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


Adding Plot Elements

Have you ever thought of a cool idea for your novel only after you’ve completed a substantial portion of it? You are hardly alone. Because the story is an amorphous blob when you start it, you will likely make discoveries along the way about what would improve it. The trick is to integrate the new material into the existing text so that all feels like a seamless whole.

A first guideline to consider is: no event of any magnitude stands in isolation. You can’t merely insert the new piece you’ve written—let’s assume it’s a clue that points to a new killer (for a better twist)—in the designated spot and leave it at that. Each plot event has reverberations that are determined by you. The more ripples you create, the bigger the potential payoff later.

The second recommendation is: don’t bunch up all the inserts. This is one of the most consistent errors I see as an editor. An author inserts a new event, and then sprinkles the immediate aftermath. The problem is, the reader will still be following the entire slate of competing events in the future pages. So even with such buttressing, the reader may barely remember the new event by the end. 

You’re better off going a third way. Keep finding places for the key character associated with the event to show up. This tactic can be accomplished through a variety of means. You can look for those scenes where the character appears already, and then recast them subtly to reflect the effect the new event would have on him. Inserting new thoughts can provide solid shading in your chosen direction.

You can also draw up a list of knock-on effects and look for places to insert them. In the prior example of a new twist, you might want to portray the long-range effect that committing murder has on the character, such as feeling increasingly rotten. If you assign a different ostensible reason for feeling low, such as the character’s being a hypochondriac, the reader won’t know the true reason.

A third effective device is increasing the frequency of the character’s appearances prior to pulling off the twist. This device focuses the reader’s attention as you are piling together the forces that will make the revelation count. You are being systematic, but the reader doesn't know that.

Exercise: One surprisingly effective trick is simple substitution of one character for another in already written scenes. Say, you have a minor character now in a scene. How hard would it be for you to swap her out and put in the character you want to highlight more? Sure, you’ll have to recast the scene slightly, but how hard it that really?

“One has to be able to twist and change and distort characters, play with them like clay, so everything fits together. Real people don't permit you to do that.” 
—Peter Carey

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Unable to Braid

Any novel is a puzzle whose pieces only gradually fall into place. When these pieces consist mainly of bits of plot, an author runs the risk of not devising enough of them to keep the reader intrigued about what comes next. That’s one reason that subplots are so common. Not only does it afford the author more pieces, but the very act of switching back and forth keeps readers off balance.

In the mystery genre, the different plot strands are supposed to intertwine by the end. For instance, the reader thinks that Hoss is merely having trouble with his gym, but it turns out the gym owners are running a scam that is broken open by his wife, Leslie. While writers not as bound by conventions can allow their plot threads to wander further apart, what happens when they become too dissimilar?

Let’s extend the example above. Same Hoss and Leslie, same plot lines. Hoss gets more and more angry at the gym owner about his lousy equipment. Leslie narrows in on the culprits of a drug deal that has gone murderously wrong. If the two plots continue to show no correlation, I’ll start to wonder: why am I reading about Hoss and the creaky punching bag while Leslie is pulling a gun on a shady lawyer? The author is setting up competing plot lines, and in that case I’m going to start skimming the less interesting one.

A greater problem arises when a main character wanders for too long in an endeavor unrelated to the main plot. It’s admirable, for instance, that Hoss was 101st Airborne, but if he spends too much time helping out a buddy at Fort Bragg, I’ll start to wonder: how is the author going to tie this in with the crime that is engaging the efforts of all of his other characters? The protagonist is divorced from his own book.

An author does have the right to do whatever she wants in the name of artistic expression. I will point out, though, that a reader may feel dissatisfied by the dissonance. The plots don't have to be tied up neatly in a bow. The bad guys don’t have to be punished. The questions the novel raises don’t have to be answered. But I don't want to feel that the reading experience is random. If I want that, I don’t have to read a book. I’ll just walk down the street.

Exercise: When you are picking out possible subplots, it’s useful to think in terms of support. How are the supporting players, such as one helming a subplot, supporting the protagonist? The means can be indirect, or the plots may run on parallel lines, but by the end of both, the reader shouldn’t feel she was reading two different books.

“No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”
—W. H. Auden

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Blocking Out Initial Places

A common problem inexperienced authors have stems from their lack of thinking through where their characters should be positioned at the start of the book. Life before novel might as well be a tabula rasa—before the Lord created Time. Or perhaps a better analogy is a marionette that only takes shape when the author decides to pick her up and make her dance.

Think about it: your characters have lived for a number of years before the curtain rises. Most authors recognize that fact, and provide back stories—narrative summaries that convey key events in their past. Yet I am often surprised by how poorly positioned the characters are to enact or react to the plot’s events.

A vital first step in novel planning is initial positioning. In other words, what are the relationships of the main characters status quo ante (before the book begins)? What I usually find is that the author knows where the plot begins. A signal event occurs, and the story is set in motion. Yet stop to consider what contributes to a novel’s tension besides the galvanizing plot event. It’s the friction between characters. You don’t have to wait for a plot to develop to foment that friction.

Given your plot, what would be the best positions for your main characters as the book opens? What antagonistic event happened two weeks before it started? Two days before it started? Look at all of your 5-6 major characters. Could you set up each one so that their very first scene has a crackling edge?

When you sketch out these pre-book events—or better yet, write them—you create a matrix of facts that you then can refer to in an early scene. If Mason is angry because he was fired unfairly a week before the book begins, all he has to do is say, “Someone should have told that to my jerkoff boss before he fired my ass,” and the reader understands the feeling immediately. We all have had similar disappointments. You can always supply the context of the firing later on. But its main purpose has been achieved: it interests us in Mason right away.

Exercise: Check the first scenes of all of your major characters. Is everything hunky-dory at the beginning? Why would that be interesting to the reader? Make up reasons why, for instance, a couple is not getting along. Could their marriage be strained by the worst fight in a series of fights about how much the husband travels for work? Could the wife be yearning for something beyond the monotony of Friday night sex?

“Often I'll find clues to where the story might go by figuring out where the characters would rather not go.”
—Doug Lawson

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Bouncing Through Time

Novel writing belongs in a peculiar province of thought. When a person sits down to write, he is making up stuff about other people. The writer must suspend his own belief in reality, and in turn compose a story that is realistic enough for others to suspend their beliefs. When viewed in this way, it is not surprising that an author can fail to make a strong connection between what he would do in normal life and what his characters do.

This chasm yawns open particularly in the realm of a character’s private affairs. Let’s say you are writing about a young woman who becomes one of the first nurses under Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. She had a career in nursing that spanned four decades. Excited by what you’ve found about her activities during the Civil War, then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and all the way to the Spanish-American War of 1898, you imagine a devoted assistant that is your main character. As her boss attends to the next international crisis, along goes your heroine. You find plenty of research on every one, providing numerous gripping scenes of saving the stricken.

Now let’s turn to her private life. If she’s going to all those places, she likely has little of it. She’s too busy doing the 19th-century equivalent of jetting to all these locales. So, given that arrangement, how is the character going to reach a dramatic turning point? What would the turning point be? She decides to quit nursing? I suppose you can make that emotionally satisfying—the yellow fever epidemic was the last straw!— but it seems pretty dry.

The problem with any novel that jumps through time is that we don’t live our lives that way. If I jumped five years ahead in a page, I would have trouble remembering what bothered me so much back then. I’m not even talking about all of the significant events that have occurred in those five years, which have impacted a number of people near and dear to me. At the flick of a pen, all of that continuity is sundered. In effect, it all has been rendered meaningless. I’m telling the reader I didn’t think writing about the events during those five years was worth the bother.

The difference between an engaging concept and a deeply wrought novel is the level of abstraction. That nurse starts out there, a figment of the imagination, but by the end she needs to reside inside your heart. You have to bend time to suit her, not the other way around.

Exercise: One exception would be a novel that is personally front-loaded. By that I mean that you lay a foundation of relationships to which the wandering hero returns periodically through the novel. Such snapshots could show over the course of decades how much the one who left home has lost.

“A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that's the time that seems long in the memory.”
—John Steinbeck

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Connective Threads

When many authors are requested to add interior monologues for a major character, they tend to panic. The person giving the advice may make an innocent suggestion like “Pick up a great novel you like, or one you just read. Study how that author does it.” That’s fine until you actually start reading. Then you realize that the reason you like the novel is because the character can ramble on about their private thoughts for pages at a time. When well written, an entire book can be an interior monologue. So how in the world are you supposed to do that?

Luckily, the goal of achieving penetration into a main character can be accomplished on a number of levels. The one I’d like to discuss today is simple to insert and surprisingly effective. It is the memory of a previous incident inside the book. For illustrative purposes let’s say: Lenny sees a black-and-blue mark on the back of Nathalie’s arm. He asks her about it and she finally admits her husband, Arthur, is sometimes too rough with her. The first thought to be inserted might come naturally to you. Lenny reacts immediately to this information: That’s terrible. Arthur must be a cruel man. This immediate reaction then becomes the foundation of the later remembered thoughts.

In order for the method to work, the first memory needs to be separated from the incident by a run of pages. One good place is at the beginning of the next chapter. Lenny is driving with Nathalie, and he glances over surreptitiously to check if he can see the bruise. He remembers when she told him and that initial reaction. Right away you are drawing the reader deeper into the narrative. The reader was engaged in the other stuff you wrote after the incident; the bruise was pushed to the back of his mind. By reminding him, you are interlinking two pieces of your narrative.

The next bead on this string might occur 50 pages later. Lenny meets the husband, maybe during a chance encounter while Nathalie is grocery shopping. No matter what Arthur says, Lenny remembers: this guy beats up his wife. As a reader, by now I don’t care what that guy says, either. I want to find out what Lenny is going to say, knowing that about the guy. I’m involved, because Lenny reminded me how he is going to react. Again, further penetration. A simple memory can cause the reader to anticipate. She is inside Lenny’s head.

A modification of this technique can be achieved by layering new information on top of the memory. Another 50 pages later, Lenny notices that Nathalie is downcast. She admits that because she has been spending so much time with Lenny lately, Arthur went into a jealous rage. That’s all she says; she’s too ashamed to tell any more. But Lenny, because he remembers, jumps to conclusions. He imagines what happened in that house last night. He’s looking carefully at Nathalie to spot any more bruises. He wells up with anger inside because he’d like to march over to the house and tell Arthur to pick on someone his own size. All of this run of interior thinking stems from a simple mark on the back of Nathalie’s arm. By continuing to remember it, you can make it the basis for your protagonist’s ongoing interior reactions.

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”
—Douglas Adams

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.