WHAT’S PLAYING: Florence + The Machine “Dog Days are Over”
My mother’s method of discipline was based on the “if/then” paradigm. For example: “If you don’t clean your room, then you don’t get to keep it.” or “If you give me any sass, then you won’t be able to sit down for a week.” (You get the picture.)
When I was twelve, I decided that I didn’t want to do the dishes anymore. To my surprise, after making sure that I understood the consequences of that decision, my mother agreed. No arguments, no threats, just a simple nod. The next morning, while my mother and siblings dug into a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast, I made do with a plastic bowl full of corn flakes. That night, while my family dined on fried chicken, collard greens, and cornbread, I choked down a cold bologna sandwich served on a paper plate. But the joke was on her. I had finally gotten a taste of freedom and I wasn’t about to give up my newly found independence so easily. (I lasted another two days.)
Despite my ill-fated attempts at rebellion, I found a strange sort of comfort in my mother’s rules. Everything was spelled out. There were no surprises. I knew the consequences of each action and made my decisions accordingly. To her credit, my mother never wavered. I couldn’t beg, barter or argue my way out of trouble. If I wanted to stay out past curfew, then I would be grounded for the next two weeks. If I didn’t clean my room when asked, then I would lose the privilege of having my space until I did.
I get the same comfortable feeling when I pick up a book and find that I am in the hands of a master storyteller who knows how to manage his or her plot. There is nothing more frustrating than getting deeply involved in a story only to have it fall apart near the end, or worse, wander off into completely new territory, leaving me lost, confused, and extremely irritated.
I guess I can understand why an author would deviate from his or her established plot. It used to happen to me all the time. I’d be putting the final touches on a story, when I’d suddenly get a brainstorm – a fantastic idea that would catapult my story into greatness. (Or so I thought.) I’d immediately plop down into my chair and start churning out new pages, completely forgetting about all that had gone on before. And what I’d end up with more often than not was a sloppy, episodic mess.
And then my teacher sent me a not so polite e-mail suggesting that maybe I investigate the causal chain in my stories. After looking up the term in the dictionary, I finally understood. If I wanted to be a decent writer, then I was going to have to take a page from my mother’s playbook and apply the “if/then” philosophy. That was how I discovered the magic of plot graphs. Now, whenever I come up with a new idea, I make sure that it fits in with the story arc and that it passes the stimulus and response test. Doing this allows me to write a solid, entertaining story that doesn’t come off like the transcript of a video game.
So, once again, my mother taught me a lesson about life and writing. Thankfully, this particular lesson came without the cold bologna sandwich.