Not for Always

For any novel that depends on plot elements to move a story forward, it’s useful to keep in mind that a plot event is not necessarily an advance set in stone. It’s easy to see why an author might make this mistake. Once a plot advance is written, it’s down on paper. Check it off the list of outline notes. Yet what is done can be undone by sleight of hand.

Let’s consider the example of an accountant coming upon odd entries in a company’s records. A scene is written for the first discovery, perhaps another scene for a more extensive search, and something looks very suspicious. At some point the accountant will report the findings to a superior. You have the reader on the hunt. Finally, the crooks will be uncovered. Yet what happens if the superior is the embezzler, and the accountant the next morning is found floating in the river?

The character scored only a temporary win. What does that mean in terms of overall story dynamics? You still derive the benefit from those scenes building up the hunt. Plus, the knowledge is still a suspense element even though the accountant, in this case, is no longer in a position to build it further. That’s because you have imparted evidence to the reader—but not to other characters who are in a position to right the wrong. 

A plot gain can also be reversed. This is true especially when tracking a character’s  emotions. The pathway to blissful sex for the rest of a character’s life is a common aim thwarted in the romance genre. Great sex early on, yes, but then the stud muffin makes a typically stupid male error, the heroine is offended, and the reader is frustrated for another 50 pages. Lest the more literary types scoff, think of a daughter’s yearning to be accepted by her mother. What seems like a victory could be snatched away the very next day—because the problem all along has been that the mother is unstable.

So that plot element is not crossed off the list at all, if you don’t want it to be. Story tension is like musical tension: a crest is succeeded by a trough and a new way to find the next climax. You can design a plot advance so that it becomes a setback when experienced by a minor character, such as the accountant, but becomes a watershed when discovered by your protagonist later on. You can go back to the same well, only the guise—and more important, a reader’s emotional involvement in a character—is different. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript for great ideas that seem, in the long run, to have been cut short. Who is the event assigned to? If you repurposed an event to be private rather than  “a plot event,” could it become a cog in a larger wheel? You can create progression in an idea merely by how it is perceived successively by the protagonist.

“Progress is man's ability to complicate simplicity.” —Thor Heyerdahl

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Filling in the Spaces

When layering a previous draft with new plot material, an author obviously has to check to see that the new material aligns with the old. A more subtle approach is to judge the value of the old material in light of your advanced knowledge of the novel. The word layer is a useful one for this process. Part of what you’re doing, every step of the way, is adding texture and depth to the story. If you’re inserting new text in addition to the old, and making a few minor corrections, you’re merely making the book longer.

A novel can skate on the surface of its unfolding plot events. That’s why a plot-filled best-seller is such a light read. To add characterization, you provide background material. To make the narrative unique, you develop a distinctive point of view(s). To illuminate the fictional world you provide descriptions. All of these elements add threads to your weave. An engrossing novel tends to mix both action and context.

When adding new material, this question of action:present versus context:past should be kept in mind. Let’s say you depicted white Sheila and black Elaine in an early scene. In your original version they didn’t know each other, and so their first scene together had a lot of skirting around racial flash points. Getting to know you, in other words. But you have moved beyond the original conception. Now you want this duo to solve a mystery at their place of work. What happens with the go-lightly scene?

You could keep it and add the new material in a second scene. But you could pull away and take a longer view. If they’ve been working together for, say, two years, why don’t they already know each other? Maybe they’re both huge Colson Whitehead fans. Maybe they have the same sort of screw-up little brothers. Just from these few examples you can see that maybe the point at issue here isn’t addition. It’s reformulating what you have to better accommodate the addition.

What was action is replaced by background material. You spend a morning drawing up a story about those two years together. You can define how they’ve interacted before the book starts. You can write their new scenes with the knowledge that one will react to the other in certain predictable ways—those ways you make up as part of the background. You find a few places prior to the new scene to drop in the background packets. Now the relationship is a given. You’re free to explore your new plot events within a story with that added depth element.

Exercise: Once you have drawn up your new material, read over all of the related scenes with the featured characters. Don’t plunge right into their first scene. Based on what you know now, can you see if their arc of development rises quickly enough to support the dramatic burdens you are placing on them in the next draft? 

“In our deepest moments we say the most inadequate things.” ― Edna O'Brien

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Not Clumping Too Close

An author trying to write a novel that is more driven by characters than plot can make the mistake of believing that no planning is needed at all. Why should you bother, since you want the characters to tell you what they want? While I’m all for the idea in principle, in practice it can lead to early scenes that seem shallow, because you haven’t gotten to know the characters very well yet.

A better strategy may be setting guide posts out ahead of the writing. Let’s take, for example, a three-way love affair in which a man, call him Len, knows that Marge is a better marriage candidate, but he is fascinated by Sybil, who is much more fun. When you follow your nose, you may find that individual scenes sparkle: Len showing different sides of himself with both women. Yet when you reach a crucial plot point—he makes a decision about getting engaged—you find it hard to believe that Len, who’s been having so much fun with Sybil, would throw her over just because Marge is a more sensible choice. That makes Len boring, not to mention calculating. 

How is this situation rectified? Working backward, you can always write new Len-Sybil scenes. In them you can show how Sybil likes to have fun with other men, and although Len never sees anything overt, the jealousy leads him to make a choice for Marge. Still a calculation, but a reader could see why he’s gunshy.

Yet going back to insert scenes has knock-on effects. In building toward that one plot point, you may find the new scenes impinge on other points. So you have to read through the draft looking to alter those. You could have saved yourself the trouble if you had asked a plot question before you started: what would make Len choose Marge? You could quickly reach the same conclusion and then plot out the initial scenes with that basic objective in mind. 

What about listening to your characters? The fact is, when you start a draft, you don’t know the characters. You make them up as you go. Once you reach a critical mass of scenes, then they’ll start talking to you. You’re not sacrificing anything, because all they were at the beginning was nether matter.

Exercise: Even when you set out a long-range plot point, that doesn’t mean you’re bound to it. What Len, for example, feels before making the decision does not govern how he feels afterward, when he sees the reactions of both women. Or, it may be that he is confident he made the right choice at first and, over time, comes to regret it. By that time, your listening to your characters could take you in all sorts of directions.

“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.”    ―Gustave Flaubert

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Guilty as Implied

One effective tool in bringing a reader into a story is a presumption by a character. Although this sort of statement is made in passing, the information it conveys can reveal an entire side to a character that was previously unknown. Let’s take an example: “Not enough time had passed since she threw Dad out of the house for her to . . .” That might shine a light on a teenager’s resentment of his mother. The passing remark provides context that goes beyond typical adolescent snark.

How can you attain the familiarity with a character to make such a remark? You can start with a timeline of events the character experienced before the book starts. To continue the prior example, what if the mother is dating a new man that the boy doesn’t like? When did that start? Is he the first man she has dated since the marriage? What did the teenager think in the immediate aftermath of his father’s departure, and how has that reaction matured since then? The answers to all of these questions, and more, could become implicit statements.

With further exploration you can provide more fodder. If the boy interacts with his mother, their conversations can also include assumed knowledge. The first argument about the new lover that they have in the book doesn’t have to be the first one they’ve ever had. What were their positions in the previous argument(s)? How have they shifted to provide a better line of attack next time? For instance, if the mother states that she has a right to enjoy her life, the boy might have conceded the point. So what does he come up with the next time? He still doesn’t like the boyfriend, and he still is suffering Oedipal jealousy. At what point does the boy give up on persuading the mother and start mouthing off directly to the boyfriend?

You can extend the probe via another connection: the boy and his father. Let’s say dear old dad has a drinking problem. What were the power dynamics between him and his wife before the problem became abject? What were the circumstances around the start of their marriage in the first place—i.e., their relatives? What was his relationship to his son before he split? Is he trying to con the boy through denigrating his former spouse? That in turn invites nailing down how the boy reacts. Does he regard himself as a crusader who can patch up the marriage if only Dad would give up the sauce? Does he know he’s being conned? 

By now you should have a pretty complete picture of what happened and when. None of that stuff has to go directly into the book. You can insert pieces as assumed points either thought by the character or through interactions with the concerned others. Because you know the full story, you’re in command of the narration.

“I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to fonts of wisdom and knowledge.” —Igor Stravinsky

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


The Use for You

A more intimate narrative voice better carries a reader along in a novelist’s currents. To achieve that cadence, an author needs to employ a variety of tricks that echo the way we all think. With a neophyte writer, for instance, I suggest that they write out a character’s thoughts as spoken aloud—inner dialogue, literally. Or, sentence fragments can add immediacy. What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that a person often refers to an alternative self in their thoughts.

We are all familiar with the good angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. When someone does something bad to us, like elbow us in the subway door, the first impulse is a desire to punch out that person’s lights. Yet another voice swiftly intervenes: “Now, now, let’s just go to work this morning.” We correct ourselves, in other words. 

That extends to referring to ourselves as “you.” This often comes out when we are muttering under our breath about something stupid we did. “You idiot! Why did you do that?” The “you” is the lumbering, sappy dope we all know lurks inside of us. 

So why aren’t you using that tool in your writing arsenal? For example, a person who hates doctors may have to correct himself during a visit: “The drugs, stupid, you need the drugs.” The line is funny, but more important, the reader knows exactly what that character is thinking, right at that moment. 

The reason I couch the usage as merely one trick in a bag is because “you” is quickly overused. If a character says it too much, the reader may wonder if she’s schizophrenic. In that way, “you” resembles an exclamation point. You don’t want the boy to cry wolf too often. When used in a corrective function, however, it enables an author to penetrate to a solid depth of narration. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for places where a character makes a decision. Do you start feeling that he is decisive in an otherworldly way? Have the character bicker with herself, second-guess herself. Put “you” in there, and watch how tangled up the character’s thoughts become. Now he’s thinking like the rest of us poor schmucks.

“Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy.” —Marshall McLuhan

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Dost Protest Too Much

A nonfiction writer who sets out to alert the world of a new advance needs to keep one maxim in mind. A book is an argument you’re making. The cause célèbre does matter, and the ignorance of the powers that be does need to be considered. Yet all of the good intentions in the world won’t matter if the author fails to obey this dictum.

If you went to a party, how would you persuade others that your cause is right? You would line up the conditions around the problem. To give an example, let’s pick one that caused so much consternation, and hilarity, last year: a cure for a virus. You might list scientific knowledge, such as how the spokes of a virus penetrate cellular walls. You see your audience nodding their heads. Yet the moment you raise your voice, to declaim the FDA are jerks for not recognizing your cure, you suddenly find people needing to refresh their drink or heed the call of nature.

In a book, you type out the arguments, and you have the space to lay out all of the possible reasons you’re right. Yet the moment you insert an exclamation point—what idiots!—the reader cringes. A book is different in that a reader will give you some leeway. After all, they probably picked up the book because they were hoping you’d make a good case, and they have invested all that time reading up to the exclamation. In the age-old calculus a reader has—should I stay or should I go?—they start to lean the wrong way. More exclamation points put down more strikes against, and if you then include a pages-long passage about how corrupt the FDA is, they put down the book. Another maniac, they decide, with a screed. I can get that on the subway.

You should follow the wisdom of a salesperson. The more outrageous the claim, the more you undersell. You can turn that provocative exclamation into a rhetorical question: Isn’t it funny how the FDA works? I mean, we all know that every government institution is on the verge of incompetence at all times. So go easy. Use the sly jab of the elbow and a wink. The reader may still decide against you in the end, but at least they won’t slam down the book.

Exercise: Review your manuscript, and categorize all of your statements by how factual they are. Any argument will contain claims, and those are the ones you need to focus on. Are you allowing your outrage to show? That’s where to clamp down. Keep the tone easy, realize you have to get over—and let the reader decide.

“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”  —Stephen Hawking

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Transported to New Heights

The accoutrements of writing can earn more fanfare than they deserve. The Find and Replace function, for example, can pare back the overuse of a certain word, but you still need to read the entire passage around the word to judge which ones to change. Using a voice-recording device can capture a certain cadence, but when used too often, your prose ends up banal, like ordinary speech. Nothing, to my mind, can replace quicksilver intuition, that feeling—often after long wrangling back and forth—that you finally nailed what you want. 

Where technology serves a writer best is at the margins. For example, a writing program like Scrivener manages drafts and research material better. Compare Documents in Word allows you to see clearly all the changes between drafts. Among these helper tools is a terrific new variation on gleaning nuggets from research: the OCR app.

Optical Character Reading programs have been around for a while. I remember all too well nights spent laboriously pressing a book flat against the glass surface of a scanner. Often I had to configure how all the text I wanted would actually be contained within the scanner window. The curve of a book’s gutter (toward its spine on the inside) would often render the imaged words indecipherable when the program spit them back out. Then I would have to keep the book open with one hand and type in the missing words with the other. 

So imagine my delight when I added two plus two. They have a phone app for everything else, so why not . . . ? Sure enough, you can use your phone camera for research. You keep the book open to the right page, line up the text block within the viewer, and presto! The text appears and you can send it to your computer in a second. Even better, there is no limit to where you can scan the text. In a library, in a bookstore, in a park—wherever you are reading, you can conduct research.

The app serves a social function as well. While everyone else in the world is frittering away their brain with some game or news outrage or product on sale, you too are intent on your phone. Only you are engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, like a veritable Plato on the streets of your town. How good is that?

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”  —Bill Gates

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Directing Notes

The notes that an author draws up before starting a novel and then adds to as the early chapters take shape tend to fall in two categories: character notes and plot notes. You keep coming up with attributes that you want characters to have, and as you pen them, you realize that a characteristic could take active form in a related plot event. By the same token, you write down a plot event and realize that affects the characters in that scene. This cross-pollination builds up a mass that anchors you more firmly in the fictional world that you want to create.

Yet too often a note—a good idea at the time—can be written down and subsequently forgotten. As you forge ahead, you recall its vague after-echo but not its content. You can plunge into writing a new scene not exactly sure what you want from it. A few writing sessions later, you emerge with a scene that feels okay but seems to waste a lot of time getting to its point, which itself might seem minor.

How do you remember your good ideas? You can make a deliberate practice of placing them where you’ll see them later: in your outline. Let’s say you are planning a murder. That entails not only the act committed but the people who might have done it and the clues they left behind. Many of those ideas you have already written down, but they’re not organized. Some are related to character, others to plot. In other words, they’re scattered all over the place.

Start a new file: notes related to the murder. Comb through each of your note files and search for any element related to the murder. Copy and paste the notes into the new file. They don’t have to be in order, just roughly when you gauge the note should occur. When you are done, you may find you have a dozen notes that all demand explication. They must happen at some time during the story. 

You can see right away how much the practice informs your outline. Now that all of the related notes are in front of you, you can select places where they go. You can decide which ones are important, necessitating an entire scene, and which are incidental, the ones that are mentioned. You’re no longer stumbling forward, but acting on the ideas you really liked.

Exercise: Many notes around a single plot event tend to coalesce during one stretch of the novel. You get the largest flurry of setup and clues and discussion shortly before and after a murder, for example. Yet from this new file you can also see which ones require follow-up later. Any further ideas can be pushed down the list. You can even determine, at a very early stage, how the plot thread will be tied up in the end.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” —E. B. White

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.