Or perhaps, a plotty aside? A while back Alexander Chee had a nice essay in the Sewanee Review about writing Edinburgh, and I copied this out (emphasis is where I put a little star in the margin):
The plots I liked best worked through melodrama, the story’s heart worn on its sleeve and then bloodied up: rings of power, swords, curses, spells, monsters and ghosts, coincidence and fate. These were safe to the person I had been, as all of them were imaginary and impossible problems with imaginary and impossible solutions. They consoled, but they did not consist of choices, emotions, and consequences, people exchanging the information they needed to live their lives. Finding a magic ring of power that would allow me to face an enemy who had won all our fights before was not the same as mastering myself for the same fight. And these stories rarely required that the hero change. The plotless literary fiction of the eighties and the blockbuster science-fiction novels I’d read and loved until now had in common a consoling, thrilling power, but neither could teach how to write this novel. I needed to learn how plot and causality could be expressed in story—not one I read, but one I wrote. Stories about the most difficult things need to provide catharsis, or the reader will stop reading, or go mad.
I examined my favorite myths and operas, searching for plots I loved, ones with explicit action, drama, and catharsis. Tosca, for example, where everyone conceals a motive in their actions, and at the end everyone is dead. Or the stories that made me uncomfortable, but that I never forgot, like the myth of Myrrha, who falls in love with her father, poses as his concubine, becomes pregnant, and is turned into a myrrh tree. When she gives birth, tree nymphs hear the crying child, cut him loose, and care for him, raising him as their own. The tree weeps myrrh forever after. Forbidden desire, acted upon, results in transformation, paralysis, and then catharsis. I needed to learn how to make something like this, but not this exactly. I needed to hack a myth, to use the structures of myth to provide some other result. I wanted my novel to be about this thing no one wanted to think about, but to write it in such a way that no one would be able to put the book down, and in a way that would give it authority, and perhaps even longevity.
Mythic plots contain events so shocking or implausible that the reader sympathizes with the characters’ emotions instead, the recognizable humanity there: loss, forbidden love, treachery. No one has ever said they couldn’t empathize with Hera for her jealousy when Zeus takes lovers just because they themselves never lived on Mount Olympus. The recognizable emotions in the story did this. As I remembered the way we victims were met with condescension, disgust, and scorn, I knew that if I told our story, or something like it, I would have to construct a machine that moved readers along, anticipating and defeating their possible objections by taking them by another route—one that would surprise them. They would want to grasp for something familiar amid it all. Plot could do this.
Now, re-reading it, I'm also drawn to how empathy can transcend circumstances. In a way, empathy is one of the great challenges of this whole project: creating empathy for beings who need to injure us to live; creating plausible empathy in those beings, not condescension or pity. And a further stretch will be to have empathy serve as a story engine, as I'm hoping against hope it will.
(Which makes it sound like I'm not the writer, I'm just reading along. And sometimes? That's really how I feel. It's not altogether comfortable, I must admit.)