7.25.2019

Connecting Plot Runs

The transcontinental railroad resembles a novel in that it was built in segments. A stretch of the rails would be completed, and the crew would move on to the next. Because novels take so long for most writers to complete, a stretch can consist of a run of chapters, and you still have a half dozen more stretches to build.

Using the organic method—or making it up as you go along—you can find yourself left with disparate pieces by the time a draft is completed. You may have directed the protagonist to pursue certain plot aims during one stretch and then inserted a subplot later on that has nothing to do with what you wrote earlier. At the time you wrote the subplot, you didn’t really remember that earlier part. You wrote that months ago.

This approach is the opposite of the grand scheme used by experienced authors in genres such as mystery. In those novels every plot point, every character appearance, fits into an intricately connected puzzle. While such a construction can feel formulaic, there is no doubt that the reader feels satisfied by the linkages.

The same process can be reverse-engineered after a draft is completed. You may realize, for instance, that a crime drama has an appealing lead detective who drops out of the book during the last 100 pages. That’s because a court case takes center stage during that stretch. While you were writing the courtroom drama, it seemed so gripping. But in hindsight, looking at all of the parts of the novel in one sweep, you realize that the sacrifice of the character isn’t worth the gain.

All is not lost. A draft is a mutable instrument. You made up the whole story anyway, so you can make up replacement parts. You can write more scenes for the detective, to use that example. Maybe three more scenes, with gaps of 20 pages between scenes. That ensures the character will remain vivid in the reader’s mind until the end.

The more difficult step for many writers is sacrificing their babies. You also need to take out three scenes of the courtroom drama, because even with additional scenes, the detective’s presence still will be overshadowed by the tremendous emphasis, measured in page count, you have placed on winning in court. So you look for procedural matters like an in-camera conference, for witnesses that say in court things the reader already knows, etc. You correct course by being willing to cut that stuff—because you’re now taking the long view.

Exercise: How do you measure proportion? Run a Find search for a major character. You’ll find the name frequently during a certain stretch of pages, so keep looking. When a long gap appears, write down the number of pages in between. How long do they appear in this new section? Keep counting those gaps. Then ask yourself: do I want this character to make more of an impact?

“What art is, in reality, is this missing link, not the links which exist. It's not what you see that is art; art is the gap.”
—Marcel Duchamp

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine





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