Building Plot from the Ground Up, or The Benefits of General Education Courses

In college I had a liberal arts professor whom I loved and adored and had intellectual (and completely chaste) fantasies about. To paraphrase Spock, I admired his mind.

I took two courses from him, one on the political science of modern Africa and another on the humanities of the Baroque period. In the course on Africa, he insisted that we understand the geography of the continent. He quizzed us on rail lines and ports, lakes and mountains and capitol cities. He showed us how geography influenced choices and options for both native Africans and colonists.

When I took the Baroque class from him, he sent us back to primary sources. Newton’s Principia, slides of art, recordings of music. He showed us how politics, art and science influence each other and you cannot study one completely if you don’t understand the others. For our final paper we had to write about a single year and show how the events of the year were related. In one of the proudest moments of my life, he read my paper to the class and said, “Notice how it all flows together like a silken web.” (And yet even with that encouragement I wouldn’t try to write fiction for another twenty years!)

I am not a writer to whom plot comes easy. It’s definitely not the part of writing I “get for free.” Today, I started back to work on my Viable Paradise story, which takes place on a moon colony. It has plot holes and needs a clearer and more compelling back story to make some of the situations believable, or I need to rewire somethings to change the situations themselves.

So, this morning, I cleaned off on my Big Wall of Plot (i.e. whiteboard), and started listing questions: who went to the moon when, and why? Why did such and such situation change? Who are the major political players? What do they want? As I did this, I started writing sticky notes of things I need to research, and added those to a corner of the Big Wall of Plot. I found a map of the moon showing the Apollo landing sites and printed it. I wondered why we picked those sites.

And then Professor Charles Cutter, with all of his wisdom and intellectual rigor, hit me on the side of the head. If I start with these things – the geography and geology, the science, the politics, I will find the plot.

History is written from the ground up. Sometimes, plot can be too. And that is something, thanks to the general education requirements of San Diego State University, and one very good professor, that I know how to do.

One thought on “Building Plot from the Ground Up, or The Benefits of General Education Courses

  1. Oh Yes! A) I already love your professor. B) Sounds like great progress and thinkings! I need to do that.

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