Riven Apart

Many authors have experienced the phenomenon of not quite being in control of their own book. You may write notes before you start a scene, but by the time it’s completed, your main character didn’t do the assigned tasks. Your hand (your subconscious, really) just didn’t go in the “right” direction. Writing teachers say it’s the character telling you what to do.

On a small scale, such misdirection can lead with happy results. You can find out qualities about your characters that you didn’t know they had. What happens, though, when the plot takes a left turn? You were writing one book—set in present-day Oakland, say—and you become interested in the mother of a main character who has her own story to tell about a ranch in Idaho. So the cast of lead characters troupes up there and the climax is a white-water heart-stopper on the Snake River.

Such a novel might be called a tale of two books.. The first half is set in the Bay Area and the second in the wilds. If you can maintain two or three main characters throughout, that does provide some continuity from one half to the other. Yet think of all the relationships that you set up in Oakland. And how about all the later emphasis placed on the Idaho mom, whom the reader didn’t meet for the first 200 pages? How much should a reader be expected to invest in her?

Unless you want to save one of the two halves for another book, you have to stitch them together. In a novel, stitching equals coverage of characters. In order to make the mother more important all along, maybe she could visit Oakland early on, showing that earthy personality in the mean city, and maybe she swings back through before returning to Idaho. Better yet, maybe she alludes to, or the character feels she has, a mystery that requires going to Idaho to solve.

You can reverse the process as well. You have the hero pay a visit to Idaho on an unrelated matter early on. Now the setting you will use later appears hundreds of pages earlier. If we met dear ol’ mom in Oakland, now we can see her in her natural element. Then the stage is set without having to make all of the introductions to the new locale when the book gets to it.

Exercise: Review what happens in the first half with the events in the second. Are there common threads that you could use as through lines for the entire book? Besides a mystery, there might be a love interest, a talisman, a hobby. When you use the same objective in different settings, you bind the book together.

“The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.”
—Robert Walser

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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