8.07.2018

Contrasting Contexts

Story tension bubbles from circumstances placed before the reader. No matter how local, such as a kitchen table drama, or wide-ranging, like an international thriller, you can keep a reader in your thrall once you set out the main stake and then create obstacles barring your characters from reaching it. Set in the right context, subtle changes can seem monumental.

What does not work as well is pitting a domestic plot line against an exotic one. While you may intend that each operates under its own imperatives, that is not how a reader views them. If the reader is flipping from one to the next, the context expands to the size of the largest plot line. You may achieve contrast, but not of a sort that is favorable to your purposes.

For a domestic drama, let’s choose cyber bullying as an example. Plenty of opportunities there for creating suspense—nasty teenagers, hand-wringing parents, the ultimate threat of suicide. Depending on how deep the characterizations run, and how many twists the bullying takes, I could become immersed in a story like that.

What happens, however, when a thriller plot is overlaid on top of it? One of the parents might be an FBI agent, and she is involved in a harrowing case involving a serial murderer who would in fact love to murder the FBI agent for nipping so closely at his heels. Now the mean things that the kids write on social media are placed in contrast to a trail of murder victims. You’ve created a sticks and stones dilemma: how much do words hurt? 

The reader experiences evil as different levels of catharsis. You can run up the scale of criminal activities, from shoplifting all the way to premeditated murder. What you can’t do is pretend that a lesser crime will impact the reader the same way as a greater one. If you expect me to wait the whole book for Erica to commit suicide while Evil Gent out there is slaying victims left and right, you’re living in a fool’s paradise. Commission outranks anticipation, period. 

The domestic material can serve as preliminary material, helping to set up a drama. But if you’ve created two worlds, you need to find ways to bridge them. A novel is a construction of stages that are progressively more cathartic, and a plot operating at a lower level may cause the reader eventually to yawn.

Exercise: If you wish to keep both plot lines, map out when one starts outstripping the other. You might want to cut down and/or consolidate the later domestic material so that it appears earlier in the book. Then ask yourself if you could use a major character to create a 30-50 page bridge subplot in the more dynamic one. 

“One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.” 
—A. A. Milne

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


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