While writing my new novel Abutters (sequel to Owners)I've been wondering about the whole process of plot construction, keeping a journal, trying to make a record of my thinking on the subject. Plot doesn't get talked about much. It tends to be dismissed by the literary set ... most of whom have probably noticed somewhere along the line that devising plots feels a little too much like work. Better to dismiss the whole business as hack writing and get on with the prose poems about city light in winter and losing your virginity in the tenement basement, or whatever.
Someone once remarked that one of my dad's scripts was 'contrived'. He said, "Yeah. I sat down and contrived it."
But how exactly? That's what interests me.
Hence these notes ...
This is a classic plot strategy: when you hit a hole, a spot where the people are behaving in ways that sabotage your intentions … go with it. Follow their actions. See where they lead. It’s your unconscious telling you something. And there is often good story material in following the natural impulses of your characters.
The fatal nemesis of any plot is coincidence. Any gesture of intention – no matter how far fetched – is preferable to coincidence. Your job is to make the preposterous intentional gesture believable, using physical detail and emotional history, quirks of character and every other tool you possess. Because however hard it may be, making a coincidence function as part of the narrative engine is impossible. For instance … does Beaumont just wait around for the girl to arrive on island? That would be lame. Does her arrival give him the idea? Then what was he doing here in the first place? Her showing up just in time to give Beaumont’s victim the perfect motivation for a crime feels dubious and lazy. The only way out is to make Beaumont RESPONSIBLE for her coming to the island. How? Well …What if he had gone to her first? Tracked her down methodically as he circled Krakauer … hacked into the e-mail – suddenly he becomes this creepy red-neck computer geek; and he could have been that all the way back to desert storm … fixing things, including cars and computers … a sort of idiot ( or Snopes-)- savant.
So what if he found out about the land sale, found out that they needed one more partner? … Then he would be just one incidence of identity theft from being that needed last partner and luring the girl to the island. Which would make the whole land fraud thing a potential bust anyway, since one key part of it was fake. It would also allow Henry a way into Beaumont … since he could start with the identity theft, and track Baumont backward from there. This also allows for some interesting research and discussion of identity theft itself. Maybe that has been his specialty … that and writing computer viruses. And improving linux in small ways.
It seems baroque and bizarre … but it beats the girl just showing up. All you really have to do is go back and shore it up, and armor it with enough fact and detail and atmosphere so that the reader buys it.
Characters & plot:
Let characters expand to explain their behavior as dictated by the events of the story. The character is literally formed by the plot and his evolving role in the events of the book. He becomes who he has to be – a creature of narrative fate. It’s a type of destiny you can actually believe in: not God’s plan … just the writer’s contrivance.
Plot – trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle when you don’t have the box. You don’t know what the picture is supposed to look like and you’re cutting the pieces yourself.
The necessity of non-plot related stuff: Lisl Hennig in Deigton. The details that breathe life into the plot. Stray comments, weather, ruminations, observations, minor characters.
Tip of the Iceberg theory –
Knowing the right detail to deliver sideways, with an attitude, convinces more than reams of exposition, and allows you to venture, briefly at least, into areas where you know nothing and have no direct experience. You are not putting a particular tool, or location or skill-set into the book … all you are putting there are words. Choose the right ones, give them the correct casual, opinionated delivery (familiarity breeds contempt … describe the most gorgeous city in the world in terms of the ever worsening dirt and traffic and you will be more convincing that the most detailed guidebook) … and it will be plausible.
Three more notes:
The first is the analogy of the airplane flight and the O’Hare layover. You have three hours between flights, and you spend them in a hard plastic seat next to a snoring fat guy and harried single mom with three kids, trying to read a book and settling for someone else’s discarded Time magazine. It’s tempting to think that you’re stuck there going no place, listening other people’s flights being called. But in fact, you’re still traveling. The whole trip winds up taking ten hours instead of seven, but that’s all it is – a ten-hour cross-country trip. The waiting between flights is as essential to your eventual arrival as the time in the air. It’s the same way while you’re piecing together the structure of a book, arranging and re-arranging all the elements, letting characters expand to fill the new roles that the story requires, catching logic holes and filling them, following odd digressions that lead to transformational ideas, which in turn require basic revisions in the original concept. It’s time consuming but it’s fun … maybe too much fun. Still, it’s essential. It’s the time on the ground that prepares you for that take off and the smooth flight, cruising through the intricacies of the narrative at 30,000 feet. You’re not producing any pages – except pages and pages of notes, probably. So it feels fallow and it’s anything but.
This relates to the second analogy. Devising the plot, however detailed and cunning, is only part of the process. It’s like building a house. It’s not enough to have a weather-proof shell, and all your plumbing and electrical finished – even the wall board and the plastering don’t do it. The place is solid and level, it passed all its inspections, but it’s generic: an item of architecture. You have to paint it and furnish it and cook meals in the kitchen and eat them in the bed. You have to throw parties and clean up after them, come home after a trip and smell the stale air, and fill the shelves with books … you have to live in the place, long story short. You have to let the reality of it enclose you, you have to make that reality animate from the inside out. It’s the same with a plot. Hammer it together – fine, that’s the hard part. But then you have to live with it, let it become real for you … however far fetched or even preposterous it might be. When the house becomes a home, when the plot becomes the truth of your characters’ lives … then you have a new address … or a book.
The third note has to do with accepting and even embracing the haphazard way plots come into existence. Things that seem part of a carefully calculated master plan in fact develop almost at random. The whole first scene (below) in the Muse takes place because I realized the story could not start on the day Debbie arrived on Nantucket. The chronology was screwed up. If Kennis was to get a call about a bombing, Zeke would have had to have been at work for a while, setting his plan up, laying the groundwork. That’s not a one day deal. So … I still needed Debbie’s arrival to kick things off (because after all, it does); and I needed a time lapse. Can you show a quick scene and then jump ahead two weeks? Yes … if you can pull it off. That’s the maddening beauty of the novel form. The only rule is … make it work. If it works, you can do it. The only limits are your own.
Still… how exactly? First of all, stay in Henry’s POV … “The next time he noticed her” leads you into another scene and then a door opens up. You can use that scene to establish things in action you were just going to talk about before. And then a scene you should have figured out from the start lurches into being because of bandaid for a botched piece of chronology. And this isn’t some bizarre anomaly … it’s standard operating procedure. It seems like luck … it’s certainly not the straight line from point a to point b that you’d like … but perhaps these scenes are in fact already organized; the trick is finding your way to them, and linear thinking rarely works.
Why a plotted externally driven book is of an intrinsically lesser quality than a character driven story: the withholding of information closes you out of various characters’ minds. In fact wherever you are closed out of a character’s thought processes in a plot driven novel, a red flag should go up. A good reason why many detective novels are written in the first person … you can’t get into anyone’s head, by definition. A book where you are artificially removed from certain characters … because to hear their thoughts would wreck the plot … its based on a kind of narrative dishonesty. But the lie is embraced by the reader for his own pleasure. It reminds me of my Dad’s analogy between writers and prostitutes. They do their work first for their own pleasure … then for the amusement of their friends – and then for money. It seems that a john embraces the false intimacy of mercenary sex in the same way that the reader accepts the false presentation of situation in a detective yarn. For diversion, for fun, to while away an idle hour. This is hardly Kafka’s view of real literature – “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
But you don’t always want that.
Sometimes you just want to ice-skate.