemma: If he helps Brian pass the test, Brian will get the starting position. If he doesn’t help Brian, he’ll feel like a jerk. This is not only a plot choice, but a life choice. Jason agrees to help, but sees his goal/his dream going down the drain.

The roller coaster goes all the way down. The release of tension is why we read fiction or ride roller coasters.

Conclusion: Americans like a happy or hopeful ending. Here’s one.
Jason is riding the bench the night of the game, while Brian is the star of the show. Jason’s only consolation is that he did the right thing. But wait --

Maybe an assistant coach, or the history teacher, tells Jason that he heard what Jason did, and when scholarship time comes up again, Jason’s name will be high on the list.

OR a cheerleader comes up to him and says she heard he was a good guy and she’ll meet him later. Both are endings with a note of hope and/or satisfaction.

Then my group brainstormed a short story following the 5 steps and they were very inventive. Someone suggested an English girl who wants to stay in the U.S. She’s on a work visa studying for citizenship. No, she’s an exchange student. No, she’s a diplomat’s daughter. By the time they got into who she was and possible complications blocking her goal, they were tossing out ideas left and right, but our time was up.

Next time, given our economic downturn, I think I'll also use O.Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." It's a literary piece but still follows the commercial plot structure, or variations.

A summary of that story from Wikipedia:

“James Dillingham Young and his wife Della are a young couple who are very much in love with each other, but can barely afford their one-room apartment due to their very bad economic situation. For
Christmas, Della decides to buy Jim a chain which costs twenty dollars for his prized pocket watch given to him by his father. To raise the funds, she has her long hair cut off and sold to make a wig. Meanwhile, Jim decides to sell his watch to buy Della a beautiful set of combs made out of tortoise shell for her lovely, knee-length brown hair. Although each is disappointed to find the gift they chose rendered useless, each is pleased with the gift they received, because it represents their love for one another.

"The Gift of the Magi" has stood the test of time. It has been used or adapted for everything from Hallmark Hall of Fame to Saturday Night Live. Quality writing never goes out of style.


Marcia P said...

Hello, Pat,
I'm amazed you will have a tape of my workshop session in Fresno. You did a good job of summarizing it, too.

I've always loved to write short stories, even though markets for them are scarce. You'd think the form would be popular now, with our short attention spans due to TV and film. I hope your group had fun with the 5-step structure.

Marcia P said...

Oops, forgive my typos. It's early!

Jean Henry Mead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jean Henry Mead said...

I'm glad your session at the senior center went so well, Pat. Good advice from Marcia.

Foster Harris was mentioned a number of times as a great mentor for a number of successful western writers, including Louis L'Amour and Jeanne Williams (whom I interviewed for my book, Maverick Writers).

And O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" is an enduring story that I read in elementary school and have never forgotten--a very good example of quality writing, although O. Henry, himself, had less than a sterling character. :)

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks for the informative post, Pat. Reminds me I should work on another short while I'm stewing around with the plot for my next book.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Marcia:
I was just about to e-mail you about this post. Obviously your workshop made a lasting impression on me. (-:

That was an outstanding conference.I also have a couple of tapes of John Dunning's talks. Those were the days ....

I'm not a short-story writer but if I change my mind I have your blueprint!

The thing that occurred to me as I listened to the tape is that the structure applies to long fiction as well. For a novel, you just add more -- more characters, more goals, complications, more development and description.

A librarian on a listserv I belong to copied the 5-steps info for brainstorming use with young adult programs.

A little stone slips into the water and the circle widens ...


Anonymous said...


Foster Harris sure made a mark in the literary world, didn't he?

One of the important parts of my program was the brief brainstorming experience with class members. You could almost see the wheels turning in their minds.

Brainstorming is a useful tool. You can do it alone, but it's fun in a group.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Chester:
I really envy you writers who can do short stories.

I tried once and got bogged down in characters. I guess I'm just a novel and memoir person! (-: