Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Words from Kilgore Trout

I grew up reading Kurt Vonnegut novels. In an archived interview at the Paris Review (really an amalgam of four interviews), Vonnegut says this:
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don't praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away--even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn't get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger.... When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone's wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.
Plots--ways to keep readers reading. Whenever the tedious old argument about plot v. character arises, this is what I say. A plot is a way, one way, the most proven, time-tested way, to achieve profluence (which is just a fancy word for that quality of a story that keeps readers reading).

You can eschew plot, but you have to create profluence in some other way. David Means does this in interesting ways. I'm going to look at some of his stories next.