Monday, April 09, 2018

Grokking Plot: The Elegant Example of BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES

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The Seminary Coop Bookstore
...or your usual go-to online purveyor
As of this year, my posts for the second Monday of the month are dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing.

As those of you who follow this blog well know, I am work on a book of creative nonfiction about Far West Texas, a subject distant indeed from children's literature. But Russell Hoban's 1964 classic, Bread and Jam for Frances, is bright in my mind because in the recent days of my mother's final illness, I read it to her several times.


Bread and Jam for Frances was a great favorite of ours, a book my mother read to me when I was learning to read in the early 1960s. She always appreciated children's books, and often gave copies of her favorites as gifts. Other favorites of hers included DuBose Heyward's The Country Bunny and the Little Golden Shoes; Margaret Wise's The Little Fur Family; anything and everything by Beatrix Potter; and many other titles about in Hoban's series about Frances the badger and her little sister Gloria.

From 1939... still selling faster
than little bunnies can hop
In her last days my mother was unable to do more than listen to TV news-- and it pained me to sit in that room awash with reports of shootings, bombings, crashes, the latest tweets from POTUS, commercials for drugs and those breathlessly chirpy recitations of ghastly side effects, and even such absurd "news" stories as-- this one still makes me chuckle-- "Robotic Dinosaur on Fire!"* So I asked my mom if, instead, I could read to her from some of her favorite children's books and she said, delightedly, yes.

*(Robotic Dinosaur on Fire!-- That's the title of my next book of poetry.)

What brings me to mention Bread and Jam for Frances here is that, as I appreciated for the first time, the plot is at once simple and unusually elegant.


No matter whether one is writing an adult thriller, a romance novel, or a literary tour-de-force of an historical epic, plot is something a writer needs to grok, before writing, during drafting, and in the editing process. Where to go, what to cut? For many writers, particularly those working on a first novel, plot can seem more difficult to wrestle down than a wigged-out octupus.

The best and most complete craftmans' treatment of plot that I have found to date is in Robert McKee's Story, a book aimed at screenwriters, but almost every one of his yummy nuggets applies to novels as well. That said, it's a big, fat, doorstopper of a crunchily crunchwich-with-garlic- sweetpotatoes-on-the-side kind of book, not the most appropriate for a one day workshop, as I prefer to teach them.

In my workshops, for a necessarily brief introduction to plot, I prefer to start with the chapter in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, which introduces the Fichtean curve, and then move on to Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which introduces the three-act paradigm (which also applies to fiction).

Find these three and more recommended books on craft here.

Gardner's On the Art of Fiction is the best introductory book on craft I know-- over the past 30-odd years I have read it and reread it more times than I can count (and bought new copies when the old ones fell to pieces). However, on many an occasion, before I learned to first give 'em ye olde cold fish of a caveat, the more sensitive among my students would complain bitterly about Gardner's arrogant tone. And to those of you not in my workshop but who who have read and loathed Gardner, I say unto you: Buck up, kiddos, or consider that Gardner did you a favor so you can quit now because the literary world, like the whole big wide rest of it, makes snowflakes sweat blood! Then flash-fries 'em to a crisp! Anyway, Gardner died in a motorcycle accident years ago so you're unlikely to ruffle his feathers with your cranky review on Goodreads-- which only makes you sound like a flaming snowflake. SSSSsssss.

Seriously, have a laugh, shake off Gardner's tone like the peacocking silliness that it is; if you want to understand the art of fiction, I urge you to read what he has to say. (Also, by the way, you can ignore the subtitle, Notes on Craft for Young Writers. It's for anyone writing fiction, at any age.)

Of course, in a workshop it is necessary to talk about plot in reference to one or more specific novels. But one of the gnarliest challenges for a workshop is that reading a novel requires many hours-- no time for that in a one day format-- and even the most well-read writers may not have read the same books, nor share the same taste. Perhaps we have all read Edith Wharton, but for you it was Ethan Fromm, for me, The Custom of the Country. Willa Cather? Perhaps you read My Antonia and I read Death Comes for the Archbishop. And, Lord knows, there are perfectly intelligent and talented workshop students who have not heard of either Cather or Wharton. Lord also knows that, much as we may recommend our favorite novels to each other, even we roaringly avid readers may work but a fraction of the way down our towering to-read piles.

Edith Wharton and Willa Cather
Masters of American literature-- and plot
My uberly-uber faves
In an ideal workshop I would dissect the plot in any one or or more of their novels
(I should like to think that these ladies would have been charmed by Bread and Jam.)

What a fine thing then to have found a little book, so short and sweet, with such an expertly wrought plot as Bread and Jam for Frances. 

But I cannot bring myself to do taxidermy, that is to say, a synopsis. For those of you looking to learn about plot (and/or find a worthy children's book as a gift for your favorite young reader), may I suggest that you buy a copy of Bread and Jam for Frances, then read it, which won't take you more than about 10 to fifteen minutes. Then return here, just below the triple hashtags.

# # # 

Bread and Jam through the FICHTEAN CURVE
Think of this as a triangle (curvy if you wish) where your story travels, episode-of-conflict by episode -of-conflict, up the hypotenuse to the big pointy CLIMAX. Then, with your denouement-- pronounced, raising your nose oh so slightly, day-noo-mahn-- slidey-slide down to...The End!

Episode o' conflict: At breakfast Frances does not want an egg; she only wants bread and jam.
E o' c: She admits she traded yesterday's chicken salad sandwich for bread and jam
E o' c: At lunch she offers to trade her bread and jam for a sandwich, is refused
E o' c: At snack time her mother gives her not a special snack but bread and jam
E o' c: For dinner there are veal cutlets but Frances gets... bread and jam

Climax: At the next dinner Frances cries and asks for spaghetti and meatballs!

Denouement: For lunch the next day Frances enjoys a lunch of a lobster salad sandwich and much more. She agrees with her friend Albert that it is good to eat many different things.

Bread and Jam through Syd Field's THREE ACT PARADIGM

Breakfast at home: Frances does not want her egg, only bread and jam. She admits she traded yesterday's lunch of a chicken salad sandwich for bread and jam
Plot point (what takes us to Act II): It's time for Frances to go to school

Lunch with Albert, Albert has a nice lunch while Frances has only bread and jam.
Snack time, it's still bread and jam.
Dinner, still bread and jam.
Dinner again, bread and jam
Plot point (what takes us to Act III): Frances cries and asks for meatballs and spaghetti

Frances enjoys her meatballs and spaghetti
The next day, Frances opens her lunch box to find a very nice lunch with a lobster salad sandwich and, with her friend Albert, discusses how nice it is to eat many things


Perchance this sounds silly. Am I saying that we can compare the simple little plot in Bread and Jam for Frances with that of such literary heavyweights as say, The Custom of the Country? Death Comes for the Archbishop? Or, for that matter, The Great Gatsby? Yes, dear writerly readers, that is what I am saying-- and moreover, that because the plot of Bread and Jam for Frances is so compact and simple, it is easier to see. And having seen it so clearly, you should then be better able to see plot in your own work.

What does your plot look like through the paradigm of the Fichtean curve? And of the three-acts?

Now your wigged-out octupus just might shed a few limbs, or at least, braid them together and sit up nicely and accept a cup of tea-- and in between sips, calmly inform you, in his bubbly French accent, what's to happen next. (Never a dull moment writing fiction.)

There are other ways of looking at plot, by the way, and one I cover in my workshops is the "Hero's Journey," a paradigm first eludicated by Joseph Campbell. The book I recommend on this subject is Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.


P.S. Check out "'Giant Golden Buddha' & 364 More Free Five Minute Writing Exercises." Today's five minute exercise:

"What's in the Kitchen Drawer?"This is a vocabulary expanding exercise not about using new words, but rather words you already know but seldom use. List the objects in your kitchen drawer(s) from the spatula to the grapefruit knife to the soup ladle. 

> All second Monday posts

> Oodles more resources for writers at my Writing Workshop Page

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell writes:
"Love those books, and your essay! Hoban was featured in a display at Beinecke at Yale. I often think of Frances's difficult experience with Thelma, the bad friend, who trades for her tea set."