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Writing Experimental Fiction: Leaving the Problem Out of the Plot

by Tantra Bensko

Why write Experimental Fiction? Perhaps because you're different, or because it's at the forefront of literary innovation, or maybe it's just because it's how you think. Experimental fiction is fun, exciting, and takes you and your readers out of routine ways of thinking. Perhaps it even has the potential to change social constructs by changing readers' concepts of reality!

But how do you write it? One approach is to change how you look at the narrative of the action. Traditional fiction involves plots based upon a problem and solution. While many experimental fiction stories also involve plot, most experimental fiction writers seek to break the narrative structure apart in some way. One way to participate in this movement is to shake up your whole idea of what plot is, by questioning the need for "trouble" to be a requirement before something can be considered a "story."

Think about it. Does life need a plot to be interesting? Do the stories our friends tell us, or that we tell ourselves, always involve a plot? Think about the anecdotes you enjoy hearing--anecdotes about something that just happened, or could happen, or perhaps couldn't possibly happen. Does the concept of "something happening" always require that "something" to be a problem, a situation gone awry, a cause for a character to weep and wail and wring their hands, and possibly an opportunity for someone to swoop in at the last minute and save the day? Does every anecdote require an element of suspense--until it is neatly solved, with a twist, at the last minute, with everything explained? Can we enjoy a story without our characters (and ourselves) learning a valuable new lesson about life at the end?

Often, the stories we enjoy the most--the stories that are part of our lives--are just plain funny or whimsical. Recreating those stories in the context of experimental fiction may involve adding vivid, moving moments; metaphysical lessons; multiple levels of symbolism; orchestrated motifs; poetic moods; or vivid characters doing memorable things, all without the need for a "problem" that arouses the "fight or flight" reaction. Try freeing yourself from the traditional constraints of drama, the battle of dualities. Don't struggle to find or create a tense situation to add to the story that you want to tell, just to make it a traditional "story." Just tell the story as it is.

When planning your story, therefore, a great place to start is by imagining the anecdotes you tell your friends, or that someone else tells you--the stories that leave you laughing, amazed, or with an aching sensation in your heart. Do those stories always have problems, conflicts, drama? No. Look at what they do have, and seek to capture that in your own story. Look for the element of surprise, the delicious absurdity, the sense of building bizarreness, or the element that was touchingly beautiful, inspiring or synchronistic.

Perhaps you can even write down those actual anecdotes--but in a new way that goes beyond straightforward story-telling. Seek a new way to express the story--a way that plays with form, perspective, character definition, or even how words are laid upon the page. Don't hold yourself back because you don't have an "issue" to write about. Just grab a pen and start, freeing yourself up, and watch the symbols pile on top of each other as you record what you enjoyed about an event. Let your story be about the fact that the events themselves were just plain interesting!

For example, one approach to experimental fiction is to recognize that, in this approach to telling a story, a story can be nonlinear. It can tie together lessons or truths, but do it in a way other than the a-b-c approach of traditional stories. Think about concentric circles rather than sine waves; imagine your narrative as a fountain rising out of the morass of "story" into the shining Zen space above it.

Another approach is to be honest with the reader about your relationship to the actual writing of the story. Traditional fiction requires the author to remain out of the picture, to pretend that you aren't "there" in your story. It also requires a regular pace and tone, and a consistent perspective or viewpoint. In experimental fiction, one doesn't have to pretend that the story exists without us, as if it had a virgin birth. In Modernist, Post-Modernist and other forms of experimental fiction since Tristram Shandy, it's accepted and encouraged to break down that barrier and play with admitting the fact that you are writing the story. Approach how you tell the plot as honestly as you can, with your quirks, eccentricities and personality intact, and turn that approach into innovation. (When you reference the act of writing within the writing itself, you are writing Meta-Fiction.)

If you find that you don't want to give the reader all the details, say so. Try changing the sequence of events to a list, or tell the reader you're not going to write that part; say the dog ate it! Or turn up the speed of your mental "tape recorder" and blurt out a paragraph of gibberish--anything to get you past a "sticking point" and to the part of the story where you want to go.

Perhaps "transformation" is the true plot of your story. Another approach to experimental fiction is called "Lucid Writing." To achieve this, consider approaching the narrative as something consciousness-raising, expansive, lifting the reader with a spiritual epiphany, a sense of lightness and potential, a new appreciation for the outer world, a new empathy for others, or a renewed love for himself. Something progresses, transforms, in the course of your story: The reader!

Conversely, you might want to write something twisted, totally absurd, surreal, punk, cut-and-paste, or cartoony. Experimental fiction doesn't have to be spiritual and calm; in fact, the majority of it is action-packed, twisted, counter-culture and wild. Choose narratives that are zany and full of zest, with lots of action, profanity, scatology, wry humor, or whatever your style is. Such stories still don't have to involve characters overcoming or overcome by something going wrong.

Yet another way to break the rules of traditional fiction is to play with ever-changing perspectives rather than sticking to a single point of view. Consider changing your tone from moment to moment, or moving in and out of the chronology of events. Go from first person to third; pretend your story is fiction one moment, then admit it's autobiographical the next. Consider the way you arrange the words on the page, using space itself as a meaningful element in your fiction. Play with the definition of what constitutes a "character." In experimental fiction, characters don't have to be people; they could be concepts, flows of consciousness, bodies of water, body parts, creations of verbs, the moisture sliding down a cave wall. The narrator might be a reader from the future, or a sound dancing to the procession of colors across the sunset sky.

In short, there are many ways of approaching experimental fiction beyond the traditional constraints of plot, linear story-telling, consistent viewpoints, and the custom of keeping the author separate from the story. Experimental fiction is about creating something innovative, and letting people know that you meant to do that.

Copyright © 2010 Tantra Bensko
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Tantra Bensko is an award-winning fiction writer and poet whose short story chapbook, Watching the Windows Sleep, was published by Naissance Press. Bensko has over 100 creative writing publications to her credit. She writes a column at Unlikely Stories 2.0 and is a proponent of Lucid Fiction. Visit her website to find out more about experimental fiction: http://experimentalwriting.weebly.com/

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