Aligning Boxcars

Boxcars are mechanical, books are works of art. How could the concept of the one possibly be applied to the other? As a way to begin, I’ll explain that I am using a boxcar as a metaphor for a plot line. This is true in the sense that any plot has a set number of scenes that take up a certain number of pages. If you bothered to count, you would see that your main plot is always the longest boxcar. 

Why is this concept helpful in the slightest? You can use it when you review a draft and sense that characters who were important earlier in the story seem to be forgotten later on. That might not be a problem, if the character was useful only at that stage in the protagonist’s life, or at that phase in the plot. But really, wouldn’t you prefer if all of your plot lines converged during the climax sequence to accumulate the greatest impact?

The key is examining your time line. You might call it scheduling the boxcars, although now I feel I’m verging on Ringo Starr and Thomas the Tank Engine. When you parse out when major events in a plot line occur, you may find that you were merely focused on those events at a given point during your months of writing the book. Further, the crisis might have occurred in real life to your brother, say, when you were 12 years old. You are trapping yourself in a time continuum, and that’s stupid. In a novel, you can make up any time sequence you like.

Why couldn’t the crisis occur when the protagonist is 16, when the large bulk of the novel’s events are taking place? You take the scenes you’ve written and insert them in between main plot scenes. Usually, you want a rhythm in your plot lines—breaking away from one and leaving the reader hanging for a chapter. So the brother scenes allow you that periodic break. Your boxcars—you knew that was coming back in—are now running in parallel, and you’re accumulating the power that derives from the tension contained in each one of them.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for each of your main characters, and write down in a chart the pages on which they appear, in an active way.  Once you are finished, study those numbers. Do you see groupings, which represent when they are important to the book? If you need the character as a force in the climax sequence, could some circumstances be changed so that the grouping slides back further in the book?

“There is nothing permanent except change.” —Heraclitus

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.