6.28.2016

The End Determines the Means

The process of building a novel layer by layer is harder than it might seem. I regularly review books in which the author ramps up the tension toward a bang-up ending, but as a reader I’m not that energized to see how everything turns out. Sometimes the characters involved in the climax have dropped out of the book for a while. Sometimes they reached a high point earlier on, but by the time the climax sequence starts, they’ve been drifting for a while, waiting for the hero to get done with other necessary business before he turns in their direction. I’m not engaged with them because, frankly, the author has shuttled them off to the side.

How do you build a story so that the climax has the reader sitting on the edge of her seat? One useful technique is starting from the end of a draft and working backward. What is your high point for a character arc? Let’s say you have a black widow, with three husbands dead in mysterious circumstances, who tries to seduce the hero from the very beginning of their relationship and will seduce him finally in the climax. How do you get from the one point to the other in a way that keeps building?

You work backward. In the end, let’s say she ties him up and lays him on a pool table, ready to plunge a syringe into him. Okay, nice about that. I could get tensed up about that. Now look at what she was doing in the scene prior to that. She was at the hardware store, buying the rope. Okay, that produces what I call anticipatory tension. What about the scene before that? Oh, she’s milling around the bad guys’ mansion, not performing. Meanwhile, the hero is busy—trying to slip onto the grounds outside. What is the effect on the reader? While she’s waiting around, I’m losing interest in her. If the hero is otherwise occupied, she has to have things to do on another front. Better yet, she needs to be taking active steps that will combat the inroads that the hero is making on the villainous operation.

Part of making her more vital is clearing the deck of other characters—focusing on her. More to the point, though, is looking back to the beginning and examining what she was doing when she met the hero. How can you build scenes from that starting point? Or, if you do have a good run of scenes that continue to build sexual tension for a while, where does she run out of gas and go into a holding pattern? Could she be assigned other nefarious duties as part of the villainous operation? In other words, seduction is good. Deception is good. Are those qualities going to be enough, however, to sustain her all the way through the book? If not, you have to buttress her role with other activities, such as building a scam to defraud a partner in evil. You can best decide how to do that by viewing all that you have built and working backward.

Exercise: Focus on a single character and put that name at the top of a chart. At the top of the first column, write #—the chapter numbers where he appears. In the next column, write down Pages—which pages that scene occupies (e.g., 43-48). In a wide third column, write Synopsis—you’re going to summarize in a few sentences what the character does in that scene. Now start at the bottom—say, row 20. Work your way back from the end of the novel and see, in reverse, how you have built that character arc. You’ll be surprised at where you are failing that character. Now give him something to do all the way through.

“Never confuse movement with action.”
—Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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