Every year, I teach at Viable Paradise. It’s an intensive week-long SF & fantasy writers’ workshop held on Martha’s Vineyard. (Some student reports from previous years. Some photos from last year.) This year it runs from 29 September through 05 October, and the other teachers are Patrick, Jim Macdonald and Debra Doyle, Steve Gould, and James Patrick Kelly.
This week, on the other hand, is when the Secret Masters of VP assess applications. If you blew the application deadline, you could probably still throw an e-text story at us and we’d absentmindedly consider it along with the rest. We’re a tad behind on processing applications this year.
The Evil Overlord Devises a Plot is something I put together for a VP colloquium on “Stupid Plot Tricks.” It was a departure for me to be talking about plot at all. Plot is Jim Macdonald’s forte. His annual lecture—during which he explains that making plots is like building models, devising stage magic tricks, playing positional chess, and baking a Key Lime Pie—is brilliant, a masterful performance, packed so full of useful insights that students are still unpacking it months and years later. He also does hands-on lab sessions. When I hear a student talking about how the skeleton of his story has been disjointed and reassembled into a different animal that runs faster and jumps higher, I know Jim’s been working him (or her) over.
I normally hang out at the other end of the spectrum, talking about expository theory, sentence-level events, how reading works, appropriate level of detail as a function of pace, and five major and eleven minor techniques for gracefully fudging the bits you don’t know. My party trick—which you’re not going to see on Sabado Gigante anytime soon—is a live-action demonstration of where, how, and why you can chop 10%-40% of the words out of a scene without affecting its meaning or tone.
On the other hand, we’d had a run of stories that were light on story. I figured that if I could teach the students some low cheap tricks for coming up with plots, it would give them something to work with while Jim was teaching them how to do it for real. Unfortunately, I later mislaid all my notes except for the introduction, so I’m not sure what I told them.
Here’s the introduction: “Plot is what maintains a decent separation between the front cover and the back cover of a book. Story is what gives the readers the incentive to read all the pages in order. Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature. And now that we’ve got that out of the way…”
I recall telling them some basic moves, like how you can get away with hokey crap a lot better if the story’s moving fast and other cool things are happening, and how you can make two or three half-baked ideas look deceptively substantial by using them in combination. I fear I may have told them—this is like remembering what you said last night at the party—that it counts as originality if you try to do an outright imitation of some other writer but get it so wrong that no one can tell that’s what you were trying to do.
Whatever other low depraved advice I gave them is lost to history, unless one of them comes up with their class notes.
Anyway, The Evil Overlord Devises a Plot was the class assignment. It uses the Evil Overlord lists—you do know the Evil Overlord lists?—as the basis of a plot-generating engine. And the awful thing is, it works.