The Fiction Writing Workshop: Plot (Keep Your Eye on the Ball)

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe
Growing up, our family played a lot of backyard baseball. My mom was usually the pitcher. “Keep your eye on the Kristin Bair O'Keeffeball,” she’d say before unleashing a pitch. When I followed her instruction, I usually hit a line drive or on a good day, a homerun (sending my sisters into a wild scramble in the outfield); when I didn’t, I either missed the ball completely or hit an embarrassingly lame foul tip.
 
Throughout the years, I’ve discovered that in this particular way, writing fiction is not so different from hitting a baseball. If I follow my mom’s instruction when writing-keep your eye on the ball-I am able to create a compelling plot in a story.
 
Take, for example, Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife. In it, the plot (the ball on which you must keep your eye) is “time-traveling man falls in love and wants to stay put in the present with his woman.”
 
In the book, all action and events speak to this plot in some way. As the story moves forward, Niffenegger keeps her eye on the ball. If she didn’t, the story would wander, and readers would get frustrated, give up, and move on to another book.
 
As you can see, plot is not a list of events in a story. Plot is the purest description of a story.
 
Another good example is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Of Love and Other Demons. Here the plot (ball) is “rabid dog bites girl; girl may have rabies.”
 
And again, throughout the book, Marquez keeps his eye on the ball. Never do you, the reader, lose sight of “rabid dog bites girl; girl may have rabies.”
 
When broken down this way, plot is a pretty simple concept, but, of course, writers love to complicate it. When someone asks, “What is your story about?” a writer will take a deep breath, say “Weeelll,” then launch into a play-by-play account of the entire tale. “It’s about a woman who buys a dog for her son even though he doesn’t like dogs, and when the dog runs away on a Sunday with the neighbor’s favorite dress…”
 
Whoa! Hold on! Remember, the purest description…
 
“Oh, yeah. Got it. Man gets dog; man learns to love.”
 
See? Simple.
 
When I was little, it took a while (and many strikeouts) to figure out that when my mom said “Keep your eye on the ball” she meant just that-“Kristin, look at the ball. Don’t look at my eyes, my hands, the outfielders, the squawking bird on the fence.”
 
In the same way, it took me a while (and many, many stories) to understand that when I’m writing, I have to do the same thing. Now it’s your turn. This month, pretend your book just got published and you’re being interviewed. The interviewer asks, “What is your novel about?” What do you say?
 
Once you’ve got that answered, look at your story. Do all actions and events speak to this plot? Is your eye on the ball?
 
If not, time to get back to work.

October 2007 Family Fun MagazineKristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Thirsty, will be published by Swallow Press in 2009. Since moving to Shanghai, China, in 2006, Kristin has been chronicling her adventures (and misadventures) in her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse.” Her essays and articles have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Baltimore Review, San Diego Family Magazine, and The Gettysburg Review. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing and is the curator of Out Loud! The Shanghai Writers Literary Salon. To learn more, visit www.kristinbairokeeffe.com.

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3 Responses to “The Fiction Writing Workshop: Plot (Keep Your Eye on the Ball)”


  1. 1 Evangeline H June 17, 2009 at 9:13 am

    What excellent advice! I took a moment to whittle down my plot and came up with the ball to keep my eye on.

  2. 2 Victoria Janssen June 17, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Great post! That’s a really useful analogy.

  3. 3 Freya June 18, 2009 at 4:09 am

    Thanks Kristin!

    ‘Keeping the eye on the ball’ is something most parents tell kids, I learnt it when playing cricket (playing ball helps) 🙂 but realized its meaning only later in life.

    Thanks for reminding 🙂

    Cheers
    Freya

    Manager – http://www.bookbuzzr.com


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