Inflamed Beyond Reason

Keeping a plot from being predictable is one of a novelist’s most important jobs. The more fiendish among the fraternity scheme to produce an unending series of twists. The more logical allocate clues on a revolving basis to suspects. Yet if plotting isn’t your strength, you can use character attributes to keep the reader off balance.

I’m not talking about an untrustworthy narrator, which is a complicated narrative task all on its own. I mean character flaws. If a character has one, you can use it in a progressive fashion, building it to unreasonable heights. A villain can harp on it, count on it to produce the aim he wishes.

If you need possible ideas, you can start with the seven deadly sins. The leader among them, pride, has plenty of useful variants. A common modern trait, for instance, is the inability to back down. With the imperatives of Christian morality overthrown on a widespread basis, everyone has a right to insist on her opinion. The mounting of hubris based on such stubbornness can produce an irrevocable line that cannot be recrossed, even early in the novel.

One of the most effective flaws, ever since the days of Othello, has been jealousy. In the modern era, when women are no longer confined to the hearth, the opportunities for this trait have grown. A woman often partners with a man on an office project, for example, or on company travel. A man can develop a bond with a female colleague so close that it rivals marriage. So a villain who drops an evil word into the ear of a spouse has plenty of means to taint what is aboveboard. That poisoned character can be enraged beyond the point of reason—entailing an unpredictable fallout.

No matter which flaw is chosen, it gives the author an opportunity to focus on a target. Rather than having to build a succession of plot events, he need only decide such issues as: what would tip off the behavior, what could a villain do to lead him astray step by step, when does the character realize the folly of his ways, etc. Perhaps this is not the most organic way to characterization, but really, doesn’t every author set out parameters for the roles she wants for her players? Why not make yours useful?

Exercise: A character flaw works best when it impacts other people. You can have plenty of internal wrangling, but a reader gasps only when the flaw is displayed in public. So in addition to devising how the flaw will affect the character, consider which other key characters the flaw is going to impact most. You may find, even with two of them, that sketches for a dozen scenes pop immediately to mind.

“Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.”

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Back and Forth

Balance was the keyword in my last post, and I’m going to explore the subject again from a different angle. That is the balance between background work and a plot. The line between past and present is always fluid in a novel, because an author frequently needs to reveal a character’s past in order to better inform why he is acting the way he is. This logic extends to larger dimensions as well, such as underlying premises for the plot. So how do you know when you’re visiting the past too much?

To answer that question, I’ll first make a remark about the different types of momentum generated by past and present. A past story already happened. By and large, it does not make the reader look forward in anticipation. The present, on the contrary, is driving toward what will happen. It generates more momentum because the reader does not know how things will play out.

Judged in those terms, the calculation becomes easier. What takes place in the background stories, and what takes place in the present? What I often find is that the back stories, filled with lore, of whatever degree you like, are more exciting. Only in the past can the equivalent of Excalibur be ripped from the stone. The forward-pushing plot, by contrast, can seem dull by comparison. Oh, the river’s too wide? Come on, let’s look for a ford.

Part of the problem is due to how compressed the two types of narrative are. A background story is told in summary fashion, delivered in a tight package that highlights only the good parts. The present is looser, filled with such structural elements as dialogue, in order that the writing is not too tight, keeping the reader at a distance. But let’s flip the coin and consider the narrative summary’s drawback. To achieve its compression, it has to be told from more of a distance. The intimacy of following a character closely is surrendered so that the past is not competing directly with the present.

The reason balance is so vital is because you don’t want a novel too filled with inert, compacted material. Inert because it already happened and compact by the nature of the telling. You need the plot to carry such loads forward. Moreover, you need lots of plot, because each time the reader stops for a back story, the forward momentum has to be geared up all over again.

Exercise: Review the manuscript chapter by chapter. Draw up two lists, side by side: past and present. Summarize in a sentence or two what happens in each chapter. When you’re done, look to see where the juicy stuff is. If there are too many on the past side, you should consider transforming some of them into events that occur in the present.

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
—Virginia Woolf

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Balancing Act

An author cannot be blamed for writing to her strengths. Some excel at drawing thumbnail portraits of characters. Others understand the value of gossip to pull a reader into a story. Some assiduously hunt down interesting details of a hot new subject. Yet the pursuit of what makes your engine rev can also mask a less attractive goal: avoiding what you don’t do well.

For many authors, that weakness is plotting. Thinking up interesting stories, with enough complications and twists to involve a full handful of leading characters, is hard work. The inevitable conflicts you have to write, particularly of the weapon-wielding sort, can feel hackneyed, like a TV script gone wrong. You’re more comfortable, for instance, writing about all the cool stuff people don’t know about fracking. 

Why is plot so essential? One reason is that it provides through-lines, from beginning to end, that hold a novel together. They also allow it to build the drama step by step. That is not true of a character sketch, or incidental gossip, or terrific research. All of these are disparate elements that have no staying power. Indeed, they tend to pull the book in centrifugal directions: a bunch of scattered pieces without a mold.

Regarded in plot terms, they are low-level elements, useful for setting up a subject but not for carrying through on it. I’m interested in rural law enforcement near the Standing Rock protest, for example, but only up to a limited point. If I can’t follow one crazy-ass sheriff who has a vendetta against one Sioux leader, I’m going to lose interest. By page 200, if I’m still reading commentary on how natural gas drillers have added tremendous economic pressure to get the pipeline finished, I’ll be falling asleep in my chair. 

There is a reason they call it storytelling. It consists of setting out your chosen group of players on a stage with certain furniture, and letting them pursue their competing aims. Keep employing your strengths, but balance them with a tale that keeps adding pressure. A building plot can carry lesser elements, but (unless you’re exceptionally gifted with character building) it doesn’t work the other way around. What you’ll find, as you get later in the book, is that the interpersonal conflicts assume their rightful place: front stage center.

Exercise: If you have finished the manuscript, divide it in four quarters—four acts. Your first act should contain most of the setup material, such as research. In each successive quarter, write down how many pages are devoted to incidental setup material and how much to fights among the characters. That ratio should be reversed at least by the third quarter—or your readers will be nodding off.

“It’s my responsibility to find the research. It’s my responsibility to digest it and do the best that I can with it. But at a certain point that responsibility will become an interpretation.”
—Oliver Stone

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.