Plot Structure and the Myth of the Natural Writer (Also, Ducks)

After I decided to write my first-ever novel, I fell prey to what I call the Myth of the Natural Writer. Let’s blame Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1797, Coleridge composed his signature poem, “Kubla Khan,” directly after an opium-induced dream. He claimed that he wrote it in one manic stretch—unedited, unplanned, and perfect except for the fact that it was unfinished, due to an untimely interruption by someone who was likely his drug dealer.

That’s how inspiration works, I thought, so I got to work (sans opium), writing continuously without a plan for the first hundred pages of my novel. Inspiration was mine! Ideas were flowing! I was a novelist, whee!

Then I continued on to write the same-but-different novel for seven more years, in seven completely different directions, with seven different middles-to-endings, all ludicrous. It felt like I was shooting one very slow bullet a year, hoping that if I closed my eyes and aimed at random, I’d hit the distant target I had only vaguely envisioned. How was I going to complete this idiot book? What if I brought in a completely new character 10 pages from the end? What if I used three points of view, four, five, six, 14? The answer was in the subplots, the answer was in the adjectives, the answer was in opium, the answer was nowhere and the earth was going to crash into the sun and we would all die, but not soon enough to erase my shame at wasting my life.

It took me a little too long to realize I could get help.

Finally, in a fit of shame, I bought every book on story structure I could find. Shouldn’t I already know this stuff? My boyfriend (now my husband) (despite this event) drove me to The Sands Motel at the edge of Cheyenne, Wyoming—the only hotel I could afford, with a weekly rate of $161. He dropped me off with my heavy desktop computer, a cardboard box full of canned food, and a bike for emergencies. Then he drove back to Boulder, with instructions not to return or call me for seven days.

Hell, I’ve learned, is a motel room in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The walls were covered in brown burlap wallpaper circa 1970, with graphics of giant, demonic ducks strewn across it, beaks open in murderous shrieks. The room stank of cigarette sweat and maybe bedbug poison. Sunlight shied away from those filthy windows, pocked by decades of pebbles. The March Wyoming wind leaned on the walls, pushing them inward. Even the motel maid abandoned me, and my voice weakened from disuse.

During those seven days, I did nothing but outline my novel and learn everything I could about story structure. I read books by anyone who had anything to say on the subject, from Joseph Campbell to Robert McKee. The information hit me in a “duh” way. Wait—did I even have an antagonist? A climax that originated from the rising action? Turning points? A resolution that, um, resolved anything? Those asshole ducks rolled their walleyes at me. I had read books all my life, but had never really thought about the mechanics of story—each component’s particularities, characteristics, functions, and personalities. Exposition, inciting incident, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action, resolution—all were ingredients I could learn about, and then actually use.

After the week was up, I flipped off my judgmental wallpaper ducks and left Cheyenne with a new outline that I slowly shaped into my novel, Contenders. From there, I developed my two-week intensive, Plot Structure Clinic: The Hero/Antihero’s Journey, and I’ve taught it at every Lit Fest for the past 10 years. And from there, I wrote my two-year curriculum for the Book Project. By learning story structure from the subfloor up, I had somehow developed a specialty that now helps me write better stories and allows me to teach other writers to do the same.

By the way, after that burst of fevered writing, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” poem lay dormant for 19 years, while he waited for the Muse to revisit him. He finally gave up and published the poem in its unfinished state, to the derision of his colleagues. Coleridge eventually died of complications from opium use, forever chasing that initial moment of divine inspiration from within.

I wish he had my ducks.

Lighthouse instructor Erika Krouse is teaching her Plot Structure Clinic at Lit Fest 2018, starting June 2. She is the author of the novel Contenders and the short story collection Come Up and See Me Sometime