I recently read Seven Habits for Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (a party to which I am admittedly 25 years late), and as I did, I noted several ideas that translate easily to writing (for instance: “private victories precede public victories”). But the one I was most surprised by was this: “love is a verb.” In Covey’s self-help terms: “Proactive people make love a verb” (likely true, my loved ones will probably be grateful if I manage it). But more importantly to the purposes of creating story, Covey adds, “Love is something you do: the sacrifices you make, the giving of self….”
When, as a writer, you think of love as a verb, an action as opposed to a feeling, it becomes a lot easier to generate plot, one of the writing elements that I find hardest both to practice and to teach.
Lots of people write about love—especially student writers, who tend to treat love as a feeling—which typically yields abstract and unemotional, or at least unconvincing, writing. Reminding students of “show don’t tell” helps. Suggesting they embody emotions in the physical world helps (it also generates a lot of descriptions of tears). But asking, how does a human being act out their love, that yields plot.
When Toni Morrison said she was writing a trilogy about love—(Beloved: family love; Jazz: romantic love; Paradise: love of God)—she didn’t mean she was writing three novels about feelings. She was writing what people do in the name of love. What happens when you love your baby so much you would rather kill her than allow her to grow up a slave. What happens when you love your partner so much you would rather kill them then…. well, it turns out murder is involved in all three (to be fair, Morrison said she was writing about “excessive love”), but it doesn’t have to be that way. The fruits of love can yield a wide variety of dramatic and/or subtle plots (and to my mind, plot is a tool in every genre of writing, not just fiction).
One of the workhorses of the creative writing classroom is to ask: What does a character want and what do they do to try to get it? Well, a good variation would be to ask: What does a character love and what do they do because of that love?
It turns out lots of feelings can be looked at as verbs. To haunt. To grieve. To hate. To enjoy. To fear. It’s like a plot generator… turn emotions into actions--actions with consequences--and there you have it: plot.