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Plot Anxiety Syndrome
by Anita G. Gorman

He could feel his palms start to sweat, his heartbeat quicken, his head begin to throb. He tapped his fingers nervously on the desk and his right foot frenetically on the floor. He could feel it coming, his monthly neurosis that took its toll on his body. Chauncey’s writing group was meeting on Monday night, and it was Sunday evening. Thirty days of sloth were now catching up; Chauncey was suffering from Plot Anxiety Syndrome.

He knew the importance of plot. Aristotle himself called plot the most important part of drama, didn’t he? Sure, Aristotle had never read a short story, but Chauncey agreed that plot was important, even if some modern writers paid no attention to it. And plots had to follow the principles of probability and necessity. According to old Aristotle, a plot had to be believable, possible in some way, even if outlandish—think some of those Greek myths. And the events had to follow each other in some logical way. Necessity—Chauncey figured that necessity meant that if a person jumped off a bridge, he would go down and not up. Most of the time, at any rate.

Chauncey needed to find a plot, any plot, before Monday’s meeting. He started thinking about strange happenings reported in the newspaper. They happened, but were they probable? He remembered the university president who made obscene phone calls from the mahogany desk in his great big office. When women complained to the police, the cops traced the calls right back to the important guy with the Ph.D. Ironic as well as baffling, but not a good short-story plot; it somehow lacked credibility.

How about the news story about the ten-year-old girl who attached a note to a balloon at a party? The note was picked up by another ten-year-old girl with the same exact name and the same pets (guinea pig! black Lab!) who lived 150 miles away. Aristotle would say, “Not probable, and please pass the stuffed grape leaves.” And here’s something else that he might have said: “So what does the coincidence signify? After you say, 'Wow, what a coincidence!' what else is there to ponder?"

So even if some really crazy thing happened, Chauncey figured he couldn’t use it if it violated those probability and necessity thingies. And even if the plot was believable and probable, what if it was also stupid or silly or of no importance whatsoever?

Somewhere he had read that there were only two plots: someone goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. He supposed that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined both: the Greek strangers come to call on the Trojans, and then they have a tough time making the journey back home. So how does that university president fit in? Is he the stranger who comes to town, this time over the telephone lines?

Chauncey needed to make some decisions. “OK,” he said to himself, “here’s an idea: a university president makes obscene phone calls, after which he confesses his deeds in a note attached to a balloon that he sends up into the air. The balloon and the note are picked up by the police 150 miles away." Satisfied with the night’s work, Chauncey retired to his bed. He had become a real writer.