Seeing Red

In the process of assembling a plot-driven book, an author tries to build one plot event on top of the other. This process of accretion coincides with the reader’s growing involvement with the lead characters. The plot part is rational, the character part is passion-driven. You can make logical decisions about plotting that have effects whose emotional power soars off the charts.

First, the rational part. In most cases, you can cold-bloodedly lay out a scenario in which plot events are ever more consequential. This can be done whether the sequence is linear or the story jumps around in time. You know, for instance, that breaking in a door has more dramatic weight than scratching at the door, and so the break-in should come later in the book.  

What tends to be less skillfully done is lining up these events in such a way that they carry increased emotional import. That requires braiding plot events within a narrowing funnel that concentrates increasingly on your main characters. The most chilling plot event is the death of your protagonist. That’s the one the reader has been following all through the book. If that isn’t possible, or you think such a step would feel false, pick his best friend as the fall guy. If someone near and dear to the reader is slain, she will be so angry at the villain(s) that she will be seeing red all the way through the climax section.

Right plot event, assigned to the right character. How do you build toward that in a way that will make the death matter? You have to start preparing from the character’s very first scene for the later death. What attribute does Esther possess that makes her prone to being killed? This doesn’t have to be a tragic flaw, per se, but if she makes a series of rash decisions during the course of the book, her last one could be fatal.

The key factor here is the amount of coverage given to the slain character. A reader’s involvement with the character increases each time he appears. If he has a close relationship with the hero, the reader will feel the echoes of a close friendship she has in real life. What if someone shot your best friend? What is the difference in emotion between someone you see every weekend and someone, although close in the past, you haven’t seen in years? That’s why coverage is so important.

Exercise: If you want the climax sequence to ride on a tide of hot emotion, first pick the character to be killed. Work backward from that scene, usually placed at the three-quarters mark in the novel. Look to see how many scenes she participates in actively, and increase them as you approach the murder.

“The thing should have plot and character, beginning, middle and end. Arouse pity and then have a catharsis. Those were the best principles I was ever taught.”
—Anne Rice

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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