10.24.2018

One Sojourn Too Many

Everyone has favorite vocabulary words, and “dilly-dally” is one of mine. Besides enjoying the acerbic British wit behind its origin, I have found it applies to certain manuscripts I edit. That is not to say the author intends for the reader to wait around until her indulgence is played out, but the overall effect is the same. This problem occurs especially in novels that involve travel.  While we all enjoy being on the road to somewhere new, you are advised to keep an eye out for the effect a journey can have on your plotting. Another interesting word might be kept in mind: “unmoored.”

A foreign locale by its very nature involves elements of a travelogue: descriptions of exotica, impressions of the travelers, etc. Because the author has usually gone to that place, he wants to evoke what he found special about it for the reader, somewhat like a photo slideshow for the folks back home. The danger of such a stopover in a novel is also analogous to boring said folks with too many photos.

When viewed structurally, any scene functions best when it builds from previous material in a plot line. Therein lies the danger of placing a dramatic episode on the way to somewhere else. Usually a novel builds up its original base of conflict in a particular locale, let’s say London. The protagonist emerges from whatever background surroundings have been created, and she encounters new forces in the City that necessitate her travels. Yet look what happens the moment she walks up that gangway. She is leaving behind the theater of former conflicts.

As a reader, I was enjoying those conflicts, and I had already formed allegiances for and against known quantities that the protagonist was facing. Once the character is traveling, she generally is encountering new, foreign faces, people I don’t know. Although a new enemy may have a startling scimitar, I still don’t really care that much what happens—because I don’t know the guy. A part of me is secretly hoping we get back to England, so I can root against that guy I know I really hate. That weirdo with the scimitar? What was his weird name again?

The problem of being left adrift can be resolved by bringing along a crew on the travels. The job can be accomplished with only one companion, because the protagonist’s progress still can be measured against this constant benchmark. Adding several more could provide some variety, in the way that a mirror can be turned to capture different facets of a face.

Exercise: If you really need to tell us about Sri Lanka, consider the structure of the tale at that point. Could the villain have a reason to shadow the main character to this new locale? If the protagonist has a treasure, or clues to find a treasure, you can build upon the strengths of the relationships developed back home.

“Facts are the enemy of truth.”
—Miguel de Cervantes

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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