Nell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper, is a weird, funny, and sad story about a married couple’s push-and-pull relationship following the wife’s miscarriage. Zink writes about balancing plot and character.
In a world full of stories, why are so many novels boy-meets-girl-while-coming-of-age? Is it a conspiracy by writing instructors to hamstring the competition? Among the “Fiction Prompts” on the Poets & Writers website, “plot” gets four mentions; “character,” 93. We are advised that “seemingly random occurrences can often drive plot forward.” Nothing against poignant description, sharply drawn characters, gripping action, violent crime, bad porn, or the arch avoidance of the appearance of willingness to risk writing bad porn. (The climactic anal sex scene in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding: “One more of life’s mysteries had been revealed.” That’s it, the entire scene!) Those instant gratifications can keep us plowing through boring books, but they are power-ups. Plot is the game.
When I start to think about writing a new novel, one book I like to consult is The Story of a Hundred Operas (1913) by Felix Mendelsohn. While listening to an opera can take hours, reading its plot summary takes only a moment. Madame Butterfly: in Nagasaki, innocent Butterfly renounces her Japanese faith for the S.O.B. Lieutenant Pinkerton. The lovers duet on “Just Like a Little Squirrel.” Moments later, she “kills herself with her father’s sword, on which is inscribed: ‘To die with honor, when one can no longer live with honor.’ ” Lucia di Lammermoor is under intense family pressure to marry the rich guy. Of course she loves the other guy. She tells him not to propose because her family would say no. He runs off, reappearing on her wedding night as a war hero—but too late! Rather than submit to a life of misery, Lucia kills her husband and herself. The Ring of the Nibelung features twincest, a ring of power, and a dragon named Fafner. By the time it ends, even the gods are past getting upset when the female lead rides her horse into a burning building.
Possibly those plots are misogynistic. But it’s easy to update them. Just let the women live! Butterfly’s lawyer reads Pinkerton the riot act: it’s her house now, and if he wants to see his son, he’ll pay up. Trapped on the sinking Titanic, Lucia sees an opportunity to lose the unsexy fiancé and whiny family connections in a single masterstroke—she fakes her own death. Instead of burning Valhalla while the gods watch in despair, the Valkyries kill the gods and convert Valhalla to a cafe specializing in fried green tomatoes.
Take any opera and give the heroine the ability to pay her bills: instant modernity! Modernity, that wonderful place where a woman trying to make rent on her own is not necessarily reduced to the condition of Manon Lescaut. (She moves in with the rich guy but continues to see the other guy. When the other guy suggests they elope, she takes an extra minute to pack the jewelry. Big mistake. They end up doing hard time in Louisiana. The climate is too much for Manon, who expires.) But don’t free your heroines from economic concerns entirely, unless you want your work labeled chick lit!