Archives for category: Plot Talk and More

“Since a novel is a recreation of reality, its theme has to be dramatized, i.e., presented in terms of action….A story in which nothing happens is not a story. A story whose events are haphazard and accidental is either an inept conglomeration or, at best, a chronicle, a memoir, a reportorial recording, not a novel….It is realism that demands a plot structure in a novel.”
-Ayn Rand

Does Rand’s statement work for you?  Often real events explode on to the scene and are defused seconds later.  Writing a story about real events means dramatizing them with a structured conflict wherein the characters work out a theme or moral as a result of their changing attitudes or behaviours.  Contrary to Rand, King states, “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all of our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”  Compromise is needed.  A writer can take a couple of hours to plot the next few chapters of their book – this is creation without finer details – and yes, this can be very exciting.

It takes restraint to invest your creativity on conflict development first, then descriptive narrative and dialogue after.   When you’ve completed a few pages of plot development, then start writing.  You have already given yourself direction, which is flexible, for several chapters.  Let the excitment begin.

Yesterday, I plotted the next four chapters of Carry Me Home, a murder mystery, set in Northern Ontario in 1956, during the mining boom.  I’ve taken the time to give myself direction, even though I was tempted to dig in to stylistic development, but didn’t.  Today, I’m ready.  Very excited to take this first wash and start to layer the next with bolder hues, lines, sunlight and shadows.  Having said this, a writer needs to follow their own m.o..

Here is an excerpt from Carry Me Home:

The new flannelette bed sheets smelled like bleach and Ivory soap, but were soft and warm.  She was thankful for the wool blankets.  It wasn’t the  twelve room family mansion on Eramosa in Guelph, with its high ceilings held up with marble pillars, and its grand entrance with in-laid floors, but it had a particular uniqueness of its own, and it was hers.

She had climbed into bed, scattered with text books and notebooks when a knock came to her door.

“Who is it?”

“Elise.”

“Are you alone?”

“Yes.”

Jean opened the door and invited her in.  There was no heat in the adjoining walkway; the arctic cold bit like frigid metal.

“Dag didn’t want me to, but I’m here anyway.  He doesn’t mean anything, Jean.  He’s entirely different when he’s sober.  You’ll see, but he does love women – how they feel, how they smell.  Their laughter, their voices.  His first wife was a Swedish model.”

“How do you stand it?”

“I left him, before we came here.  We took this teaching opportunity to give us a new start, but he’s not perfect.”

“Let him know I’m not a flirt.  I don’t want him to stand close to me or put his hands on me.  We’re next door neighbours, that’s all, and he’s not welcomed here.  Let him know that.”

Elise nodded in embarrassment.  “I’ll tell him.  We might not have gotten off on the right foot – the wine and everything.  I had some too, but we’ll be here to support you.”

You have a character, someone you’re getting to know, and as you go deeper into this person’s background – the baggage they carry around and the dreams they hold on to or let go of.  You understand the story that needs to be told.  What voice would your character want you to tell it in?  1st or 3rd person?  If you choose 1st person, you are relinquishing control of your omniscience.  You are allowing your character’s weaknesses and the limitations that come with them to direct the conflict of the story – limitations that will obscure logic and truth.  But maybe your character needs to stumble through their conflicts in order to reach clarity and self-knowledge.  Perhaps you need to let them do this.

Decide if the journey that your character is on is so personal that they don’t want you poking around in their perceptions, in their decision-making, in their memories and dreams.  They want to figure things out in their own way, in their own time.  Let them.  The characters in Catcher in the Rye and The Lovely Bones invite us into their worlds of misplaced needs and deeds.  We accept their limitations and watch them hunt down reality with amateur weapons – weapons we’ve used.  How would 3rd person narration have changed these stories?

Here is 1st person narration from The Drowning of Margaret Hannagh

I crept down the hallway which led to the parlor and grand stairway to the second story.  I stopped and sat on the first step to listen.  Hardly a hair of a moonbeam struck anywhere in the house.  I listened to his soft mumbling upstairs.  Then silence again and snoring and more mumbling.  I ascended to the top, then stopped and looked in the direction the voice was coming from.  He was in the room to the right of the landing.  joan was with him.  I couldn’t smell her perfume as I entered the room.

I could barely make out the white linens on his bed and could not define his form. Proceeding to the bed I had to reach out to touch him, to find the curves of his body.  He was reclined, almost sitting up against pillows.  I could smell rum on his breath.   My fingers had no weight as they moved over him to his face.  I smiled that he was sleeping this way, so I wouldn’t have to try to turn him.  I found the half empty rum bottle and poured some on my face. Soundlessly, I removed the knife and let it hover in front of him.

 I moved close while his dreams pushed worried words through his lips.  I moved the blade like a single strand of silk over his face from beneath his left eye to his jaw and felt the blood drain past my fingers into the sleeve of my dress.

He twitched.  His tongue licked at something moist – perhaps rum, he dreamed.  Then the pain, like war-fire, scattered along his nerves into his brain, until he jolted up.  I could hear him scream out as I ran down the stairway and left through the kitchen, throwing the knife under the table where he wouldn’t think to look. He ran after me; I heard him stumble over the upturned chair and cry out.  

Make everyone fall out of planes first, then explain who they were and why they were there in the first place.”  In the past posts, we’ve been looking at dramtic novel openings and taking readers beyond their control levels.  I read that, “fiction is about stuff that screwed up.”  In real life we try to avoid screw-ups, but a good read throws characters out of planes, off trains, and through window panes.  Be fearless in order to be nasty to people who can only haunt you fictitously – your characters.

First find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.”   I say find out what your hero wants, then don’t give it to him.  Conflict leads to challenges, to fights, to revelations, to more fights, even more revelations and to myriad emotional losses and gains.  Find out what your hero wants, then make him suffer for it.  If your hero suffers, your readers will too.  Then everyone gets to cry on one another’s shoulders.

Here’s an excerpt:

from The Artist

“I’ve been borrowing his strength and so have you.  How do you think you’ve survived your wife’s death?  Where do you think the power came from?”

A sudden terror seized him, as Sandra turned to the old man.  She placed both hands in Rigo’s.  “I’m ready.”
“You can’t do this!” pleaded Joseph.  “Don’t!”

Sandra faced Joseph, “If we don’t do this, he won’t make it home.  It’s time to pay back my loan.”  The artist’s old hands clasped firmly around hers.

Joseph had witnessed exchanges of power before, but never between a dead person who had been kept alive through the energy of a donor’s soul, and now was returning this energy to its rightful owner.  Sandra’s skin greyed; lacerations, clotted with blood, marked her body. Hair fell in clumps on the floor; teeth rotted; nails cracked; breath became foul.  Eyes rolled back, and hands, bruised and eaten by time fell away from the old man’s.

When it was over, he offered words of gratitude and kissed her forehead.  “Thank you.”  He had taken enough strength and purpose to make his return trip home.  He gathered the girl into his arms and rocked her and kissed her again.  “Thank you.  You meant so much to me.” He turned to Joseph. “We’re lucky if we get a second chance.  Her second chance was ten lifetimes of happiness – happiness most people don’t have for even one second.  She knew this day would come.  We’re wasting time.”

“We can’t leave her in here,” cautioned Grayson.

“She’ll be gone soon.”  She started to fade.  “You won’t find her when you come back.”

Jeffrey Archer, UK architect of mystery, builds conflict to last.  “Prose is architecture – not interior decoration,” says Hemingway.  Conflict, the skeleton of fiction, takes us into emotional labyrinths, like the ones Archer constructs from the first to last pages of his novels.  As humans we are conditioned not to hurt or deceive people, but as fiction writers, we have to throw ourselves along with our characters into hurtful, life-threatening nightmares and walk away as if nothing happened.  But does nothing happen?  Perhaps some writers are more committed to hurting and maiming – conflict to last.

“Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on you forehead.”  and  “Writing is not something to be ashamed of, but do it in private, and wash your hands afterwords.”

Here is some architectural conflict from Expatriate Bones:

Leonard stepped out of the shadows behind her and nodded at Peter who stood up and retreated to his seat.  “We have a guest.”

“Hello Jess.”

Turning around she recognized his voice.  “Leonard, what are you doing here?”
He smiled.  “I can’t say I’m here for some cheer, but I can make a toast.”  He found a tumbler and brandy on the sideboard and raised his glass in.  “To old enemies, bad deeds and sad families.”  He apologized for not sharing.  “I can’t have you getting warm and fuzzy when we have so many wicked things to say.”

“What’s going on?”

Leonard smiled smugly.  “History 101.”

“What?”  She looked at the Cardinal who had shrunk into his worn, leather cushion.

“I’m sorry.  He threatened to send someone to hurt you if I didn’t get you here.”

Her voice hardened as she confronted Leonard.  “I thought we exchanged something for my safety.”

“I want Petar to give you a crash course on European history from 1938 to 1950.”

“What’s the point?”

“You need to hear this, Jess.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Your family was there, in the middle of the carnage, the mania, the rapture.”

She turned to the Cardinal.  “You don’t have to say a thing.”

“We have to play his game.”

Leonard poured more brandy and brought his tumbler and gun to his chair.  “You need to hear the truth about who you are, who your grandparents were.  What kind of blood’s running through your veins.  The good Father, here, this pious Cardinal plays an important role.”

“I’m in the dark as much as you are.”

“You won’t be for long.  Both of you are my students.”

“Where do you want me to begin?”

“1940.  Borgotara, Italy.  The training camp under Ante Pavelic.  You were fifteen.  Don’t skip a single second.  Jess has a right to know.”

Expatriate Bones

From the Austin Del Rio Files

Montreal.  Winter.  2002.

The investigation of a murdered university student leads Detective Austin Del Rio of the Montreal PD into the crossfire of a bounty hunter’s revenge and a war crime cover-up.

Christine Duma, a med student at McGill University is stalked and murdered because of indicting evidence of an execution she saw.  Minutes before her murder she passes the evidence to Jess Salem, an unsuspecting passenger at a Metro station who thinks the Duma woman is street-broken and watches her terrified face disappear in the rush hour crowd.

Detective Del Rio’s investigation of the Duma murder leads him to Leonard Marsland, a war crimes bounty hunter who has spent a lifetime stripping the power behind sheep’s clothing from the men responsible for murdering his family.  Marsland has planned a serial extermination of three remaining targets on his list.

When Jess Salem becomes an innocent victim of Marsland’s vengeance she teams up with Detective Del Rio and together they fall into an intricate power play until all parties discover what Marsland thought he’d never find – a lost history of tell-tale bones still wearing trinkets and keepsakes of love in the catacombs of Notre Dame Basilica.

Expatriate Bones, a multi-layered mystery reminds us that every decade has its crimes of passion, its brutal revenge-seekers, its hidden corpses wanting history to remember them.  And we do.

Dramatic openings and plot beginnings can be ripe with conflict – edgy, reactive.   Conflict is synonymous with plot; plot is the series of explosive conflicts that escalate, get resolved, then reignite.

“Conflict bulds character; crisis defines it.”

“Conflict shocks us out of sheep-like passivity and sets us at contriving.”

Conflict is inevitable; combat is optional.”

The first paragraph can be edgy and reactive.  It can take the reader into an explosive situation on any level to shock both the character and the reader out of passivity.

1

The logger in army fatigues had claimed a patch of virgin forest by the Mattagami River, north of Timmins, that had not been harvested, and had no signs of intruders wandering into his illegal operation.  It was on the third day, when he felled a virgin pine and started delimbing her, that his chainsaw exposed a body tied to a branch and crushed under its weight.  It was a girl.  He had hauled away the wood from the previous two days, but on that third day, he left the harvest and the girl, like a mangled, Andean condor, wings snapped and entwined in the graveyard of bark.   When he covered his tracks and was safely away, he sent an anonymous letter to the police in Timmins.

Like real life, conflict is inevitable in fiction, and combat is not an option – it is necessary in fiction to harvest plot and character.  In the excerpt above, the dramatic opening (the discovery of a dead body) begins the conflict and demands a war.

Start your novel anyway you want to, but ask yourself if your opening absorbs you or hypnotizes you as if you were watching it in a movie theatre.  Here are two openings inspired by the illustration:  It was raining when she opened the door, and the dampness curled around and under the burnt remnants of the fire.  She had taken her chances with this one, but if the rain had been a day early, she would have missed…

It was unexpected – a singular bolt of red lightening, like a neon claw severing the landscape around him.  When he slipped under the cracked timber by the swollen river, he knew it had come for him. 

What is the dramatic impact of each of these openings?  How could they be more intense?

Plot talking with Meg

 

Hi Everyone,

So many friends and colleagues have started novels, but get frustrated with plot development.  Because I write suspense/mystery, I’m constantly thinking of danger – dangerous conflicts my characters get themselves into, but you don’t have to write mysteries to have the element of danger in your plots.

Whatever drives your characters beyond their comfort levels is dangerous to their security.   Danger – emotional, psychological, paranormal, physical, spiritual – drives your plot forward, backward, and sideways.

If your characters experience danger, whether it motivates them to become stronger or weaker, your readers will too.  That’s why we read:  to be thrown into that delicate balance between danger and release.  Danger presents a threat to security, which sparks intense negotiations, which lead to self-enlightenment or self-loathing, and the reader is along for the ride.

An agoraphobic weather reporter, opening his front door for the first time in two years can walk a reader into the face of danger just as horrifically as can an undertrained gladiator facing his first kill.

Think danger and your plot won’t let you go.

Plot talking with Meg