5.12.2020

Persistence Pays Off

Writing is like music in the composer’s ability to use motifs to gain a cumulative effect. The same structure employed in a symphony—introducing an idea and then running through variations—can be employed by novelists. That is an important lesson to learn because writing is episodic by nature. A chunk of work gets done in a day, and an author moves on to the next chunk.

The way to use this tool is straightforward if you know what you are looking for. You can start by examining what your protagonist does over the course of the book. What are the major themes? Let’s say, for a running example, that a young man falls in love with a young woman. While his troth is true, he has competing traits that many of us have, among them inability to commit, alcohol or drug abuse, or a consuming desire to get ahead.

A character’s failure to get out of their own way is found in many novels. Yet you don’t have to be an exceptionally insightful writer in order to keep turning that prism in the light and finding new instances to mark the failure. You merely need to have the character reflect, as the novel’s events unfold, how the failure is playing out during the different stages.

Returning to our swain, let’s assume that a breakup in the relationship was caused by one night of excessive drinking. The hero now will spend the rest of the novel working his way back to his true love. Perhaps during one stage he swears off drinking, even if he falls off the wagon a time or two. He retains the reader’s sympathy because he’s at least trying. All the time he keeps thinking of getting her back. Yet when he returns to her house—knowing she won’t talk to him but he just wants to see her—she steps out of a car with another guy, maybe even his best friend. That sends him on a downward spiral. You record his feelings about her during that stage. Maybe he becomes so morose, he loses his job. Now his love for her has become poisoned by having too much time to think about her. He might go off on a bender and end up killing himself or nearly so. How is that young romance looking now?

You don’t have to plumb a character’s innermost soul if you’re halfway proficient at plotting. You just have to stay on task. In the swain’s case, his true love wasn’t a one-time deal back in the early pages of the book. Through progression, she becomes an embodiment of why he’s a failure.

Exercise: If you have already completed a draft, review it with an eye only for your protagonist’s top points. What are you stressing consistently? Once you see certain patterns, review the plot events. Could you line them up so that they tell a story in stages?

“If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.”
—Pablo Picasso

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.