Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
One way to devise plots is to picture people sharing a meal at a restaurant. The diners could be a man and a woman, two men, or two women. Something as simple as the sex of the diners may suggest storylines. A man and a woman could be involved in a romance; two men could be business rivals; two women could be lifelong friends. Any number of other diners is fair game, too, of course. In fiction, what binds a relationship together, whether the nature of the relationship is, for example, one of romance, rivalry, or friendship, is conflict. As Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren point out in Understanding Fiction, “no conflict, no story.”
More than two can dine together at the same table. The addition of a third diner complicates the plot. The number of combinations of characters increases from three (two men, a man and a woman, two men, or two women) to six: a man and two women, a woman and two men, two men and a woman, two women and a man, three men, or three women. What’s on the menu? As always, conflict. Once again, in some cases, the combination of diners itself may suggest the nature of the conflict itself in which the diners are involved.
For example, let’s say that our combination of diners consists of one man and two women. I intend the dining scenario to be an analogy. The restaurant = the setting; the diners = the characters. The menu = the conflict. What the diners say and do during their meal = the dialogue and the action, respectively. The whole dining experience = the story. However, in this example, involving one man and two women, the setting could be an actual restaurant and the characters actual diners.
Imagine that the story starts with just two of the characters, Alex and Beth, present. However, three places have been set, because, as Beth informs Alex, she has invited someone else to join them. Perhaps she is vague about the other person’s identity, referring to him or her as “an old friend” or “a mutual acquaintance.” The occasion of the meal might be the celebration of Alex’s and Beth’s anniversary. They might recall the times that they have shared as a married couple--those that were amusing, challenging, enjoyable, adventurous, and romantic. Their reminiscences might include the times they have shared with their children over the years of their marriage.
Toward the end of their meal, Alex might profess his deep and abiding love for Beth, just before the couple is joined by the mysterious third party whom Beth has invited to join them--Alex’s second wife, Cynthia. Alex is a bigamist, and both Beth and Cynthia, having discovered their mutual husband’s secret, have agreed to confront him together concerning his matrimonial betrayals.
The idea for this story is based on the life of Charles Kuralt (1934-1997). A television journalist, Kuralt is best known, perhaps, for his distinguished career with CBS, and especially for his series On the Road with Charles Kuralt, which aired as segments of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. He traveled the nation, filming sentimental and nostalgic interviews with everyday Americans, offering viewers a sort of Norman Rockwell vision of the country and its citizens that proved immensely popular with viewers and earned him two Peabody Awards. After he died, however, it came to light that Kuralt had, in effect, had two marriages, one legitimate and the other the result of common law, and had had children by both wives:
But two years after his death, Kuralt's personal reputation came under scrutiny when a decades-long companionship with a Montana woman named Pat Baker was made public. Kuralt apparently had a second, "shadow" family with Baker while his wife lived in New York City and his daughters from a previous marriage lived on the eastern seaboard. Baker asserted that the house in Montana had been willed to her, a position upheld by the Montana Supreme Court (“Charles Kuralt,” Wikipedia).The journalist’s actual life, it was clear, had been at odds with the homespun, morally upright subject matter of his series, and his reputation never recovered from the bigamist lifestyle that he had led.
Kuralt’s victims--his two wives--never met over dinner, with or without him, but the possibility of their having done so could inspire a story such as the one that I envision here. Again, such characters need not meet in a restaurant. The confrontation might take place in a less hospitable and far more dangerous environment, the two women having conspired to kill their two-timing husband after confronting him about his years-long infidelities. The analogy of dinner as a story is intended as a way of setting the stage, not the table.
In using this technique, a writer should also assign a vocation to each of his or her characters. Giving those who attend the dinner party different vocations could, in and of itself, suggest interesting possibilities for plot, character, and conflict. There are quite a few possible combinations even when three characters share the same general vocation. For example, three business rivals might each be the chief executive officer, or CEO, of his or her respective company, with one attempting a hostile takeover of his rivals’ businesses; the three may wish to establish an illegal monopoly by secretly fixing prices for the goods or services that they provide; the trio may be conspiring to “steal” the natural resources of an emerging nation; the threesome may be in cahoots against a foreign government’s attempts to control their market through tariffs or even military means. . . . the list goes on and on.
Once a writer has worked out the appetizer, the entrée, and the desserts of the story’s menu, the story itself can begin, possibly in media res, as, say, an army of mercenaries attacks a South American nation guarding the rain forest habitat of the rare species of plant that a pharmaceutical company needs (and can obtain nowhere else) for a new drug that cures the disease of the writer’s choice. At first, the mercenaries, wearing the uniforms of an adjacent nation, might be taken for actual troops of the neighboring state. As a result, war could loom between the two countries. Perhaps this was the real goal of the mercenaries’ attack. The companies financing their paramilitary operation might have wanted to instigate a protracted war against the two countries so that their own collection of the plant they need could proceed apace as the nation whose resources they are plundering is occupied with the war it is waging with its “aggressor.” The story would progress from this point, perhaps after another “dinner” among the business executives or other parties to stimulate ideas for further plot development.
The same process (a dinner between a couple or among a group of parties) can work as well for horror as for any other genre of fiction. Grave robbery was once big business. Fresh corpses were in high demand among medical schools whose professors wanted to use actual cadavers for dissection in anatomy classes despite religious and sociopolitical prohibitions upon such uses of the dead. There was a demand for dead bodies, both male and female, but no supply--until enterprising grave robbers stepped forward, pickaxe and shovel in hand to fill in--or, I should say, to uncover--the gap. Now that such sanctions have ended and men and women donate their bodies to medical school students to slice and dice--posthumously, of course--grave robbery has gone out of fashion, pretty much, even among desperadoes.
There are a few exceptions, though. Imagine Ed Gein, Jack Hughes and “Big Jim” Kennally, and Molly and Clayton Daniels having g dinner together. Entrepreneurial madmen that they were, they might find some reasons for digging up the dead even when there isn’t a large demand for their, uh, services. In fact, they actually did find reasons for doing so. Gein robbed graves so he could skin female corpses and wear their flesh as masks, vests, and leggings. After Molly came up with the idea, Clayton dug up a woman’s body to use as a stand-in for his own, and they set the corpse afire inside his car in an ill-fated attempt to fake Clayton’s own death. Hughes and Kennally conspired to steal the body of President Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. Even when a market doesn’t exist for one’s goods or services, the enterprising individual can create one, even if the market consists of only him- or herself or an aggrieved nation.
Dinner parties needn’t be moribund affairs. In fact, imaginary ones can suggest endless ideas for stories that, once conceived, can be developed in numerous ways that have nothing to do with appetizers, entrees, and desserts and everything to do with characters, conflict, and suspense.