Sunday, March 31, 2013

Thematic Plotting/Plot-Driven Theme

You’ve heard it before: Characters acting as mouthpieces for ideas read like stick figures. Yet character and theme interconnect at the deepest root. Use theme to understand characters better and you complicate plot. Use the fate of your characters to illustrate theme and you needn’t state it. You can build story from either direction.

Dilemma. Start with an event that closes off protagonist options and emphasizes theme. In Kim Edwards’ “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” a doctor hopes to protect his wife by institutionalizing their newborn daughter, who isn’t “normal.” This event instigates a journey revealing the themes of love, memory, selfishness, humanity, and forgiveness.

Tip: Your first event should force characters to cope with the difficulty of living out your theme (instead of just idealizing it).

Backstory. “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach is less about baseball than the game of life. Pella plays this game poorly because her closeted dad unwittingly deprived her of the self-reliance a bright, talented, and beautiful teen would otherwise develop. Her bad choices arise from lessons she must unlearn and habits she must break.

Tip: Backstory adds if it clarifies character motivation and advances plot.

Climax. Ideally, the culmination of your plot dramatizes your theme. In Ian McEwan’s “Saturday,” the novel’s hero is literature itself, or Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” to be specific. In a clever twist I won’t reveal, poetry rescues a family from theft, rape, and possibly murder. An ironic sort of hope saves or at least elevates everyone, including the “bad guys.”

Tip: Make the resolution of your plot signal your theme. This eliminates the temptation to insert a “And now, dear reader…” passage in your last few pages.

Intertwine plot and theme to build an organic novel: Better plot, deeper characters, more convincing themes. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Unhappy Characters = Happy Readers

For real people nothing beats a sunny stretch, unexpected windfall, or confirmation of love, friendship, and family ties. So it’s an odd irony that although that good news sells self-help and children’s books, it sells few novels. Fiction readers want good news only at the end. Because the word “novel” is spelled “t-r-o-u-b-l-e.”

Why would this be? For a start, writing happiness isn’t easy. Too often it sounds sappy, silly, clichéd, or unbelievable. Plus it simply doesn’t captivate. The protagonist and his girlfriend are having a really nice day. Isn’t that nice. I think I’ll hit the gym now, though. Working up a sweat would be more fun.

But neither of those are the main reason. Aristotle articulated the real one in the “Poetics,” where he observed that audiences are emotionally reborn (catharsis) by watching the downfall due to the arrogance (hubris) of a noble hero.

Our heroes have changed radically, as have our versions of downfall and arrogance. But the impetus for story stays the same. Today’s venue is more often the page than the stage, but we still want to watch the guy or gal suffer through all that trouble and learn from it.

Trouble drives story. People don’t change unless forced to, and painful as it is, the real lessons come from dreadful circumstances. These not only impose choice and commitment but elicit inner resources that might surprise even the protagonist.

Here’s how to structure that:

  • Plunge your protagonist into trouble.
  • Give your protagonist a fatal flaw.
  • Give your protagonist a concealed yet powerful asset.
  • Make the trouble worse and worse.
  • Let every action, choice, or decision produce a visible result.
  • Corner your protagonist until it looks hopeless: Love, fame, joy, forgiveness all beyond reach.

Create a climactic moment that teaches the protagonist the one lesson that partially undoes all the wrong. Nothing will ever be the same. The past can’t be repaired; the mistakes remain on the books. But where there’s progress, there’s hope of happiness.

Your novel probably has a happy ending, which is probably good, since that’s what readers usually want. Just provide the happy pleasure of watching the troubled protagonist learn the lesson, overcome the flaw, and imagine sunny skies and moonlit strolls down the beach.

Tip: Trouble teaches your protagonist where and how to find happiness.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

To “Maass” Is a Verb

People who extol verbs, who worship them, revel in them, revere and sanctify them, get mocked. And I don’t care. For writers, and especially writers with even minimal respect for reading or writing poetry, verbs are as good as it gets. No higher honor exists.

Verbs take complex operations and succinctly snare them in a single word: Photosynthesize, reminisce, calculate, mortify, and enunciate. Instead of an entire paragraph—plus a diagram—a handful of letters crystallizes an entire process.

Now of the many wonderful writing theorists and theories out there, very few encapsulate advice in a single word. Yet in book after book, and most especially Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook and the recent Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, this is precisely what Don Maass accomplishes. Shouldn’t that be a verb?

To Maass: To originate so profoundly and complexly that characterization, plot, outcome, and theme become more credible, convincing, and compelling than the humdrum nature of daily life.

Tip: Teach yourself to Maass from the Maasster himself.

Are you motivated to Maass your manuscript? Here’s how to start.

·         Abandon your first plot choice. While you’re at it, discard many of the next seven or eight plot possibilities. The ninth or tenth one flirts with greatness. Follow that.

·         Unearth hidden similarity. We know painfully well why your protagonist differs from your antagonist. So forget that. How are your protagonist and antagonist practically alike in some invisible yet believable way?

·         Burst boundaries. If you’re literary, don’t just ponder what genre writing can teach you. Admit that your “opposite” can enrich your novel. Let it. Are you a genre writer? Quit dissing that highbrow stuff. Find the way it can texture your novel.

·         Surprise yourself. If you find your own writing predictable, how will your readers perceive it? Replace every obvious emotion, situation, stereotype, and problem. Dig for buried diamonds. If it’s on the surface, everyone else has already seen it.

Tip: The more difficult path is the more original one.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Fate versus Free Will Contest

Life is so darn random. Billy Joel may claim that “Only the good die young,” but the truth is that the bad and good die haphazardly, and even more painfully, the very old or sick endure pain and the very young sometimes leave us before we can even name them. If there’s a “divine plan” here, it’s not one we can understand. Readers, however, must not only understand but applaud the moral causality driving your fiction. That comes from fate and free will intersecting instead of competing.

This is a classical concept, tracing back to Greek tragedy, which depicted terrible external forces meeting the protagonist’s own terrible tragic flaw. In Oedipus Rex, for example, he’s no more cursed by the gods than the ugliness of killing his father and marrying his mother, however unknowingly. This may seem irrelevant in our era of Facebook and reality TV. It’s not.

All great stories, regardless of period, begin with external circumstances so dire that protagonists are forced to overcome their personal shortcomings.  This doesn’t work if fate controls the whole deal. That defeats suspense. It also defeats a valiant protagonist struggle resulting in change that enlightens not only hero but audience, whether seated in amphitheater or IMax and perusing kindle or book.

Tip: Match external and internal equally.

If the hero is guaranteed triumph or doomed to misery, growth becomes impossible. If the hero can easily vanquish the politician, ex-husband, hurricane, or even asteroid, there’s no story.

Balance is difficult to maintain in every aspect of writing. Once dialogue flows, it’s easy to forget that you need narrative. When you focus on depicting setting, the plot might get away from you. The same syndrome affects plot and theme. But there maintaining equilibrium is more challenging still. Many writers let either internal or external struggle control particular scenes, if not the novel as a whole.

To avoid that, distribute power as equally as possible:

·         Give your protagonist—and antagonist—neither too much nor little opportunity.
·         Imitate reality. Why wouldn’t both protagonist and antagonist occasionally crave the path of least resistance?
·         Use obstacles to “grow” your protagonist. Every setback is an opportunity for change.
·         Change your antagonist also, into less “human” or perhaps more so.
·         Incorporate the internal during external trouble and—the reverse.
·         Seek overall balance between the trouble inside and out.

Whether you believe in fate or not, leave it out of your novel. Keep us guessing.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Deeply Different, Deeply the Same

Readers know perfectly well that passion and romance intertwine, that selfishness and generosity diverge. If, as E.B. White observed, “Writing is both mask and unveiling,” then fiction must offer something new. Obviously. But as Willa Cather observed over half a century ago, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” What’s the poor novelist to do?

Why “mask and unveil,” of course. The secret is to “unveil” the subtle distinction between ardor and devotion and the subterranean similarity between selfishness and generosity. As your characters travel from tribulation to maturity, their struggle “masks” these truths.

It doesn’t ultimately matter if you use plot to find truths or use truths to instigate plot. But if you want your novel to have layers, texture, richness, originality—all those things we all hope our novel will have—then you need to dig deep.

If you start with your characters and plot, weigh some tough questions about the significance of those.

·         How are your protagonist and antagonist alike?
·         How could the dilemma one protagonist faces represent dilemmas that protagonists have faced independent of time or geography?
·         If the protagonist’s dilemma is personal, how would it play out in the sociopolitical sphere? If it’s sociopolitical, how could it simultaneously be personal?
·         What did your protagonist believe to be true when the journey began that proves false by the journey’s end?

If you start with theme, tackle some tough questions about the beliefs your novel expresses.

·         Develop a convincing argument against the theme you unequivocally believe with all your heart.
·         Explore how the theme would or would not change if you shifted it to another time, country, even planet.
·         Brainstorm until you find a metaphor that captures the truth of your theme.
·         Investigate why you believe this. Culture? Religion? Personal experience? Uncover at least one new reason for your belief.

Tip: Surprise us with what we never knew we knew.