Saturday, March 29, 2014

Who’s Got the Plot?

Writers often ask what makes a novel “literary.” Emphasis on character? On voice? On improbability of making a sale? Jay Parini called the literary novel one that teaches you how to read it as you go.  Mark Twain hadn’t heard of the literary novel, but he did call a classic “something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” That’s about plot, or lack thereof.

Nathan Bransford’s blog on “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” observes that “Good literary fiction has a plot.” In fact, if you want people to buy your literary fiction, a plot is just the ticket.

For example, Ian McEwan’s Solar traces the dangerous consequences of the rivalry/incompetence intersection in academia. The Lowland (Jhumpa Lahiri) illustrates the life-changing consequences of every seemingly trivial decision about love or politics.  Sara Gruen’s Ape House reveals who gets loved or rescued, while Janet Burroway’s Bridge of Sand follows who gets to survive the rotten hands that fate often deals.

Bransford’s blog offers this insightful distinction: “genre novels are really about how a character interacts with the outer world.” In contrast, “literary fiction… requires the reader to infer a great deal of the plot…and thus the climax might be something as small as a decision or a new conviction.”

Let’s unpack that by differentiating not only the subtlety of the plot, but the distinction between plot and tension. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the plot consists of who gets married. The first romance novel! That observation probably outrages some and thrills others. But what differentiates Austen’s romance from others? It’s the source of tension, which comes less from the events that befall characters than the way characters learn and mature because of those events. The theme that “pride” or “prejudice” impede happiness matters at least as much those wedding bells.

What has this to do with your novel, literary or not?

  • Every novel needs a plot, preferably one where each event causes the next.
  • Every novel needs character decisions that produce clear consequences.
  • Every novel needs tension—on every single page.
  • Every novel needs characters forced to choose between unacceptable outcomes.
  • Every novel needs tension from both what characters do and what they think.
  • Every novel needs subplots interwoven with the central plot.
  • Every novel needs a plot climaxing in a revelation about human nature.

Tip: The best novels integrate the best attributes of both genre and literary fiction.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Best Fantasy Describes Reality

Fiction itself is born in fantasy. The millennia-old quarrel between Plato and Aristotle questions the source of “truth.” Plato insisted it resides only in the realm of history and fact. But Aristotle praised a poetic version of reality, one more coherent, credible, and causal than the randomness of whatever really happened.

Fantasy has its roots deep in this dispute. Great fantasy builds a credible world, reveals truths about our own, and gives us a fun read. “Dwarf and Dragon,” the second book of D. L. Burnett’s trilogy “In the Kingdom of Dragons,” does all of this and more.  

At the Chicago Book Expo in 2004, beloved author Ursula K. Le Guin told her audience this: “Fantasy is a literature particularly useful for embodying and examining the real difference between good and evil.”

Burnett’s novel accomplishes this by layering oaths, dilemmas, and inadvertent betrayal throughout. Is your loyalty to your people or to the mentor who helped you become a leader? Do you betray your husband or your moral code? Would you kill a friend who’s gone on a rampage that endangers lives? Can dragons, or dwarfs, or giantesses overcome their basic nature and achieve something gentler, more “human”?

Questions without easy answers generate terrific plotting and gorgeous writing. As the Dwarf army approached, “Their braided beards swung like pendulums across their chests.” They are defiant about reclaiming their homeland; they are unbeatable. Only a coerced marriage can save this people.

But this is a novel about loyalty—and love. The marriage begins with a Dwarf finding his spouse “a worthy diversion.” Sadly, he discovers that “’Human love is mist. What can I or any Dwarf know of it?...I am less welcome in your chamber than a winter wind….We cannot build a union upon a grave.’” But wait. Out of an ephemeral substance called Dripstone, he expresses his love through a sculpture he must carve and carve again. Will it move her? Read the book and find out.

LeGuin’s “Why are Americans afraid of dragons?”reminds us that “The use of imaginative fiction is to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny. …For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true… it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth.”

Author Maureen McHugh reminds all novelists to “Follow your weird.” Plato was wrong. Truth doesn’t “lie” in the fantastic. That’s where truth resides.

Tip: Regardless of genre, use your imagination to shape reality. That way you express the themes closest to your heart. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Could Death Really Be the Novelist’s Friend?

First, of course, no, because like everyone else, novelists hate pain, grief, and loss. But on second thought maybe yes. Don’t friends get you in touch with your primal feelings? Those that shape the fears and desires of all people, no matter the time or place?

Death might be foremost among these feelings. It terrifies us, wounds us, deranges us, and, arguably, makes us creative because there isn’t enough time, and knowing that, we yearn to leave some trace of self behind. Primal emotions are the wellspring of story, and death is foremost among those.

Tip: Genuine emotion protects you—and your readers—from sentimentality.

~ Grief is a primal emotion.
It’s universal, which means that you need some new way to transform bitterness into insight and music. Emily Dickinson wrote that “Parting is all we know of heaven/And all we need of hell.” Edna St. Vincent Millay reminds that “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied/Who told me time would ease me of my pain!”

Question.: How would your protagonist describe the emotions following death? How would your antagonist contrast—or compare—with that?

~ Fear of mortality is a primal emotion.
Since the time when humans understood that each of us would die, we’ve developed ways to try and understand, to try and cope. Your characters share this need with everyone else in the world.

Question.: How does each of your characters cope, or fail to cope, with the reality of death?

~ Mortality is a source of energy.
Some writers use time—and its finite nature—as a motivator. No one can know how many tomorrows there’ll be. Why waste today? Are you writing as much as you want to?

Question.: How do your characters view time, mortality, and death? Do these motivate them?

~ Mortality is a source of creativity.
Some believe that the reality of death inspires art—from music to sculpture to novels. Whether or not that’s true, mortality instigates a complex amalgamation of conflicting emotions—everything from betrayal and remorse to memory, gratitude, and forgiveness. Death illuminates. It clarifies. That’s a lot of raw material.

Question.: Are your characters creative? Does mortality affect that? Why or why not?

Awareness of death is part of what makes us human. So much emotion and so many emotional constellations reside there. Perhaps death inspires us to become novelists—and probably drives us to write the best fiction that we possibly can. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Characters Are People, and People Are…

…not always appealing or intriguing. Perhaps your neighbor is intelligent, financially comfortable, and in good health, yet constantly disappointed. The weather’s always wrong. Taxes are high, jokes dumb, spirituality hollow, and politics? Don’t even start.

If Eileen’s your neighbor, what can you do? Have something on the stove? But if Eileen’s a character, you might not buy or finish the book she’s in. Eileen may be realistic, but real-life versions of her are annoying enough. Who wants to follow a character like that?

You might argue that everyone knows Eileen. Besides, by the end of the novel she grows up—quits being so disappointed and hard on herself and everyone else. Still, realistic isn’t necessarily appealing. More seriously, people change because circumstances bring out their best. But people can change only so much, just like a zebra can’t grow a giraffe’s neck just because drought destroys all the foliage below the canopy.

Tip: The potential for growth must exist in your protagonist right from the start.

That serves two purposes. First off, even in your opening lines, readers will know that Eileen whines a lot, but there’s more to her. That rouses curiosity. What will she learn—and how? Secondly, when Eileen finally performs some heroic act at your novel’s end, no one will say, “She’d never do that. I don’t believe it for a second.”

How can you make your protagonist more appealing while plotting your plot?

  • Identify your protagonist’s hidden strength. Right on the first page, find a way to make this strength visible but never obvious.
  • Decide how your protagonist’s hidden strength will assist or save at least two people.
  • Give your protagonist a flaw or weakness that will undermine the hidden strength.
  • Foreshadow a fear that will obstruct your protagonist’s progress toward morality, maturity, or both.
  • Shape circumstances so the hidden strength can triumph over weakness and fear.
  • Determine the climax for your protagonist’s arc. What’s the high point of whatever will change about your protagonist, and how does that hidden strength produce victory?
  • List at least five life-changing events that thrust the protagonist toward the climax. The last one of these must force to protagonist to conquer that weakness and fear—magnificently.

But take any irritating version of the real “Eileen” out of your novel, unless she’s there for gentle comic relief. And give the real Eileen a cup of coffee. Maybe she has a hidden strength after all. Even if finding it won’t help your novel (and it might), it could certainly help her.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Memories: Yours, Your Characters’, and Everyone Else’s

There’s a huge disconnect between what “really” happened and the recollection of it. Unless only one person is involved, interpretations will vary. Then there’s the human tendency to intensify: everything gets bigger, smaller, worse, funnier, more dangerous, or better. Memories explain motivation, reveal character, and reflect reality. That could be a goldmine for novelists—or not.

Tip: The best backstory is brief and illuminates the conflict at hand.

But memories can be torturously untidy. In the real world people often daydream during other people’s anecdotes. That’s annoying. In a novel? It’s deadly.

So how can memories enrich your novel rather than weaken it? If you know an enormous amount about the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) memories, you can deliver the one tiny detail that enriches the present—rather than hanging out in the past where your readers don’t want to be.

This resembles Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. He suggested that ninety percent of what the writer knows about the character should lie beneath the surface—out of sight, but supporting the ten percent that readers see.

His theory neatly describes how you might flesh out backstory to supply the ten percent readers want. These questions might help you build your iceberg.

  • What triggers the memories? A physical object? A scent? A threat?
  • Do the memories change if they arrive during the day or at night?
  • How does your character respond physiologically to different memories?
  • Does one memory lead to an even more intriguing different one?
  • Are the memories in color, or black and white?
  • Do the memories involve all five senses? Could they?
  • Does the memory help or hinder in the present moment?
  • Does the misinterpretation of a memory make trouble for the character?
  • Do the memories involve constellations like honor, betrayal, patriotism, idealism?

Flashbacks can defeat momentum for the same reason too much rumination or description can: no momentum. But memory exerts enormous pressure on human behavior. Used judiciously, that makes novels deeper, funnier, more resonant and dramatic. 
What do you remember? Use it.