The Surrender of Plot: Uncovering the Divinity of Storytelling

I stood in the bookstore, gaping at the vibrant colors and whimsical text scrawled across hardcover book jackets. Each book made a pretty picture on the shelf, but after years of book store prowling, I knew that few, if any, offered much beyond aesthetic. I wandered into the classics section and ran my hand along the spines of compendiums, comprehensive volumes, and special editions. What novels written this year will be remembered in a hundred years? Who is the Dostoevsky or Austen living in our midst? Will there even be any such novels or authors in our time, or is the art of the novel dying? The death of the novel is a chilling proposition, to be sure, especially when one considers the generally accepted contemporary approach to authorship.  Novelcraft, formerly one of the most noble and profound art forms, has, like many aspects of the modern world, declined into a superfluous attempt at entertainment; the transcendent and artful is neglected in favor of the basely entertaining and pleasing.

One need only take a cursory glance at the slew of young YouTube authors and bloggers and their ambitiously titled videos like “A Guide to Plot Your Novel Fast” and “How to Write Theme Into Your Story” to realize the concerning state of novelcraft. By and large, these resources for aspiring authors center around avoiding the great fear of many modern writers: boring their readers. The world presumes small attention spans and the absolute necessity to entertain in all pursuits. Many writers rely on fine-tuned formulae to suit these presumptions; a rigid adherence to such formulae cripple the potential for originality and genuine pursuit of truth. The three act story structure and the twenty-seven point plot line are two of the most popular frameworks employed to ensure that a reader hangs on to every last word. To be sure, a deep history of common human experience undergirds aspects of typical story structures, but plotting based on a rigid scheme leads novelists to the brink of very great danger indeed.  

Many contemporary writers plot to the extent that they know every detail of the story before they’ve even written a single line of prose. Undue emphasis on plotting before writing and suspense over substance generates stories devoid of originality and, arguably, represents a perversion of the true value of storytelling and creativity in general. Symbols, themes, characters, and endings are all contrived by the author with absolutely no organic influence as a result of actually writing.  Rather than seeking truth through the exploration of characters, these types of stories revolve around the intent and deliberate domination of the author. Author John Dufresne states quite pithily that good writers “insist on meaning, not on answers; the point is not to answer, but to question; not to solve, but to seek; not to preach, but to explore.” Dufresne gives an example of a character, who has a locket beneath her bed. The locket is under her bed, not because it is important to the story, or because it is deeply symbolic, but simply because that is the case. To some extent, the character’s world is no more under Dufresne’s control than anyone else’s; it simply exists, and it is the author’s task to uncover it. Dufresne does not suggest that authors must include all sorts of red herrings and irrelevant information in their novels, but rather that, in the world building process, it is important to let the world unfold organically, and to pare down the most important aspects only once this process has occurred. The difference between plotting out every element of a novel and exploring the world as one writes is akin to completing a paint-by-numbers versus, for example, Bob Ross’s painting style. Everything about paint-by-numbers is predetermined, and the painter is more machine than artist. When Bob Ross paints, on the other hand, he has a general idea of what he wants to achieve, but allows the process of creating art to guide the final result. A mistake on the canvas can turn into a tree as of yet unconceived prior to the creative act. He is fulfilling the creative act to its fullest extent by allowing art to unfold organically. Writers ought to follow his example and allow the process of authorship to guide the final result.

J.R.R. Tolkien expands upon the idea of uncovering a story rather than creating it in his poem Mythopoeia. He identifies “man, sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White.” Tolkien conceives of storycraft as man’s attempt to distill, or “refract,” a particular truth from the infinite source of truth in God. In The Silmarillion, a panoply of spirits sing in harmony with one another, each partaking of the divine musical composition and distilling an individual part from the greater divine source. One of the spirits, Melkor, seeks to sing his own part, with disregard to the source of the music itself, and it is from this act of individual will over the divine creator that sows all chaos and disorder in Middle-earth for ages to come. Another spirit rejoices in the creative act, but unlike Melkor, this spirit “submit[s] all that he did to [the Creator’s] will” and avoids Melkor’s self-centered concept of creativity which, because it contradicts the divine will, “[can] make nothing save in mockery of the thought of others.” All stories and creative acts stem from the divine, and human participation in the creative act is, to some extent, sacred. Any creative act, insofar as it imitates the Creator, is good. Any creative act that circumvents or rejects the source of all creativity, God, is not only bound to be truly uncreative and tedious, but also morally deficient. Thus, a story dominated by human will, such as inordinate authorial intent, is not as pure a form of the novel as one written with abandon to the divine will. In the same vein, there is nothing intrinsically evil about establishing a storyline before diving into the daunting task of writing a novel, as long as the author is not seeking to dominate the story. Of course, the intention of some stories, allegories, and fables is to provide clear examples of moral instruction, in which case the prioritization of the author’s message is a given.  Such stories, however, are not the same as true novels, which are in danger of extinction. The surrender of plot does not mean disregarding careful sequencing of events; streamlining and refining a story is an integral part of the writing process, but differs from the modern conception of preordained “plotting” because it does not require an assertion of truth before the act of writing commences.  Tolkien wrote organically and “met a lot of things [characters and places] along the way [of writing The Lord of the Rings] that surprised” him, yet he still understood the importance of a coherent story, and described in a 1953 letter how he included his Catholic worldview “consciously in the revision [of the story].” Rather than beginning the creative act with dominating intent, Tolkien refined his genuine creation based on the world he uncovered and explored.

Put another way, a great novel will treat what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the “theo-drama.” Distinct from the ego-drama, which relies on the primacy of individual human will, the theo-drama represents a surrender to divine design. Von Balthasar not only suggests that it is right to involve oneself in the production of the theo-drama, but also that it is simply more exciting. Human plans, as grandiose as they may be, are as nothing compared to the Divine Plan.  Consider the ego-drama of the Hebrew people in 1 Samuel, when they ask the Lord to appoint a king so that they might fulfill their own personal will of being “like all the other nations.” As all human beings do, the Hebrews had a limited view of the potential of human flourishing, and believed they ought to be like the other kingdoms. In the grand scheme, the theo-drama plays out, however, and God’s will, that his own Son might dwell on Earth side by side with mankind and establish a “kingdom not of this world” (John 18:36) through means completely inconceivable by the Hebrews, demonstrates just how puny the human imagination is when compared to the divine design. When human intent dominates a story, the potential for the truly profound diminishes. Surrendering authorial will in favor of the theo-drama is infinitely more exciting and original than human imagination.

Taken together, Dufresne, von Balthasar, and Tolkien’s theories point away from the modern conception of the novel author-dominated, intent-driven manipulation; these theories suggest that the best stories both in content and in craft are the result of the organic writing process, and even further, there is something morally praise-worthy in stories crafted this way. It is fatal for a story if the author knows exactly what will happen at the end. It leaves no room to uncover the characters organically, forces symbols to be the result of contrivance rather than authenticity, and places arrogant domineering authorial intent above a truly humble exploration of reality. Preserving the art of the novel demands the surrender of plot.

Jennifer Leonard is a freshman intending to study English

One thought on “The Surrender of Plot: Uncovering the Divinity of Storytelling

  1. Very thought-provoking commentary. Fear of boring readers is an interesting thought – certainly, authors looking to pay the bills need to be concerned about selling copies, which requires a concern for the attention span of those coming into the bookstore. The attention to YouTube instructional videos mentioned in here also seems to hint at an aversion to hard work, study, rejection, revision, and perseverance. If the goal is to do things fast and easy, then quality will at best be a “happy mistake.”


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