Posts Tagged ‘plotting’

Picky questions on the novel

For writers, what is the hardest part of a novel? Maybe it’s page 1 and page 400–and many big chunks in between. Some books go like that.

But today I’m more interested in what’s the most important part of a novel. Despite how crucial a good ending is, and how challenging the middle is, I think the beginning is the critical place. At least the beginning in terms of the musing you do before you write.

For me, first come the big-picture questions.

Big, sloppy questions.

1. What genre? Some of the aspiring writers I meet are surprisingly conflicted about what type of story to write. My only advice is to read in likely genres. Read a lot. Learn what stories you adore. You’ll be spending many years with them.

In my recent two books forthcoming from Saga, the answer to the genre question was Fantasy.

world fantasy logo
2. What kind of fantasy? Paranormal espionage. So many kinds of fantasy. Just read the nominees for the World Fantasy Award, and you’ll see the amazing variety of the literature. Read More…

The eccentric and the cruel

Call it a light bulb moment. The moment when I put together two subsets of character and plot, to realize why most novels fail.

First off, and to simplify, novels fall short when they fail to engage, fail to keep the reader’s interest or perhaps telegraph by the cover copy or the glaring lack of word of mouth recommendations–that they are going to fail to engage. Novels fail to engage because they are boring. (Poorly written might be okay, but never boring.)

How long will it be before all of us ever-so-talented writers finally give up trying to hoist the standard of “good writing” and settle in to write a damn good story? If you can do both, then your name is probably Jess Walter (The Financial Lives of Poets) or Carol Birch (Jamrach’s Menagerie.) But, see, you don’t need to be Walter or Birch. All you need to do is tell a remarkable story. Competently.

Given this, why do so many novels fail? (I’m including published novels, here. Did you think that when you publish, you are a success? Not yet. For that you have to sell copies. And I’m as upset about that fact as you are, believe me.)

The secret of plotting

Actually, there is no secret. True plot fundamentals are being preached by every writing teacher in the country except those in MFA programs.

What is fundamental to plot? Conflict.

The reader wants to see the major character (MC) in trouble. A lot of trouble. It’s not enough to have the MC desire something and then not have it (although this must occur.) By conflict is meant:

  1. failure and misfortune
  2. suffering
  3. powerful opposition
  4. physical disaster or threat of, such as violence and illness
  5. external obstacles
  6. internal barriers
  7. self-defeating feelings such as guilt, fear and envy
  8. reversals of fortune
  9. blind-sided catastrophes
  10. . . .  and preferably all at once

And yet, here we are, writing stories with one central conflict. One central conflict is good. It’s called a story problem. However, issues arise when we have just one, or three or five sources of conflict. In other words, we don’t have enough conflict.

We don’t bring it into scenes, dialogue, long sequences or cameo moments. We forget the opposition when casting, ruminating, and describing the scenery. All these are opportunities for tension and conflict.

And yet, we are squandering these opportunities.

Why writers are afraid of conflict

I don’t know the answer. We’ve been told and told. Teachers tell us. Readers tell us. Borrr-ing. I put it down after 50 pages. Nothing happens. But I’m a blogger, so I’m going to guess why we step back from conflict.

Conflict is hard to do convincingly. To keep the tension high we have to plot fairly carefully. If we’re just throwing random stones at the MC, the astute reader will notice. Therefore we must plan for it all to be believable, and planning is hard and feels unproductive when we need to “get pages.”

Too much conflict means we are writing a commercial novel. Really? Read the two literary novels mentioned in paragraph three. One nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

Because you hated The DaVinci Code. I don’t understand why people I know hate that story so much. It was very far to one side of the commercial-literary spectrum, it is true. Right about where the Harry Potter novels live? Anyway, I suspect it is snobbishness and a little bit of envy. Don’t want to be accused of writing a clearly commercial novel? Then ease up on the accelerator. Just don’t roll to a stop.

Conflict takes a lot of time to set up and I need time for character. But character is your MC in action, acting and reacting to obstacles. Characters are what they do, not what the narrator tells us they are. You paint your character in the middle of doing. I know, I know, you want to tell the reader how the character is. But we really ought to get over this.

It’s not that readers are into suffering. But stories are about something, and longer stories (novels) must have a lot of something in them. And that means opposing agendas, circumstantial obstacles, and self-generated failure–prior to the MC winning.

What about character?

I said earlier that we establish character in action, but I know it’s not that simple. Characterization is one of the most talked about aspects of the novel and the one least amenable to teaching.

Have you ever noticed how really good  characters just march onto your pages out of nowhere? And how they are almost always supporting characters? This is because we are not afraid to make supporting characters strange. They can be remarkable by virtue of their odd personalities, belief systems and habits of speech.

They are eccentric.

The different protagonist

But I would suggest to you that the odder your protagonist, the deeper he or she will take you into character. The eccentric MC will logically be rejected by other characters in the story, thus worsening the MC’s position. This is great for both plot and character. Plot, because of more conflict, character because your MC is reacting to this conflict.

The eccentric character will constantly worsen his position. Thus he is to some degree self-destructive. He will worsen his position at the very moment when he might have bettered it. Great fodder for conflict. The eccentric character will need to justify himself. This is delicious territory for an author, because of the dramatic irony that the reader will be aware of how the eccentricities are working against him. And the character himself will tend not to be aware of this. (As heavily invested as he is in his self-perceived normalcy.)

I am not talking about a dark protagonist. You might want to have one, but that’s a separate issue.  A dark protagonist is morally ambivalent. An eccentric protagonist can be enormously likable, and is usually more fun to be in a scene with than your garden-variety likable hero.

The only author who routinely gets by with the everyman hero is Stephen King. I have given up trying to figure out how he does it. All that I’m sure of is that the rest of us are not doing it so well. (And I have to admit the moment I liked Jake best in King’s latest, 11/22/63, was when he rolled down the window and gave that small town the finger.)

We’ve heard before not to write MCs in our own image and not to write them too nice. Unfortunately, we seem genetically inclined to keep doing it. One way out of this conundrum is to give our MC some remarkable eccentricities. You don’t need to give them goofy Dickensian names,  facial tics, or beliefs that aliens built the pyramids. But make them different. Gregory House different, if you want to go that far. By so doing you will create both conflict and, quite possibly, character.

Thus the light bulb. I guess after all my insight is a version of the character flaw. It’s just that I think the character flaw is so often misunderstood and and poorly used by aspiring writers. It feels tacked on, not integrated.

Let’s amp it up. A plot with some cruelty. A character who does not fit in. Mix them together. They were made for each other.


Tiptoeing into story

How do stories come to a writer? Usually they don’t arrive whole cloth, with clarity and stunning originality.

Sometimes stories don’t even start with an idea, but with a seed. Just a tiny proto-idea: a scene, a person, a place. We can’t be sure if this seed is alive or dead, good or bad. Will it grow into something worthy? Maybe. And maybe not.

As we all know, there is a difference between an idea and a full blown concept which one might use an an elevator pitch to an editor. It’s the difference between “an air force comprised of dragons” and “dragons deeply bonded to their aviators fight for England against Napoleon.”

But sometimes there is a stage before “an air force of dragons.” I don’t know where Naomi Novik began with her Temeraire story, but it could well have been something like: “a dragon that speaks like an 19th century aristocrat.”

Think for a moment where you as a writer might have taken that story seed. Dragons rule Britain? A lone dragon educated and pampered, treated as a freak in London? Dragons run a school for magic? If this is where we would have gone with that little seed, perhaps we would have been best off quietly putting the idea away. Point is, Novik likely built up her story a bit at a time, veering out of such dead ends. Perhaps she took time to follow the power lines of her initial inspiration, building it slowly.

About two weeks ago I woke up at 3:00 a.m. wondering how many pairs of shoes to bring to a big convention. Do I really need walking shoes? Will I have use for something nice? Black or tan? And then an image flashed into my mind. It was of a young woman bending over the unconscious form of someone, and she was wondering whether to help them or not. Without giving away my idea I’ll just say that she had a very intriguing reason why she might not help this stricken person. The scene was loaded with emotion. I hurried downstairs to find pen and paper to write it down.

This was certainly not a story idea, not yet. Later, I realized the woman in my vision was not exactly human. And that caused the seed to sprout. It soon grew into a story idea. But it has only become a story concept in the last week or so.

I am, of course, building the story.

But not all in a rush, all at once. Unless your mind works very unlike my own, one must at first circle around the elements of story: plot, character, milieu, even genre. Here is where the tiptoeing comes in. If at the beginning one rushes the story elements into place, the result may well be less original and dramatic.

It is at this time that the writer does best to move slowly. To court the muse, and avoid chasing the best ideas away in the rush to concept. This can be a giddy but frustrating time. You are excited to have an idea in hand, but it is so thin and pathetic, and it needs meat on the bones. The longer that it remains shapeless, the more you worry that it will never get up off the floor and fly. That’s when the amateur forces things, settles for cliche, ignores the inner story that might be asleep or just plain hiding.

I have become so careful of this stage in story development, that I often set my notebook aside after one or two hours and do not work on that story for the rest of the day. When I come back in the morning, I have a clearer sense of where the story is starting to get derivative or boring.

Yesterday I trolled the internet for names. I found an excellent name for my protagonist. It’s the one all right: snappy and original, yet believable. This morning I tossed it in favor of a much better one. Now, with her real name, I can start asking who she is. Who she really is, at all levels.

Names are important; but they will be influenced by things like genre and milieu. This is just one example of how aspects of your story will affect each other. So as you spend time with backstory, you are building up the world, and those aspects in turn will suggest plot. And then we must come back to the name again, and ask: who is she really? Settling for a provisional answer, we circle away once again to the milieu.

At this point you are making lists of questions to be considered: Using The Entire and The Rose as an example:

–What exactly is the Entire?

–Is it a natural phenomenon?

–What happened to Titus Quinn the first time he went there? How did he lose his memories?

–Why has the Entire wished to remain secret?

–Who are the Tarig, really? What lies will we believe at first?

The answers to these questions are at first dumb, to use a term of art. Your first efforts to answer them are seldom brilliant; and if they are, you do not need to be reading this blog. For the rest of us, if we can persuade ourselves to be patient, the snowballing of story can pay off hugely. We will allow each piece to inform every other. We will give ourselves permission to explore.

Do you want to do trial scenes and a bit of writing here? I urge against it. Until you have a solid concept, the words on the page will only convince you that the story is there. It’s not. Don’t rush.



Writing in Scenes, Part 1

People shake their heads in bemused wonder. How do you get a novel written? How can it possibly be done, given how–well, long it is?

Getting pecked to death by a duck

If you think the answer is one page at a time, I’m going to try to convince you otherwise. One page at a time is daunting and relentless. And one page at a time drains the creative power of those longer, meaningful units of drama that will fire you up.

Scenes are miniature stories, compressed pieces of fiction that, brought together in a book, relate to each other. Aside from the fact that they are the inescapable building blocks of stories, they have the additional benefit of making a writing day manageable. Read More…

The Power of Secrets

Is your story riding a powerful concept, occupied by empathetic characters, solidly written–and falling a bit flat? One aspect of the novel that may be missing is buried truths. Especially half-buried ones. The ones we know are there but can’t see the answers to.

People love a mystery. Even if you’re writing fantasy or literary fiction, readers are hooked by unanswered questions. Why is the old man so bitter? What is the significance of the the scar on her neck? Why is the stranger so driven to help? What does the protagonist actually feel for her sister’s fiance? The secret can be profound or rather common, but it provides a hook. You generate a bit of excitement by making people guess. They like to guess. Why? I don’t know. It’s hardwired. Why is it fun for kids to find hidden Easter eggs? A stupid game, and perenially popular. Read More…