Study Guide

Bird by Bird Part 1, Chapter 8

By Anne Lamott

Part 1, Chapter 8


  • This chapter gets off to a quick start with a basic explanation of plot: it's the main story of a short story or book. Pretty easy, right?
  • Lamott tells us where to find more extensive treatments of plot and offers some tips from her own experience:
  • 1) Plot grows out of character. Apparently, writers don't have to spend hours trying to come up with a plot all by itself. If you focus on getting to know the characters, something will definitely happen.
  • 2) Characters shouldn't be just pawns to work out some plot you've imagined without them; just choosing a plot and trying to get characters to fit into it will cause trouble. If you keep getting to know the characters and keep asking, "Now what happens?" (8.3), then the plot will come. That's because the growing relationship between characters creates plot.
  • This book came out before Harry Potter was big, but here's a Harry Potter example: Draco and Harry's dislike of each other keeps getting them into fights and sticky situations. Sometimes it makes even bigger things happen in the plot. Why does this happen?
  • It's because the characters care about very different things, and that keeps making them do things that generate plot elements.
  • Lamott throws in a cool Flannery O'Connor story and some ideas about Faulkner for no extra charge, too, so you can quote her in AP American Lit and impress everybody. It's a good deal.
  • All right, but how do we actually get to know the characters we're creating? Lamott has a tip on this one, too. She says, "Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what's at stake" (8.6).
  • Lamott says if you can turn what each character cares most about into action, you're on your way; having something at stake is what keeps the tension going and what keeps the reader turning pages. She compares this to having a puck in a hockey game—it makes the whole thing happen.
  • Next, we get a little bit about how this process of finding out what matters to the characters works for Lamott herself and how we can probably expect it to work for us.
  • There's a lot of sitting at your desk and waiting and a lot of jotting down stuff and not being sure if it's going to work.
  • This theme should be sounding pretty familiar because according to Lamott and about 97 percent of other writers, it's what writers actually do all day. (Okay, we made that 97 percent figure up. After all, this isn't a statistics lesson.)
  • Lamott says discovering the story that grows out of the characters may happen on and off, not all in a rush.
  • Eventually, we'll need a smooth story that rolls along seamlessly. But it doesn't have to happen right away.
  • After you publish, your readers can't ask you about transitions you forgot or small and necessary details that never made it into the story. But in the meantime, it's just fine for the process to roll along well one day and get completely stuck the next.
  • It's probably a good idea to have a friend read some of your material. The friend may be able to see things you don't or convince you to cut things that you really want to keep but nobody else will get.
  • Lamott compares this hypothetical friend to her friend Al, who took other people's cats to the pound when they had to be put down and their owners couldn't bear the thought of doing it themselves. Gee, writing makes Anne Lamott so optimistic.
  • Speaking of optimism, the next section starts out with a description of one of Lamott's assignments: to write about two married people who are considering divorce until something unexpected happens. She says that when she hands out this assignment to 30 students, she gets 30 extremely different stories.
  • Lamott uses this example to segue into explaining what drama does for a story and how we can create it as writers (other than watching all the plot twists in Downton Abbey).
  • Drama is what holds the reader's attention, and Lamott gives us a handy-dandy formula: setup, buildup, payoff (like what you do in an average joke). How does this work? According to Lamott, like the following:
  • 1) Setup: tells us what game we're playing. This is the part that gives all the initial information, like "a high school senior, an insurance salesman, and an SAT test writer walk into a Starbucks."
  • 2) Buildup: is all the forward motion as the stuff we set up plays out. In the buildup, stuff happens because of the setup. For instance, the salesman might offer to insure the high school student against bad SAT scores, the test writer might argue that's not possible, and the police officer at the next booth might accuse the salesman of insurance fraud. A fight might break out.
  • 3) Payoff: answers the question of why we are even here. This part tells us why we bothered to read the story in the first place. Maybe we find out that this incident convinced the student to skip the SATs and go straight into business, where improbably that student made billions of dollars overnight. Or maybe we discover that the police officer and the insurance salesman are long-lost twin brothers, and it took this moment for them to find each other. Basically, it's why we care about the story.
  • Setup, buildup, payoff: this is a useful little formula to have.
  • Next, Lamott offers a warning: writers should not try to give a character plot actions that don't fit who the character is. Writers rarely get away with this, and readers become bitter and resentful when this happens.
  • We're betting that bitter and resentful readers aren't so great at shooting a book to the top of the bestseller list.
  • What if this has already happened in one of your drafts?
  • Lamott suggests revisiting your own thoughts and feelings and imagining what these people would do in a particular circumstance. She thinks that will fix the problem.
  • Lamott spends a while describing the slow process of getting the right characters and the right plot. This is encouraging for any writer who feels stuck.
  • Then, the chapter moves on to describing the climax of a plot. Lamott explains it this way: "The climax is that major event, usually toward the end, that brings all the tunes you have been playing so far into one major chord, after which at least one of your people is profoundly changed. If someone isn't changed, then what is the point of your story?" (8.16).
  • Whatever happens in the climax, it needs to feel inevitable, like it's exactly the way this particular story has to end.
  • Lamott thinks this is most likely to be true if you've taken a while to figure out what the climax is and it has come from getting to know the characters. You may discover that "your characters had something in mind all along that was brighter and much more meaningful than what you wanted to impose on them" (8.17).
  • As she wraps up the chapter, Lamott offers one more formula she learned from a writer named Alice Adams. The formula is ABDCE, which stands for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending. Here's roughly how that plays out in a short story, according to Lamott's summary of Adams.
  • Action: Adams recommends that writers start a short story with an action that gets readers' attentions and makes them want to know more.
  • Background: This is where the writer fills in who the characters are and what was happening before the story started.
  • Development: In this stage, the writer explores more about the characters and shows what they care about most. The plot grows out of that.
  • Climax: The plot builds to this huge action near the end, and after the climax, things are different in some real way for the main characters.
  • Ending: This section explores who the characters are now that the climax has changed things for them, and it makes sense of what happened and what it meant.
  • Lamott closes the chapter by saying that a formula can be a great way to get yourself rolling on a story, like getting yourself into the water if you want to swim. Once you're there, she says, you do whatever stroke you can remember and get moving.

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