Hugging a Stranger

Cocooned in a study, a writer spins out plot skeins that lead where they will. When a piece of action is needed, a suitable character has to be chosen. A familiar acquaintance may come to mind, and the author smiles, remembering some personal details that will tickle the reader. A half page or page emerges of telling insight into . . . who is this person, again?

“Be here now” is a useful philosophy for living your life, but it does not work so well in writing novels. In the grand scheme of hundreds of pages, continuity is far more valuable. That’s because writing is experienced sentence by sentence. Reading, by contrast, is experienced page by page, even chapter by chapter.

On this larger scale, the desire to access a character’s inner secrets has to be earned. First, a character is introduced. He performs a deed that captures our interest. In other words, he is serving a plot function. The more interesting things he does, the more the reader wants to learn who he is inside.

This progression does not exist in isolation. It occurs in the context of the other characters the reader is keeping track of. If you have devoted 50 of the first 75 pages to Jill, for instance, my natural inclination as a reader is to stick with Jill. She’s the one I’ve gotten to know and, if the writer is doing her job, the one whose darkest secrets I want to discover.

So this newcomer, call her Robin, may be a hoot, but I don’t necessarily want to know her intimate secrets just yet. Without a context set up beforehand, I don’t know how to judge those secrets. Am I being told this is a one-time deal, or is her personality ruled by this aberration?

In effect, you’ve wasted that great insight. As a reader, I’m feeling squeamish about being told more than I wanted to know about someone I don’t know yet. You’re better off waiting until that character’s fifth scene, or however long it takes for the character to become a featured player. By then he will matter more to me. As my level of comfort grows, I’ll want to be let in on that little secret of his. And then I’ll smile too.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out only for that character’s scenes. Write down when she appears (the page numbers) and how long each appearance lasts. By her fifth scene, has the total number of pages of coverage reached maybe 20-25? Now look at the secret. Is it time yet for the level of confidence you’re divulging?

“Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.”
—James Joyce

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Class Innovation

An author’s search for distinctive characters is limited by her experience. The set includes people she’s known personally as well as mythic characters, like those in movies, with whom she identifies. Because many authors are introspective, they often want to reach beyond their boring friends for that archetypal maverick. Sort of like Katniss, goes the thinking.

If you stop to think for a second, though, what defines distinctive? A character that stands out from the crowd. But what crowd do the other characters move in? Maybe you’re writing about young techs in the city. That’s different from a mom trying to break free of the garden club set. Depending on the typical crowd, your chosen character could merely be plucked out of another crowd.

British TV writers know the Upstairs/Downstairs formula well. What better choice of a person to break the rules than someone who does not know the rules, or finds the rules stupid? The greater the contrast in class, the more dichotomy is created. Plus, you have instant tension: will the character bend the social mores to his liking, or will they corral him?

Such contrasts are hardly limited to aristocratic Europe. A young woman in Compton need commute only a half hour to land on an Orange County golf course. White trash outside Atlanta can travel a few highways and work in a white glove mansion. Given the vast disparities in wealth that occur in cities all over the U.S., you can tailor class clash to any region you choose.

People learn to get along. We all try to fit in. Whether that dynamic greases the skids to triumph or tragedy doesn’t matter. You’re no longer straining to make the hero exceptional. You’re pitting human strivings that you know very well against each other.

Exercise: If you reach for a stereotype, though, you might as well forget the endeavor altogether. All young women from X do not act like X. You wouldn’t write that way about your other characters. The character you choose has to be charismatic in her own right. How is she going to open the eyes of the rich set if all she does is steal their silverware?

“When red-headed people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Shifting Gears Too Fast

Most authors know that a novel should contain a series of obstacles the protagonist must overcome. These obstacles gain greater meaning if they are placed in context, including the relationships of the affected characters and their backgrounds. A major factor that affects the balance between plot and context is chronology. When should the story forge into the future, and when should it delve into the past?

A novel has a starting and ending point, yet an author may choose to begin somewhere in the middle. Let’s use the dissolution of a marriage as an example. While you can open the book when the couple first met, that starts the story off on the wrong foot. That's when they're happy together. To show the dissolution, a novel would better open at the point one partner first suspects the other is having an affair. That could be one year, five years, twenty years into the marriage. The bloom is off the rose.

If that point in time is chosen, the question then becomes: how long should you stick with the immediate crisis before providing the context? After all, couples break up all the time, so you have to define why the reader should care about your couple. That requires background. If you jump back in time too fast, though, you may not have added up enough present-time issues to make the present crisis gripping.

Several methods of flipping back and forth in time can be used. The more standard one sets up a present issue, then goes back in time to record the couple’s history in an extended run from start to the present. The more difficult feat is jumping back and forth more frequently, creating juxtaposition. No matter which is chosen, however, you still have to give the reader enough reason to care about the crisis that opened the book. The sole exception is a murder—the end point of a novel that dwells in the past.

In most cases, length of coverage determines reader interest in an obstacle. If you spend five pages narrating the present problem, then jump back in time for 20 pages to cover the course of the marriage, think of how that affects the reader. You’re trading a brief spurt of immediacy for four times that amount of background. Is your reader going to wait that long?

Exercise: You’re better off setting a target at the beginning: go 30 pages, maybe 50 in the present. That length forces you to plunge into the opening crisis to a depth that will truly draw the reader into the book. We can meet a few key players, get a sense of how they rub each other the wrong way. Once you establish the promise of plenty of friction to come, now let’s find out how they got there.

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”
—Willa Cather

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.