Seeding Clues

An author may write a book containing mystery elements without intending to focus primarily on the protagonist solving clues. The desire may trend more toward exploring the characters or to creating the atmosphere of a locale. This main pursuit may become so extensive that the book’s suspects and clues are strewn in a sporadic fashion. That may not prove to be the best strategy if the climax of the book features the typical mystery showdown. The reader had no chance to guess whodunit, so how could they have known the story would end this way?

Let’s say the writer comes to that realization only after writing a first draft. Now what are they supposed to do? They have an entire novel that works pretty well the way it is. Does the edifice have to be torn apart in order to create new plot threads whereby the reader can guess?

No, and here’s why. The story already contains a wealth of rich characters, and any character can be a suspect if viewed a certain way. What can be changed to alter the protagonist’s perception?

The first is hidden biographical information. Of course, the reason it is hidden right now is because you haven’t thought of it yet. So you take an unlikable character, and on page 100, say, your hero finds out he served in the special forces in Iraq. Or, since many of us commit minor crimes during adolescence, we find out she was busted for assaulting a police officer during a protest. If you have decided that you will feature primarily three suspects, give one of them a chilling past.

The second is a link to an unsavory activity. The most common is to drugs. This is a wide sphere, ranging from the pothead down the hall in your college dormitory to a ruthless killer for a Mexican drug cartel. Yet association with any aspect of it casts suspicion, because it is (largely) illegal. You could also choose largely innocent trades such as gun sales, casinos, or company finances, including the financial books of a country store.

Once you have decided on a list of clues, you can then insert them in existing scenes. In a gossip session that dwells on an unwitting maverick in a garden club, you drop in an unsavory link. Oh, you didn’t know that about her? Or you insert a “helpful” neighbor who sidles over to say what he personally “witnessed” the night of the crime. Pretty soon you have dotted the manuscript with hooks on which a reader can hang a case.

Exercise: The impulse when making such an insertion is to drop in a sentence. Yet that usually isn’t enough. The clue feels gratuitous, or the reader doesn’t grasp the import because it is so minor in the mise en scène you’ve created otherwise. In general, when you have mentions that are off-topic, you will find that 2-3 sentences will blend in more naturally.

“I like villains because there's something so attractive about a committed person—they have a plan, an ideology, no matter how twisted. They're motivated.”          —Russell Crowe

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Was and What Is Now

When a manuscript grows into a sprawling behemoth, the place to begin cutting is often the beginning. Perhaps not the first chapter, which tends to be worked and reworked laboriously, despite the glaring problem that looms beyond (it’s way too long!). Past that, in the early going, a dispassionate eye will find plot ventures that are not absolutely necessary.

When you examine the book-making process, that can tell you a lot about what contributes to the story’s climax. An author deems where a likely starting point should be. A large portion of outline notes drawn up beforehand form the basis of the early going. Expanding them into the actual scenes takes a chunk of pages. That is augmented by the author’s explorations into what really makes the characters tick and how they interact. The characters’ interactions begin to form a pattern, and they bend the novel to suit their evolving personalities. All along the way the gleam in the eye about what you really wanted to write takes firmer shape. Months go by as you work out how the novel must proceed until page 500, 600, 700 appear in the bottom right-hand corner of the page.

What has gone so horribly wrong? If you review only the second half of the novel, your conclusion may well be: not much. You did follow the directions that had become so clear by then. Plus, the scenes are genuinely exciting, taut, or compelling, and you’re not just fooling yourself. The banging around in a dark room may have taken awhile, but the door to your sunny future opened at last.

Now return to the first half. That’s where the path was not so certain. Given what you know about which characters and which plot lines turn out to be gold, how does this early material seem? Since this part of a novel often is filled with background stories, for instance, you might examine each one and ask: is its length commensurate with the importance of the character? Is a back story even needed at all? 

You might outline the sequencing of chapters. Do you find that a character who turned out to be minor has a lot of early scenes—because you thought they would be major when you started off? You should trim that section, shaving down those appearances and/or the length of the appearances. That’s not just for the sake of cutting. You also are streamlining your plot lines, so that readers are following the characters that will pay off later.

If you are given to writing dialogue, examine each one for relevance. Are the conversations aligned with the plot overall? Do you have minor (who were once thought major) characters having extended conversations? Maybe you cut a page of one of them and insert a two-sentence narrative summary of what is said. In other words, once you know the end game, you can edit accordingly.

“Authors who moan with praise for their editors always seem to reek slightly of the Stockholm syndrome.”  ― Christopher Hitchens

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Blows of Pride

One of the first lessons a novelist learns is that the protagonist should face a series of obstacles. It is telling that so many react to that dictum by creating a series of external obstacles, resembling warriors in a video game to a greater or lesser degree. Even authors with a more literary bent will utilize characters embodying a social theme that oppresses from without. Less common are explorations of what drives a person to fail. Perhaps failure feels too tragic, and most people write to feel good about themselves.

Failure comes in all sorts of varieties—because humans are so good at it—so I’ll focus here on it as a facet of divorce. A breakup is painful in direct proportion to its former promise. While a lucky half of all couples sail through life without it, I think most people have experienced the pain, either directly or as children or as witnesses. The pain of separation is sharp and bitter, and the bitterness never goes away, even if it dulls over time. 

Pride comes before a fall, and that is where failure can play a dynamic role in fiction. Pride can be built up through a series of scenes that show the keyed-on partner as proud to be married, whether that relates to their partner’s status or as parent of praised children. It can also be cultivated through the arguments of the spouses. Marriage is a series of compromises, and when one or both members in a couple refuses to bend, pride of belonging in one’s parental family is frequently the cause. So the parents can be brought into the novel to show what sparks such loyalty. Inherent in all of these interactions, of course, is the failure of the character to realize how blind their loyalty is.

The differences between a couple may be truly irreconcilable, but adding a tragic flaw is more dramatic. That doesn’t include such tawdry factors as workaholism. A tragic flaw stems from a more titanic goodness than that. Identifying what that is and then building the marriage scenes around it shows the poisonous root of the dissolution.

Equally as gripping are the waves of explanations a character makes, in private and to others, after the marriage falls apart. How does an author modulate the complaints to lay bare their shrillness? Does the character learn from the experience, or do they go on in life placing all the blame on the partner? A person can be consumed by bitterness just as easily as by joy. Where does that leave them at the end of the story, on the lonely rock they claim?

Exercise: You can use supporting characters to great effect. A mother’s dislike for her daughter-in-law is an obvious choice, but what about the friend that encourages the character’s growing dissatisfaction? When the divorce is final, what can the friend do to remedy the pain? Or, if the partner left for a new love, how does the newbie stack up against who was lost?

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”  —Truman Capote

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Tainted Memories, Part 2

In the previous post I discussed ways of delving deeper into the factors underpinning a background story. Recapturing it moment by moment from inside a character's mind reaps greater benefits than a catalogue of events. The same principle can be applied in the long range as well. What causes a character to think of that memory?

To examine this question, let’s look at how that process often works in fiction. A present-day event comes up, and afterward the character states the age-old source of their reaction to the event. The handoff from present to past may be as abrupt as inserting a line-space break (two returns on the keyboard) and launching directly into the flashback.

A more effective method is identifying the long-range patterns (you can call them neuroses) that lead to the memory. The same in-depth approach is used. You take the present-day event and ask: why am I raising this point about the character? You chose the event deliberately, so you must know. Just write out the reason as a note to yourself. To use the running example: “Elena explodes because her father yelled at her all the time when she was growing up.”

Now make that into a mental loop for the character. You can consider first the direct links to the past. What is the present status of the father in her life? How did his relationship with her mother change over time? How does that affect Elena’s visits home? What has Elena told a friend or lover about how it impacted her? When you start to consider the issue in the long run, you can start telling a summary narrative about life-long traumatic effects.

Now turn the prism away from the past. Elena is certainly aware that her explosions aren’t normal. When has she exploded before and, more important, with which major characters in the novel? While in the midst of her yelling, how is she processing the reaction of the person under fire? That isn’t the same as dear old dad’s reaction. How does she feel about being wrong—with that person, considering their relationship? Has a past explosion changed the relationship? What were her practical consequences, such as going to a therapist for help? After all, most people want to avoid the shame that follows such an event.

Finally, consider how this loop changes over the course of the novel. If Elena’s explosions dig her into a deeper and deeper hole, that neurosis is going to break her. By contrast, if someone else helps her get over it, how does her thinking about the loop  change step by step? You can insert other background stories, new ones that she can hold onto—her new image of herself—and become healed.

Exercise: Don’t forget that you can color memories to suit the character’s perspective. In a dark mood, you recall your own memories differently, adding a nasty snap to the other person’s motives. If you start off a character arc with negatively charged memories and end with ones that are more even-handed, the character’s very manner of recollection creates an emotional swell toward hope.

“I want to keep my dreams, even bad ones, because without them, I might have nothing all night long."  —Joseph Heller

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Tainted Memories, Part 1

The process of immersion into a character has many different aspects. One basic technique is learning to think about how a character would react to a plot event. Another low-lying fruit is putting a character’s thoughts into italic type, creating inner dialogue. A third useful tool is creating background stories, so you understand better how a character would react in any given situation. You can take a further step and charge such back stories so they become those really terrific ones you read in good books.

To start, consider the most primitive model. Say you want to explore why Elena reacts so explosively whenever anyone raises their voice to her. You think about it and you decide it was dear old dad, who yelled at everyone in the household after he’d downed enough beers. You decide to recall one night in particular that was harrowing for Elena. The story unspools, you crank out a page, and it looks, well, definitely okay.

The reason it isn’t more is because many attempts at such stories are “factual” retellings. By that I mean that you are trying to faithfully recall what happened. You place Elena in the house, perhaps in the upstairs hallway. You catalogue the father’s drinking, then his coming upstairs, and the abuse of his daughter. All vivid and yet it feels like an action/adventure scene.

You’re not digging deep enough. You might want to consider: If Elena was old enough to suffer meaningful trauma, she was independent enough to have a fully realized life outside that event. She might have desires to protect her mother, or actually have done so in the past. She might have just emerged from her brothers’ bedroom, and Alfie was teasing her about the nerd with the huge schnozzola who follows her around. “Everywhere, Elena!” When she sees all the empties lined up on the coffee table in front of the TV, she already knows what’s what. She’s been through some variant of this scenario before, and she has feelings—fear maybe, but also extreme annoyance because of fucking Alfie and here’s the king of her crappy household getting wasted again. Now what happens when Daddy lashes into her?

To make any background story fully involving, you need to think through all of the predicate circumstances at that very moment. You’re not just reaching back into the past. You want to get inside her when it happens, and the only way to do that is to know what is going on with everyone around her. How old her parents were, the state of their marriage, the states of their jobs. How old her siblings were, who ranked highest with the parents, in school, and Elena’s standing with them. That’s when the magic really happens.

Exercise: Try to write the memory the first time only in terms of what your key character experiences. The father’s drunkenness, for example, is then viewed only through her eyes. See if you can attach an opinion she has about every single step of the incident. You can always pare them back later. You’ll find that key facts emerge as something mentioned in passing. That’s a mark of immersion.

“It is not length of life, but depth of life.”  —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Flogging the Beast

Revision is a vital part of writing, and multiple drafts are required for most writers. Five, six, seven drafts go by, with changes mostly minor but sometimes including major shifts that correspond to your evolving sense of the story you really want to tell. Changes can also be driven from outside forces, such as a round of rejections by literary agents. Sometimes the mere prospect of being rejected can drive an author to the keyboard.

At some point, you have to ask yourself: should I move on to that next book I mean to write? I have gently counseled some more obsessive authors to choose that tack, and there is a common reason why. It stems not from any observations about picayune issues such as sentence flow. Rather, they derive from a higher realm, one known as concept.

What if the story you want so urgently to tell has been already been told numerous times? That happens a lot to older authors. They want to report on the exciting times of their youth, and through the gauzy screen of memory certain tropes will stand out. For the great generation it is often World War II. For the sixties generation, it might be sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. The notion that many other authors have plowed the same ground somehow does not occur to them. Writing is a (good) expression of egotism, after all.

You need to assess the work at that highest level. Forget about all the passages you have written. If you’ve worked on them seven times, they are likely the best you will ever get them. Forget about rearranging the order of chapters. You probably have balanced the plot lines by now. And you won’t materially affect a reader’s overall impression of the book by moving up an exciting scene to the prologue.

The most futile step you can take is endlessly adding more scenes or resculpting old scenes in a significant way. Yes, the change is important at an incremental level. Yes, the book is getting better. But unless you can honestly say that your take on an old subject is radically different, you’re just moving piles of sand on the same old stretch of beach.

The myth of the writer burrowed in some book-lined cave whose book will only be published after death very seldom comes true. It’s incredibly likely that you are not that person. It is better to think in practical terms. What was that great idea you had for the next book? Why don’t you spend a few mornings working out some rough details of that? You never know. The next book you write might turn out to be the one you really were meant to write. Don’t pound your head against a wall. Write because you enjoy it.

“Dusting is a good example of the futility of trying to put things right. As soon as you dust, the fact of your next dusting has already been established.”  —George Carlin

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.