10.06.2016

Villain Without a Cause

The gossamer webs that you construct in your mind while writing a book hold your intentions for later story developments. These elusive thoughts can surge into your consciousness unexpectedly, demanding to be written down. That’s why you may write pieces out of chronological sequence. It causes you, while reviewing an unrelated piece on page 117, to suddenly flip back to page 46 and resolve an issue that has been glinting in the back of your mind.

Given the unpredictable nature of your writing impulses, it is not surprising that authors sometimes jump ahead of their story. You may know all of the plot steps that a hero will take, and as a result you have your antagonist react to pressure that the hero has not yet brought to bear. Just because Detective Henry appears at a crime scene, for instance, his knowledge of the perpetrator is not a given—except in the author’s mind. Henry hopefully goes through a series of interesting steps to arrive merely at a place where he can start to make educated guesses.

Another plot casualty of your gossamer webs is what might be called inter-character knowledge. Because Maddie knows that her mother is having an affair, the author conflates that private information into the mother’s impugning at the dinner table Maddie’s own fidelity to her husband. How did the mother know to do that? Is she gifted with ESP?

With plotting you must become a tactician. You must rate the steps that the protagonist takes in terms of threat level to the villain. Moreover, you must somehow make the villain aware that steps are being taken. If Henry interviews the brother of the villain, the two are likely to talk. The antagonist now has cause to react. Yet even at this point you need to calibrate the response. How close is Henry to knowing what happened? Even if Henry hazards a correct guess, what evidence can he bring to the district attorney that will stand up in court?

You cannot allow the vague impulses in your mind to transmute into laziness. If you are pushing markers forward, you must do the hard work of working out the different consequences. The reader is expecting you to be clever about the real-world implications of plot action. That means that the reaction to action always stays within a reasonable range.

Exercise: As your story unspools onto paper, you might want to apply the unsounded depths of your mind to the characters’ thoughts. In other words, you don’t have to give up its quirky magic. You direct it toward a realm that mirrors your own thought processes. People do think in unexpected ways that lead to wonderful surprises.

“Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.”
—Samuel Butler

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine



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