Lesser Evil

A plot line is based on interactions among a select group of characters. They are united by location or developing goal or struggle. The lines crisscross as the novel goes forward. If there are three plot lines—A, B, and C—the scene sequence can look like: A-B-C, A-B-C, etc.

What does not lend itself as easily to a schematic drawing is how to gauge the varying impacts of the plots. While the main determinant is how much coverage each one receives, a valuable point to keep in mind is: how much tension is it creating? What drives conflict draws us deeper into the realm of intangibles, because tension can derive both from plot events and from the personal obstacles, often psychological, the lead characters face. The sheer variety of choices for tension is what makes writing novels fun—and hard to plan clearly.

Because fiction is driven by obstacles, you cannot treat all plot lines as though they are equal in dramatic weight. Rather, you have to be honest with yourself about (1) how interesting a plot line’s interactions are and (2) how much attention you have devoted to making its characters fully rounded. Let’s say, in one chapter a hero has a tormented past, with a looming mystery as to what happened to him, and he is tracking down the main demon. The next chapter features a heroine who is also intriguing, but she spends her time dealing with the problems of a character the reader barely knows. You can’t assign equal lengths to those chapters and expect the reader to stay as involved with both. One plot aim is more compelling than the other.

A useful exercise when reviewing a manuscript is cataloging what each of the characters helming a plot line is doing in each scene. In a first draft you tend to run with ideas that strike you at the time, that pull you into a skein of words that unravels. At that point the length doesn’t matter; the point is getting the idea out on paper. Yet upon review, how much time is being expended for what gain? Write out what the gain is and how many pages the scene takes up.

Then look at the scenes before and after it. That’s where the calculations pay off. If another plot line is surging at that point, the length expended on its scene is worth it. Moreover, you should be cutting back the scene that is less compelling—because the reader wants to ride the other plot’s surge as long as it’s bristling with tension.

Exercise: Then look down the road at all of the scenes related to the one you have just trimmed. Are they continuing in the same less fruitful vein? Maybe you should recalibrate the plot line. Maybe the lead character should be given stronger counterparts. Or, maybe that plot’s scenes shouldn’t appear as often.

“It is more important to know how to mix and match the clothes than to spend money.”
—Valeria Mazza

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Trying to Fit In

Every author understands the concept of the outsider. That’s why mavericks and misfits are the protagonists of so many novels. An author feels an affinity with such characters, because she regards herself as an oddball. Who better to infuse that character with life than someone who doesn’t just act, but is condemned to think about what she’s doing, often as the action is taking place?

The transition from felt impulses to story impact is not easily navigated, though. Rebellious swagger goes only so far. In order to maintain story tension, you have to align the character so that what she’s doing is consistently flouting social norms or in imminent danger of doing so. Only by having her break the rules can an author point out why they are nonsensical.

Using the hero of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, let’s see how this general principle can be broken down into specific examples. Billy is a soldier on leave from the war in Iraq. He is seriously damaged by PTSD—his outsider starting point. How does his affliction make an impact? The author describes how, when Billy is walking down the steps in Texas Stadium, he can’t look down because he feels he would fall into the void that yawns below. That’s bizarre, scary. No matter what else he does in the book, we know he’s unhinged.

Billy is a member of a Bravo team that is being feted during a football game. While he is drinking beers at ten o’clock in the morning to self-medicate, he is being hailed by a variety of back-slapping patriots that are as empty as their suits. Given his context, the game of football, revered as a domestic version of war, is an ironic joke. When the Bravo crew sits down to a buffet lunch, they are so rowdy that the rich folks’ decorum is threatened at every moment.

For this author’s outsider, he picks an ordinary young grunt. Yet he elevates Billy to a powder keg, ready to go off at any time, by the aberrant things he does. The author then proceeds to pick out the circumstances that can be upset. Soldier? Match him up with a patriot. A substance abuser? Inject him in a party.

This outsider is not alone in his room, brooding. He takes his damaged soul out in public, where he can either offend others or be humiliated. He’s on the firing line.

Exercise: Catalogue the circumstances in your manuscript. What qualities of your protagonist don’t fit in with respectable society? Then think to yourself: what social situations could she be placed in where those qualities can be put on display? Then take one more step. What rules is she breaking because of those qualities? Can you find respectable foils against whom she can clash?

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”
—Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Quality of Connections

A shifting link between characters marks the most promising relationships in fiction. On the one hand is the dramatic imperative for conflict. If the characters aren’t fighting over something, readers will quickly lose interest. On the other hand is the human need to matter to someone else. Many protagonists are mavericks, but if what they are doing doesn’t affect others, they might as well be battling shadows in a cave.

When you are outlining a novel, or even while a draft is developing, the choice of what type of tension you want determines how much room you will have to expand the relationship. In this post I’ll focus on a romantic connection. Let’s say an office guy and gal are hot for each other from the get-go. In that configuration your basis for development is limited. They should just find an unoccupied conference room and go for it. But how much interest will the reader have in repeat visits to that room? There are only so many interruptions at a frustrating moment you can use before the gambit becomes tired.

The ripping off of clothes is most satisfying after the characters first have had to strip away what’s inside. A woman whose husband has died, for instance, carries a longing for the partner that blocks her ability to become involved with another. She sizes up the different things the new potential partner does in terms of what her beloved did. Certain conflicts may be more heightened than others. If her dead husband used to make her laugh, and the newbie is a serious sort, she’ll be looking for an ironical comment that doesn’t come, and she’ll be disappointed that the newbie didn’t see the humor in the situation. She may keep that negative reaction under wraps at first—why dampen the delightful sensations of attraction for that?—but when eventually she complains to him about it, who is going to change?

This example is only one of a panoply of choices you can make deliberately before Romeo ever meets Juliet. How can you set up the obstacles in such a way that they remain problematic? How can you make them unique—i.e., fresh to the reader? Going one step further, can you draw up a hierarchy of friction points? Then you can knock off the minor ones earlier, saving the real beasts for later.

Exercise: Draw up a list of qualities for both characters with the maxim “It must irritate the partner” uppermost in mind. Now consider what qualities each of them hold most dear. Flirtatiousness, for instance, is something a partner can learn to live with as long as what he holds most dear, faithfulness, is never in doubt. But at what point in the book does he finally have no doubts?

“We are afraid to care too much, for fear that the other person does not care at all.”
—Eleanor Roosevelt

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Altered States

The lure of ingested substances is a powerful one for an author. The act of writing calls for a foray into the unknown recesses of the mind, and drinking or drug taking alters your mental state. In other words, the one can pave a path to the other. The goal is to reach beyond what is ordinary in our lives and become Nietzsche's Superman. Another major reason to partake is to hype yourself up to get in the mood for writing. That route has been traveled by dozens of famous authors. William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway are legendary for their drinking, as is Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs for drugs. These illustrious forebears have created a mythic culture of license that a young writer in particular can find seductive.

As a young man I was not immune to these charms. When I first started writing, I got high just so I could still myself enough to write. And there is no denying that stray bolts of lightning do occur, moments of vivid clarity akin to the spiritual states sought at a Native American ceremony. When I was still learning to write, I could point to these occasional brilliant nuggets as proof that I actually had some talent.

Over the long run, though, I believe such practices are self-defeating. I am hardly a moralist. I am thinking more in terms of practicality and longevity. After a while I found that artificial inducements were splintering my ability to concentrate over the longer terms that I was now sitting in my chair. That problem was accentuated by the lack of continuity from one day to the next, chopping up that vital overview stream about how my whorl of thoughts were condensing on the page. I was, in other words, hamstrung by the same bottle or pipe that freed me.

Over the long run, alcohol or drugs take away more than they give. A very harmful effect it has is on your confidence in what you’ve written. If you’re not in the right head for writing, a few drinks can put you in a nasty frame of mind toward what you’re reviewing. You get to thinking that most of the previous day’s work is pure crap and start editing like a madman. Yet the end result? Nine times out of ten, when you look at the edited version the next morning, you’ll find that you want to restore almost all of the original draft. Stillness, the necessary precondition for concentration, requires an act of faith in yourself. If you’re sliding down an oiled chute in order to reach that state, how do you know you’ve actually arrived? 

Exercise: Let’s say you’re in the habit of writing after dinner. You sit down with a glass of wine, take a few sips, and immerse yourself in the text. Soon you have another sip, and another—but not too much because you need to maintain the right level of control. Do you see what’s happening? You’re focusing on chemical intake, not plunging deeper into the mine of your thoughts. 

“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” 
—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Pegging the Mid-Book Slump: Casting Ahead

The last post covered one means of addressing a sagging middle of the novel: returning to the opening section and charting the best plot advances there as a way to continue progress on those strengths. The other way is to look forward. You know what happens in the climax sequence. You can set up the scenes in the middle as ways to make the climax pay off even more than it does now.

As with the opening 150 pages, draw up a chart that provides a quick synopsis of each scene in the climax. A good climax runs anywhere from 50 to 100 pages. Pay special attention to what happens to each of your major characters—do you have a handful? That will tell you which elements need to be bolstered the most.

Now return to the halfway point and summarize the scenes between that and the climax sequence. Check the list you’ve just created with the list for the climax. Are events moving forward with the same urgency? If not, you should be doing two things. First, use where the book ends up as a guide for cutting excess scenes in the middle. For example, if the hero meets a fascinating curandero in a canyon prior to making the dash with his family over the U.S. border, you have to ask yourself: is it worth spending 20 pages on Mexican shaman lore?

Better yet, go back and forth between the middle and ending sequences, and think through how to connect the scenes. Using the same example, you might use the idea of family as a plot element. What would happen if the hero’s older brother was killed just before the climax sequence started? That would inflame the reader’s resentment of the cruel border agents at the very point they will try to do their worst to the family.

Another point to look for is a character who ends up playing a dramatic role in the climax. Has she been important the entire book, or does she come out of nowhere to carry a dramatic burden? If the latter, you can insert scenes into the sagging middle that show how dynamic she is—i.e., worthy of carrying such a burden.

Exercise: You can further refine the linkage between the two sections. Concentrate on only one character per list. Pick out the ones that really matter in the climax and work backward. Are they maintaining a constant presence during this penultimate period, or do they drop out of the book for a while? On the converse side, are you spending a lot of time with a character in the sagging middle who ends up playing a minor role in the end? You will know because you have the evidence right at your fingertips.

“Slump? I ain't in no slump... I just ain't hitting.”
—Yogi Berra

Copyright @ 2108, John Paine


Pegging the Mid-Book Slump: Going Back

Many books get off to a compelling start, and many end with a stirring climax sequence. Yet in the middle of the book—roughly the stretch between the halfway and three-quarters points—a number of them lose their forward momentum. Relationships start to feel stuck in neutral. The plot obstacles start to lose their freshness. Everyone seems to be going in circles—yep, I knew that character was going to do that.

Several factors can lead to the middle-book sag. An author can become so involved in the thrumming vibe between two characters that she doesn’t realize they have trod over similar ground earlier. Another author may delight in further exploits for his hero to conquer, not realizing that they don’t lead him any closer to his goal. The result is a series of scenes that move the plot markers forward incrementally. As a whole, the book grinds down to that halting speed.

How can this stifling period be avoided? The best way is to pull your head up, out of the present proceedings. You need to make executive decisions. Forget about what you’re planning to write next. Instead, take a long view of what you’ve accomplished. Go back to the beginning of the book and review all of the scenes up to page 150, say. Write down in a chart what forward progress was made in each scene. It’s not so onerous: a list of 20 chapters will yield a list maybe a page and a half long. 

What you’re looking for is progress. How decisively have you moved forward from one scene to the next? Let’s take the example of a romance. What steps have your lovers taken from first sight to first sex? What have you done since that dramatic apex? If all they’re doing is having more creative sex, that’s the problem. Instead, you should be looking for new plot obstacles—a former spouse who promises to reform or a serious blow to fidelity between the two lovers. 

If a book features a hero’s journey, you probably started with lesser villains, and now you’ve gone up the ranks until your hero has no one left to fight . . . except the arch villain. So go ahead. Make the villain known, and then have him continue to commit evil deeds, cackling and swinging his cape.
What you want are plot ideas that make the same bold progress you were making early on. You may have to go back in the book to stitch in setup material for those new steps. And that’s fine, because your problem, underlying that sag, is that your plot wasn’t big enough in the first place.

Exercise: When reviewing the first half, keep an eye out for characters that you enjoyed writing about. It shows that you really connected with them. So who should get a bigger role? The one you already like. See if you can devise ways to expand her role.

“Words are a commodity in which there is never any slump.” 
—Christopher Morley

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


How to Go from Tell to Show

The show, don’t tell dictum espoused by every writing coach you will ever meet sounds simple in theory but more difficult to apply in practice. You are supposed to put into action the comments the author makes about a character’s qualities. Yet it seems that if you were to put on display every observation you make about the different characters, the novel could be 1,000 pages long.

The key is artful positioning. You construct scenes in such a way that the qualities you want to emphasize are built into the activity being covered. Let’s take an example: “He was blessed with many of his father’s qualities, but in one respect he was different. He was far more driven.”

First, isolate the qualities: similarity and more driven. How do you show a father and son are alike? You show them engaged in an activity together. The son might admire his father’s natural talent with multiplying numbers in his head, and he comments on it. The father replies, “Oh, I’m quick, but don’t forget all the numbers you handle every day.” A natural exchange that takes a few sentences. To add the second quality, the son might wonder idly why, given how brilliant he is, his father was content to remain a backroom actuary. The son is a stockbroker at a hard-charging Wall Street firm. You have taken comments and made them into facts.

Such examples could be spooled out in countless directions. That’s because a quality a person possesses is usually a common human trait. So you can apply a specific use for it and place it in a context in which it is realized.

Let’s try another one: “Her husband’s workaholism was an oppressive burden. To compensate she was always redecorating or volunteering for another committee.” How do you put this in action? Workaholism implies absence, either coming home late at night or arriving late at a social function. So that determines the timing of the scene. I would vote for the function as the setting, because if it is a charity event she is hosting, she’d be on edge anyway, and she’d be likely to castigate him—“You always have some meeting that runs late!” Now that dry telling has become an interesting show. What’s the work-weary husband going to say to that?

Exercise: Review the manuscript for comments on a character’s qualities. When you find one that can’t be put into action—say, a comment on how a flighty sister has, over the years, disappointed her old sister—place it within a conversation they’re having. The sister talks about the latest flighty thing she’s done, and the older sister has that comment as a thought before she responds.

“It is our choices . . . that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
—J. K. Rowling

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Framing the Issue

In our private thoughts we can dream up provocative ideas about our own lives that, later on, seem ideally suited for inserting in a novel. I’ll use one as a running example throughout this post. “Upon meeting new people, I seem to engender a common response. The person reacts like: I may be a loser, but I’m not so low that I need you as a friend.”

On the face of it, that thought seems powerful. Man, what a terrible thing to think about yourself. When inserted in a novel, put down in black and white, however, the thought may start to feel silly, especially after a few rounds of review. It’s so serious, so stark. You poor little worm, you. Rather than throwing it out, though, you may want to consider the context in which it appears.

The first option is to have the character make a joke out of it. He tells someone, “Sometimes, you know what I think? Upon meeting . . .” Now you’ve taken off the ponderous weight. The reader isn’t forced to feel solemn. Yet you’re still putting the character’s opinion out there. People can read between the lines. If you think that framing is too light, have the other character take it seriously. “Oh, Hal, you’re not that bad . . .”

A second possibility is attaching the notion to a character other than the one narrating the scene. That way the onus isn’t placed on the character that the reader is following—i.e., emotionally involved with. It’s some other poor sap. You can even reveal something about your main character by the way she reacts to the pronouncement. “You know, Hallie, I’m really getting sick of  . . .” 

If you feel you have the writing chops, a third option is to double-down. You surround that statement with a number of other self-deprecating thoughts the character has. When a stark idea is couched within fictional “facts,” such as the character narrating the events that led to being dumped by the love of his life, you’ve greased the skids in that direction. Now the thought is a final thump! That guy has got it bad. The sentiment rings true because you took the care to support it.

Exercise: As with so many other facets of writing, you should experiment with your approach. Try all three of the options and see which one strikes you as the most genuine. By way of analogy, think of the statement as a topic sentence in a paragraph (although you may run longer than that). How are you going to build the supplemental sentences around the nugget you really want? 

“A serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.” 
—Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine



The Linkage That Counts

Authors can have difficulty understanding which characters matter in a novel. This is true especially in stories populated by a large cast of characters, such as a historical novel. As I am editing, I may come upon a scene of a character’s mother who, while the manner of death is mildly entertaining, hasn’t appeared in a hundred pages. So why should I care about this person? The author obviously doesn’t, or she would appear more regularly.

Authors offer up reasons such as: that character thread has to be tied up. Or, her death matters because her son is a major character. Or even, death is a major tool of a novelist. Yet that still begs the question: why should the reader care?

“Thread” may serve as a useful analogy. If you have a scarf with different yarn colors running through it from one end to another, which ones draw your eye? The ones that appear the most often. Those are your major characters. If an occasional olive highlight pops up here and there, that will not change your overall verdict: it is a blue and red scarf with a nice orange in it. If you look closely, you notice the olive flecks. Oh yeah, and the scarf has some of that too.

The thrown-in afterthought is how a reader regards many minor characters. You’re getting no juice from them, because we have no emotions invested in these distant entities. Isolated by itself, a scene covering them mainly is a drain because it pulls our attention away from the characters we are following avidly.

Their importance lies in their linkage to a main character. The mother’s link really is to the son, in terms of the novel’s purposes going forward. The only way her death will matter is if you cover his reaction to her death. And this cannot be some glancing shrug on his way to his next act of derring-do, because then the reader really wonders: why was I bothered with that? The son barely noticed—and I say good riddance too. That’s probably not the reaction you were looking for.

Exercise: When you are creating linkage, the way you arrange the events prior to an event like a death will help focus the reader’s reaction to it. If the character just lost the love of his life, his mother’s death could hit him at a vulnerable point. Or, if his irritation with his overweening father has reached a breaking point, the loss of her as conciliator may sharpen the knives. But notice even here, the death is an augmenting factor, building on an ongoing struggle that you’ve been covering at some length. By itself, the event will not suffice as meaningful catharsis.

“In real life, people are integrated into society. That's what happens in my books as well. Minor characters don't just walk in and spout lines, they interact and have an effect on the events. It's not an isolated universe.”
—Stieg Larsson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.