Friday, April 16, 2010


Nowadays, I try to find organic foods, organic household products, even organic shampoo! Having heard multiple reports by cosmetology students, warning that putting chemicals in me or on me might upset the natural balance of things, and perhaps cause disease, has changed my shopping habits.

But more than three decades back, as a college student, I was warned by a professor at Piedmont College that a story is ruined by a plot which is not "organic." Okay, it is confusing enough to try to find organic food; but how does a reader know if a plot is organic? In some ways, they are alike.

Organic foods are grown without outside contamination. A package of spinach labeled organic should have been grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Basically, the food is not contaminated by something outside the farm. An organic plot in a literary work is self-contained. Any complication and any resolution comes from the character's own motives and the forces set out in the beginning of the story, and not from some outside influence. If the character is heroic, then heroism is expected. If the character is a coward, and some hero in a space ship arrives to save the day, that's cheating. Aristotle's Poetics described this flaw as a deus ex machina, which roughly translates to "a god in a machine," and when a writer can't conclude the story without some element from outside the original story, that leads to a plot which is not organic.

Readers may or may not agree, but I have always tried to keep what happens in my novels organic, even when the plot twists and turns. In his Poetics, Aristotle was analyzing the perfect tragedy, and his principles are still very much at work in good fiction. Writers must show and not tell, which is easier said than done. The cause-and-effect chain found in a good plot draws the reader in, as he or she can envision being involved in the series of events. There is both pity and fear, because the reader experiences the emotions brought on by the elements of the plot. When the reader can't go along for the ride, the plot lacks authenticity.

In a time when the fish in the freezer case at the local Food Lion comes from China, there is a renewed interest in finding authentic, organic food. Of course, locally grown, organic food trumps the stuff imported from China or Chile. Literature should be organic and authentic as well, and locally grown is a plus worth seeking.

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