Sunday, August 28, 2016

Plot Roast

Do it right, and it simmers until every ingredient is equally juicy and tender. Or wait too long, and you’ve got dried-out, unrecognizable mush. The success of dinner depends on what you put together, your means of preparing it, and the cook time. Story is remarkably similar.

The most successful plotters transcend the not-all-that-captivating question: What happens next?
After all, the answer might be, “Esmeralda yawned.” So will the reader. 

Rely exclusively on chronology, and you risk sliding into one or more of the following:

            ~ A series of unrelated, episodic incidents.

          Fiction sometimes works when the protagonist faces one unrelated problem after another, or
          one unrelated villain after another. But the strongest plots emphasize the role of character in
          destiny: choices have consequences. At least in fiction.

            ~ Flatness.

            Protagonist arc can only shift from sad and weak to victorious and empowered because each
            event teaches lessons and summons buried strengths. This stems from the novelist’s emphasis
            on obstacles and solutions, not on the humdrum activity between them.

~ Logistics.

Successful fiction has no room for characters performing morning ablutions, shopping for groceries, logging into the computer, crossing the icy parking lot, or any other detail that merely traces what happens between one drama and the next.

~ Randomness.

Plot based on “If this happens, then that,” rather than “This because of that,” and you risk introducing lots of coincidence. That threatens both credibility and momentum.

And today’s readers expect credibility and momentum. Lots of this is the internet. Every fact is a click or two away, and everything’s presented with teasers (hooks) and sound bites. No waiting. No wondering.

How to achieve that pace in fiction?

*** Summarize everything that’s pedestrian or mundane.

*** Start every scene as late in the action—rather than as early—as logically possible.

*** Hint (but don’t belabor) how each scene results from the one preceding.

*** Launch scenes with a hook—and provide it right away.

*** View plot less as what happens than why what happens is dramatically and emotionally  compelling.

Tip:  Reserve scenes for “someone making a scene,” i.e. struggling with conflict, preferably conflict that forces change.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Curiously Non-Causal Quality of Coincidence

Does the “curiosity” in the title above merely add alliteration? No, because, sadly, novelists don’t necessarily treat causality and coincidence as antithetical. What’s the cause of that?
A loose definition of plot. Ideally, it stems not from a sequence of events but the sense that choices, usually dreadful until the end, produced this result. E.M. Forster famously observed

“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it...If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”

Only causality can explain “why.” Forster published Aspects of the Novel back in 1927, but nothing has changed since. A recent Editor’s Blog reminds that “Coincidence messes with the suspension of disbelief because it so quickly and thoroughly reminds readers that they are reading fiction.”

And the cause of that one? With the same probability each time, life can deliver victories or catastrophes. Fiction doesn’t work that way. The bar for credibility is far higher than for anything based on fact. That’s why you risk sounding contrived any time you record exactly what happened.

Beware these trouble spots.

  • Planted Clues
She never checked for phone messages, but because she did, Ellie found the note.

  • Fortuitous Accidents
Before Ed could respond, the doorbell suddenly rang.

  • Convenient Backup
Good thing Mark remembered to take his gun after all.

  • Improbable Meetings
Her first love, out of Sue’s life for thirty years, stood on the subway platform.

  • Impossible Rescues
Though unsure of the sergeant’s location, the troops arrived just in time.

Tip: Without credible motivation, responses and actions seem convenient, if not contrived.

How to fix the coincidence issue?

~ Plan your plot—and causally.
As Don Maass put it, “Every scene should be so essential that if you omit one, the whole thing unravels.”

~ Introduce objects and people in advance.
Never add characters, details, or characteristics only as the need arises.

~ Transform sequentiality into causality.
            Build your story not on what happens, but what motivates subsequent events.

Isn’t it curious how often coincidence crops up in fiction?  Convenient as that might be, only causality can earn an ending satisfying to both you and your readers.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Asset or Accident, Experiment or Intuition?

Recently, a very talented writer confided that he never has the slightest idea whether his material is awesome or awful. And, he’s partially right: every writer needs feedback. Yet every writer also needs honest, judicious self-assessment.

Tip: Learn to be your own best, most trusted critic.

Writers usually know a ton of “rules,” everything from “Vary the length of your sentences,” to “Tension is the most beloved character in every novel.” If you know all those rules, and you’re a smart cookie, why can’t you see whether you break the rules unintentionally?

Because most novelists rationalize as skillfully as they write. And then, alas, succumb to their own rationalizations. Ever used one of these?
  • It’s monotonous to start every chapter with a hook.
  • Sometimes readers need a break from all that action and just want to overhear the characters thinking, wondering, and deciding.
  • Words like “anguish,” “yearning,” and “joy” engage readers emotionally.
  • An occasional point of view slip makes things more interesting.
  • Readers choose the novel form because in order to study history and savor description.
  • Anyone who can create compelling characters won’t need much plot.
Hmm. How much of a critic, or writer, can you expect to be if you defend every misstep, justify every self-indulgence, excuse every shortcut, and break every rule?

The trick is to know when you can—should!—break the rules. Certainly too many exist, along with too many instances where rigor should bow to the serendipity of inspiration. Still, those rules exist for a reason, so you need a reason to ignore them. 

Want some help deciding?

~ Identify and appreciate your skills.
Writers often prefer listing their faults. But to undermine those, you need your—assets.

~ Notice and exploit writing accidents.
            They produce some of the loveliest writing moments.

~ Experiment with your plans.
            Try things out. Take risks. You can’t revise what you never wrote.

~ Intuition.
Anyone inclined toward fiction intuitively knows when to ignore the rules.

Listen to yourself. What better way to discover much you already know?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Structure Your Scenes—All of Them

Coaches like Jack M. Bickham and Dwight Swain offer terrific suggestions for scenes, yet focus more on the building blocks than the writer’s perception of what happens next.

Tip: Plan your scenes to meet the goal of tension on every page.

Here’s an alternative: Character Goal…Hook…Hook.

~ The goal.
Know what your character wants. Instantly. Why can’t the character achieve this right now? And what’s the immediate result of failing?  “Instantly” and “immediately” are the key words. A casual, long-term possibility offers little at this moment. And readers, who have all sorts of other ways to spend their time, don’t want to wait. Don’t make them.

An added bonus: if you identify what your character desires, then you know where the scene needs to go. Win/win/win: characters get motive; readers get conflict; writers get strategy.

~ The hooks.
Use your protagonist’s goal to start every scene with a genuine hook, or anything that whets reader appetite.  Hint: it’s rarely just the setting. Consider these possibilities:

  • Seemingly unwinnable goal
  • Snazzy dialogue
  • Question
  • Short sentence that pops
  • Secret
  • Complex emotion
  • Huge dilemma
  • Grave danger
  • Emotional upheaval
  • “Ticking clock” (as Noah Lukeman put it)
Launch the scene with a hook, and conclude every scene but the last with another hook. Again, a bonus not just for readers, but for writers. Hooks help identify which material needs to be in scene while maintaining high tension right up to The End.

Now for the frosting. It’s often the writer’s motive, but less so the reader’s. Some examples:

Ø  Backstory
Ø  Themes
Ø  Symbolism
Ø  Allusions (literary or others)
Ø  Social commentary
Ø  History or geography or any other kind of “lesson”
Ø  Poetic moments

Like frosting, perfectly delightful. But in small doses, and never as a substitutes for the actual cake. The good news? Build scenes from hooks and goals, and you can add that delicious frosting without distracting from the plot. That’s where tension thrives.