I was driving through sunny Brooklyn the other day, listening to the Beach Boys. Though I’ve had my moments with all of Smiley Smile or Pet Sounds, I tend to return to particular songs: “Heroes and Villains,” “I’m Waiting for the Day,” and, especially, most recently, “That’s Not Me.” Definitely, these songs are all catchy as fuck—they move, with the kind of buoyancy unique to great pop songs; a few chords, a melody, and you’re granted easy entry to the bubble of the song, you float along with it. What surprised me to realize, contrary to my unexamined expectations about what comprises a great pop song, is that none of these songs have choruses. Refrains, definitely; hooks, abundantly. But if a chorus is a sort of destination, a moment of unloading where the listener decides whether or not to get on board for the next verse, then these songs are stationless, ever-traveling. That’s what makes you want to go back to the beginning and start again.
In her essay “Telling Tales,” Lynne Tillman writes, “As a writer, I question the need for goals or directions, for specific outcomes based on specific actions or events.” Tillman is not arguing that writing should do away with narrative, with narrative structure, altogether—she is suggesting that plot, in the conventional sense of the term, can be “a way of setting limits,” of “control[ing] the meaning of a story.” Sticking to a conventional plot structure—rising action, climax, denouement—can overdetermine the cause-and-effect in a story, can imply, too simply, that x event leads to y outcome. The lopsided-mountain-of-a-plot-curve we’re so used to seeing on high school English blackboards can streamline all the messiness out of x, erasing the z and w and perhaps latent aspect of y itself that causes the narrative to end up at whatever outcome it does.
Considering plot in this less limiting manner means opening up what counts as “action” in a story. Again, from “Telling Tales”: “I think, thinking is an activity. An emotion may produce an action, be an action or a reaction.” Narrative moves forward by accumulation, by action at the level of consciousness. Take this scene from Tillman’s Haunted Houses, in which Jane, a young woman, is sexually assaulted by a male intruder. The scene begins: “Jane fell asleep with the radio on next to her head. Rock and roll, the background to her dreams. The music was her first thought when she woke with a man lying on her back.” We begin the scene internally, in music, in thought, a dream-haze scrimming the physical action. When Jane becomes aware of the intruder, she doesn’t scream or cry out, but comprehends, thinks: “Jane understood that the longer the man didn’t get hard, the more desperate he would grow…She thought about screaming.” Still embedded in the same paragraph, in the same even, inevitable tone, they struggle, the man gives up, leaves, Jane “hear[s] the radio again,” calls her sister, a friend, and the cops come. In the midst of a traumatic scene, perceptions and physical action mutually constitute the event. It is only in retrospect that the physical—the bold line of the plot curve, soaring towards climax— moves to the foreground.
I hope, by way of my Beach Boys example, that you realize I’m not slamming on pop music. I hope, too, to make clear that Tillman’s point about plot, and my support of it, is not a call to do away with all signposts of conventional fiction. Characterization, narrative, setting, conflict—these are all elements that I deeply believe in. In fact, one of the things that I love most about Tillman’s fiction is that, by letting go of some conventions of plot, those other elements of fiction become even more potent. ALL HOOK, NO CHORUS: Narrative that values the grain of narrative—language, character, small moments of perception and observation—and finds surprise and richness there. Songs that delight in the material of the verse—the riff, the lyric (repeated, inverted)—rather than the chorus it leads to. Trying to disrupt the idea that for a piece of music or narrative prose to matter, it needs to go somewhere. If you’re with it, it’s already there.
(You can find “Telling Tales” in Tillman's essay collection The Broad Picture (Serpents Tail, 1997), or the great anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Coach House, 2004)).