4.18.2017

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






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