The Plot of Fiction

The most striking piece of advice in Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction wasn’t the news about the muse - although I’d never formulated it quite that way to myself, the previous entry does more or less reflect my relations with the elusive muse. Plot is another matter altogether. Though (or perhaps because) I share Ayn Rand’s belief in the central importance of plot, I’ve lost many a bright and promising story to the blight of sudden plot failure. Now I know why:

[The Art of Fiction, pp. 37-38]
When you construct a plot, the first event to figure out is always
the climax. Suppose you have an idea for the theme and subject of a
story but have not yet invented the climax. Then do not start to
outline the story from the beginning. If you set up a lot of
intersting conflicts and seemingly connected events without knowing
where you are going, and then attempt to devise a climax that
resolves it all, the process will be an excruciating mental torture
(and you will not succeed). Therefore, in planning your story, get
to your climax as quickly as possible. First devise an event that
dramatizes and resolves the issues of your story, then construct the
rest of the plot backward, by asking yourself what events are needed
in order to bring your characters to this point.

This is a good example of the process of final causation. In
order to judge what incidents to include in your story, you have to
know your purpose in the story—i.e., your climax. Only when you
know this can you begin to analyze which steps, each serving as the
efficient cause of the next, will lead your characters logically to
this decisive event.

There is no rule about what element has to be the first germ of a
story in your mind. […] The only rule is that you have to know
your climax (in dramatized terms) before you start to outline the
steps by which to arrive there.

So far, I’ve had as little success thinking of the climax ahead of time as I’ve had trying to wade out of the mire of an unplanned plot, yet I still feel that this piece of advice is the secret to finishing my pile of abandoned stories. I must pester the muse with my plot problems until she comes up with a suitable climax.

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