We will be bringing you guest posters who can speak to the art of writing or offer practical knowledge of the publishing world. Today's guest is Cheryl's good friend, Mike Downs. They were co-workers back in the early 90s when both were sportswriters for The Hartford Courant. Mike left the biz and headed out to Arkansas, where he received his MFA in Creative Writing.
I’m thinking about the Cookie Monster, blue-furred and googly-eyed, who wandered through my childhood in a desperate hunt for oatmeal raisin or chocolate chip. Sometimes he’d come across a plate, oven-hot and fresh, but that gooey-melty first bite was thwarted time and again by the need to spell something or to count to ten.
This story played out episode after episode, and I watched – never bored, always laughing at the mad desire and frustration of our hero.
Years later, I realize Sesame Street and the Cookie Monster were teaching me a basic of storytelling. It’s a fundamental, but I re-learn it each time I write something new, and it has to do with character and plot and desire.
Say I’ve got a great idea, or maybe a dramatic scene, or maybe just a sharp line of dialogue – or I’m writing nonfiction and I’ve got a real-life situation everyone says I should write about. In essence, I’ve got inspiration. But then I get stuck. Because I still don’t have a tale. I still don’t have a plot.
Kurt Vonnegut defined plot in this elegant way:
1) A character wants something. (Say, a cookie).
2) The character can’t have it. (Has to count to ten, but only knows numbers up to six).
3) What does the character do next?
Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I use Vonnegut’s instruction to get me through those hard first drafts. His model connects a character’s desire and actions to everything that happens in a story. Think Odysseus trying to get home to his wife, Penelope. Think Juliet wanting her Romeo despite her parents’ opposition. Think Joan Didion wanting to understand her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking.
But how do we know (or learn, or imagine) what a character does? We should be guided by our growing understanding of the character’s weaknesses, strengths, and general qualities. Given his cleverness and pride, we can imagine how Odysseus will escape the Cyclops. The character’s action in pursuit of her desire should tell the reader something about the character’s strange and mysterious qualities. In The Year of Magical Thinking, for example, we learn how Joan Didion copes with her grief by learning every detail about her husband’s death – including an examination of his autopsy report – so she can write about it.
And note here, in this video, how we learn Cookie Monster’s obsession is so strong it at first thwarts his own desires. But we also learn that when a cookie is at stake, he can wax eloquent.
That’s character and plot and desire, the heart of every story, and well worth five cookies.
Michael Downs is the author of House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press), which won the River Teeth Award for Literary Nonfiction. He’s also the recipient of a literary fiction fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches creative writing at Towson University in Maryland. He can be reached via his web site: http://www.michael-downs.net/. He also blogs with his wife, Sheri, at Him+17.