Basic Plotting (Part 3)

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. An editor’s perspective.

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Plotting (Part 3): It’s all about the drama, dahlings.

Books and blogs about “plotting a novel” are as ubiquitous as leaves on a summer tree. I suspect some of these efforts are actually very good. Others? Not so much. That being said, let me cut to the chase. Good plotting can be explained in one word: Drama.

Yup. Drama. It’s all about the drama, dahlings. That’s the secret ingredient; the single most important element of successful fiction. Writing a book that’s lacking dramatic impact? It probably won’t (IMHO) sell.

And don’t confuse drama as “some little ruckus” that one sprinkles sporadically around a story. Drama isn’t a garnish. Nor is it specifically reserved for those dark, thunderous Shakespearean epics where witches cackle, swords clash and treachery abounds. Drama is a constant that should infuse every fictive work. That should be a rule—and so now it is! Rule #27. Make drama your novel’s constant companion. It lurks upon every page—either undulating or overwhelming—ready to spring or having already sprung, hiding, panting, waiting to lunge again. Waiting to snatch away banality. To consume normality.

And yet, don’t confuse drama with impending tragedy. Yes, a tragic tale is fraught with drama. A child’s death, a war, an emotional breakdown, a marital conflict… all dramatic, fictive situations that a writer can utilize to build a story. But what about light-hearted romance? What about comedy? Realize that every romantic tale is laden with great gobs of interpersonal drama. And comedy, even slapstick comedy, is simply drama interpreted through a playful or joyous lens. But it’s still about drama, first and foremost.

Don’t believe so? Think of any comedic film. (I’ve discovered that remembering a film sequence is far easier than remembering a specific snippet from a book. And easier to dissect as well.) For instance: Notting Hill. Lovely romantic comedy—and filled with drama. The Holiday? Filled with drama. Annie Hall? Filled with drama. Wedding Crashers? The Princess Bride? It’s a Wonderful Life? The Hangover? Drama. Drama. Drama. And drama. Remember Finding Nemo? The little guy loses his mother and 99% of his siblings. Gets lost at sea. Almost eaten by a shark. Captured and confined to an aquarium. Makes a daring escape. It’s funny—but it’s also constant drama!

Groucho Marx once said,“Comedy is when you slip on a banana peel. Tragedy is when I slip on a banana peel.” And yet both banana-based scenarios contain drama—both genres must provide a continual tool bag of genre-specific dramatic moments to survive, and to thrive in its fictive form.

Refer again to Rule #8, which states, in part: Keep your characters moving. You’re either pushing characters toward drama or pulling them away again.

I can’t really give a writer much additional structural information on basic plotting. Have an idea? Play with it! Test it! My personal belief has always been: write what you feel, write what you want. (So long as it’s dramatic, of course.)

And do understand that dramatic plotting isn’t always about remarkable external circumstances, about drooling zombies or horrific wars or big ships slowly sinking. Good plotting is also about (and sometimes only about) great character development. (Check out: The Madness of King George. Or Before Sunrise. Or Pride and Prejudice. Beautiful films, with stories predominately carried by superb dialog.) I’ve often said that if you lock two interesting people in a closet and give them great, dramatic dialog, I’d rather read that book than about all the Transformers in the world.

So, yeah, successful plotting is a combination of great dialog, great timing, great suspense (comedic or tragic) and certainly great writing in general. Good drama is larger than life. Deeper than reality. Great plotting is the result of daydreaming that begins with a single, simple “what if?” concept.

Another secret ingredient: Daydreaming.

Another word or two about “creative dreaming.” (More about creative daydreaming in Plotting: Part 1.) Remember when people (probably your parents, your teachers) told you that daydreaming was a waste of time? Well, don’t believe them. Daydreams have their place in the creative brain. If you’re a novelist, daydreams have a crucial, creative role to play. Every daydream is a potential novel.

Think not? Pick a daydream. Any daydream. A friend once told me; “I sit in front of a monitor 8 hours a day and crunch numbers and hammer out Excel spreadsheets. There I sit, day after day, thinking about running through a sun-drenched field filled with wildflowers.” That’s it. That’s her daydream. Doesn’t seem like much, does it? But what happens when that particular daydream belongs to a writer? Sooner or later that flowered field is going to lead me toward…? Maybe a dark, encroaching forest? Over a rickety bridge laden with cackling crows? In the distance, might I glimpse the crumbling spires of a deserted castle? A forgotten cemetery? A cave deep beneath a massive granite outcropping?

Any writer worth their salt will, of course, move forward for a closer look. Am I simply out for a stroll? Perhaps. Or am I searching for someone? Running away from something? Sounds like a more potential dramatic scenario, right? (Because I can also build a plot backwards as well as forward!) As I push my way through the tangles of underbrush, maybe I come upon a forgotten, weed-choked mansion, hundreds of years old. Intriguing. Broken windows. A shattered doorway. After a few moments of exploring, I hear a child crying from somewhere deep inside….

Or, perhaps I hear the faint echo of a woman laughing. Or the sound of a gunshot. Or an ominous growl. And at that point, my daydream has officially become a plot concept. Maybe not one I write down (yet), but one I might consider. Where do I go from there? Can I transfer that same curiosity, that same excitement, to the page? Can I find a sufficient creative flow to ask-and-answer these same “what if?” scenarios for another few hundred pages?

Basically, that’s how a book starts. Frankly, that’s how it ends too—a constant stream of carefully sequenced daydreams that the writer weaves together, page after after page. Oh, and while keeping up the story’s dramatic impact at every possible moment!

And, because it’s important enough to say again, here it is! Rule #27: Don’t confuse drama as “some little ruckus” that one sprinkles sporadically around a story. Drama isn’t a garnish. Drama is your story’s constant companion.
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Finding Your Voice (Part 2)

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. An editor’s perspective.

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Finding Your Voice (Part 2): Do your characters speak to you?

This one gets a little deep, so buckle in. To briefly recap: finding your writer’s voice is a combination of discovering your personality as a writer (See: Finding Your Voice. Part 1) and finding your characters’ fictional personalities. And the best way to discover those fictive voices? Listen.

So, basically, Rule #13 is: Shut up and let your characters tell their own stories. (And in doing so, you’ll discover your voice.)

Crazy, right? It’s a little like channeling Elvis.

As a fiction editor, I can discern—usually within a page or two—whether I’m listening to the writer speak or if I’m listening to the characters tell their own story. And I don’t want the writer’s version of what’s going down, I want the characters revealing themselves. You? You’re just the conduit.

Not that your characters should completely dominate their own fates. The writer’s job is all about forward momentum. Herd these people inside your head—some who may be obstinate, others cranky, some loving, others lazy—incessantly forward. Push that plot dramatically onward. You’re creating a road map from here-to-there, filled with tension and pathos (or emotion or zany humor) and profundity (or frivolity). And each character has an obligation to remain in the confines of the parameters you set.

How do you know that your characters are speaking their minds? Here’s a test. Visualize this hypothetical novel: You’re writing a happy/sad tale about four friends, all very different people from a variety of backgrounds, and each trying to live a life to its fullest.

It’s what I call The Lobster Bisque Variant. Picture these four characters sitting in a restaurant, enjoying the moment. Juan’s a middle-aged Hispanic blue-collar pipe-fitter, Andrea’s a 35-year old airline pilot, Zane is a young black Broadway dancer and Rosanna’s an old Italian grandmother. A waiter comes by and—visualize, in turn, four variations of the following incident—accidentally spills a bowl of lobster bisque in each of their laps. Juan gets the lapful in Version #1, Andrea gets souped in Version #2… and so on. Now, as a writer, describe their reactions.

If your results are:

Version 1/Juan: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 2/Andrea: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 3/Zane: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 4/Rosanna: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”

…then, guess what? You’re not listening to your characters, to the nuance of their unique personalities. You’re listening to yourself, confined to your own theoretical reaction. Ultimately, your characters may become little more than mini-you’s, clones of your boxed-in subconscious, and cookie-cutters of each other. Most readers will quickly detect such similarity, such ambiguity, and most likely find them (and eventually your story) flat and unappealing.

However, by discovering their various reactions to a wet lap can help determine each character’s emotional core. If you like what you hear, then continue (metaphorically, of course) to pour bisque in their laps every so often, careful to interpret and maintain the integrity of their distinct voices. 

When they speak to you, through you (and, believe me, they will) be aware of their cadence and vocabulary and motivation. A great novel, after all, isn’t about plot—it’s about people.

And so… voice? It’s partly your storytelling ability. And partly about each character’s unique emotional energy. Strip away voice and whatever’s left—however realistic, however meticulously constructed—feels dry, lifeless, vacant. He did this, she did that. I went here. I went there. A house on Main Street. It rained. John loved Mary.

Instead, allow your characters to reveal the passion that burns inside their souls. Give them sufficient room, sufficient stage time, to become real to both you and your readers.
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