Bending Real Life

Novelists follow the dictum “To thine own self be true” for good reason. When you are trying to compose a compelling plot event, what better source than something that really happened to you? If it blazes in your memory, you stand a good chance of capturing it vividly. What fledgling authors don’t understand as well is: writing one event lies on a different plane from the string of events that create the novel’s overall plot logic.

The one event requires concentration on minute details, particularly the feelings the person had at the time. You try your best to do that, with the slight twist that it is now happening to your characters, not you and your family or friends. Everything is specific: timing, locale, descriptions, in-the-moment thoughts.

When you finish writing the one experience, the tendency is to plunge into another well-recalled event. That makes intuitive sense to you. You’re writing about what you know. Yet what emerges from this collection of deeply felt moments? Quite often, a miscellaneous assortment of characters remembered from your life. They appear in a few scenes and then drop out over the long course of the book.

The difference between the specific scene and long-range scheme is the hinge between real life and a novel. In a novel, characters must follow a logic that is circumscribed by that portion of a life you can develop within a finite number of pages.  You can’t feature too many main characters, because a novel is too short for that. A reader’s interest, except for rare occasions, won’t last longer than 300-400 pages.

You need to elevate above the real life models. What story circle can you develop within that number of pages? That includes especially the character most like you. Your life can’t be enclosed within a novel, so why are you thinking every scene has to be about you? You’re confusing the local with the global. 

When you have written out a series of scenes, what matters now is the characters performing the acts. They have to keep building toward their end points. In real life, maybe the guy that jumped off the Verrazano Bridge was a friend of a friend. But for a novel, a suicide is a highly dramatic event. You want to give that piece of plot business to a major character. The logic you have been developing for that character now has to be bent to accommodate the harrowing end point. You combine the characters—because the events of the novel won’t allow you to do otherwise. 

Exercise: When you are revising, try to banish all thoughts of the characters’ models. Jill is that person you’ve made up. She can do anything you want—it’s fiction! Unless you elevate to that plane, the character will never be able to tell you what she wants. You’re too timid to believe she has that power over you.

“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”              ― Dr. Seuss

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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