Poke to Provoke a Reaction

Aligning the plot lines of the good and evil forces in a novel is not as easy as it seems. If you think about the issue from a structural viewpoint, you’ll find that the tracks the protagonist and villain are pursuing often run parallel to each other, and do not necessarily converge. Why is this? The pursuits of the villain usually are far advanced in terms of completion, while the protagonist is a newcomer to the villain’s scheme. That’s one reason why Bond shows up just as the rocket is being launched: he didn’t even know about the party until an hour ago.

If the villain’s conspiracy is large enough, that can pose a dilemma for your plot diagram. Why would he notice a newcomer at all? Assuming that he would is where an author can conflate the two worlds she is straddling. Just because you know what both camps are doing doesn’t mean that either one of them knows. There is no reason, for instance, why a cabal planning to blow up America’s electrical grid should realize that a wind power chief has traced back a ping from the conspiracy’s server.

Because of the unequal progress that each camp has made when the novel begins, the first time they collide is dependent on how close behind the protagonist has come. What was all a puzzling mystery after the first attack, often in the prologue, has become clearer by that point. Yet the protagonist’s growing knowledge of a scheme does not automatically mean that the villain knows that someone has glimpsed behind his curtain.

It’s your job to force the protagonist to make the villain aware of her efforts. Think of the situation from his standpoint. If he assigns some henchmen to take her out, how does he justify that to himself? During the commission of any crime, things can go wrong. Why would he, who knows this maxim better than anyone, take that risk? He has to be prodded to do so.

That means the protagonist must represent a threat to the villain’s scheme. This moves her beyond faint suspicion of the guilty party. It moves her beyond talks with her partner about what she believes is going on. She must upset some part of his operation. In that way she makes that crucial first linkage between the two plot lines.

Exercise: Examine the first time the villain goes after the protagonist, which often occurs halfway through the book. She has uncovered only part of the scheme at that point, so how can that limited knowledge lead to her active interference to stop him? The act need not be intended; she can blunder into it. But she must poke the nest in order to bring out the hornets.

“Most of us don't have to worry about being shot if we poke our noses outside. So we are comfortable, but the people I'm writing about are definitely not comfortable, and being shot while they're still inside is a good possibility.”
—Octavia Butler

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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