Wednesday, June 16, 2010

[Book Update] The Plot Doesn't Thicken

At this week's Writer's Roundtable, I presented the second half of the rather gargantuan Chapter 12. It used to be Chapters 11 and 12, but I realized they were actually one chapter that was split between two points of view so I pulled out some historical info (which I put back in Chapters 6. No that plural Chapters is not a typo.), jammed the two together, and then in an effort to shorten them, I naturally added another four to six pages. It was received very well, however - probably the best reception I've gotten to any chapter thus far. It's a bit surprising, as it's essentially two main characters walking through town and then down a country road. I'd say it was one of my least favorite chapters, though I ended up reasonably satisfied with how it turned out. It was certainly never one of those "ooh, I can't wait to write this one!" sorts of chapters.

I was the last of a short list of readers Monday night, so the group indulged me in an extensive analysis and critique of both the particular chapter and of my work as a whole. One of my peers has been very vocal almost from the start about the need to make a stronger connection with my lead characters because thus far they seemed to come off flat and dull. I made considerable assurance that I have heard that feedback loud and clear and that I believe I've made changes in the novel to address it. The problem is that those changes are in the form of edits to chapters that are behind us - I haven't brought them back in to the group and I have no plans to do so anytime soon. So at this point it's important to accept on faith that I've listened and made the necessary changes, because I'm certainly not making an effort to address in chapter 13 character development issues that absolutely must be handled within the first couple of chapters.

Another reader hit me with a tougher question, though. She asked if I could explain the plot of the (roughly) 12 chapters that I've brought to the group thus far. I had a hard time answering that question and after the meeting I gave it some intense and serious thought. And I concluded that the problem was that I shouldn't have tried so hard to answer the question, or, really, I should have responded that there simply isn't one at this point.

I'm intentionally doing a fair amount of juggling in the beginning of the novel, and I'm counting on that juggling being sufficiently entertaining to hold my readers' attention even without a clear plot. Also, it's worth noting, some modern writers (and editors and publishers and readers) actually go so far as to consider "plot" to be a dirty word - a limiter of creative nuance and an organic, natural-feeling story. I don't really subscribe to this theory - I don't see how you can tell a good story that doesn't ultimately have a plot, even if you didn't consciously put it there. I think the "anti-plot" crowd are more railing against formulaic plots, or using a very tight story outline that forces you as the writer to write only to the plot, denying yourself the freedom to explore characters, settings and themes that might take you off in new directions. But there certainly are people who (loudly and vehemently) subscribe to this theory, so it's plausible that I could be at least attempting to write a novel without a plot. I'm not - and I'm not even clear on how I would - but I could be.

I will note that there's no shortage of very popular authors for whom the question "What's the plot?" would have little or no meaning. If you were to ask George R. R. Martin what the plot of his epic series A Song of Ice and Fire was, I suspect it might go something like, "There are many powerful and wealthy families in Westeros. Most of them hate each other. Hi-jinks ensue." He's woven such a tangled skein of complex character actions that I'm baffled how he can keep them straight (though that complexity no doubt goes some distance to explain why his later novels tend to come so far apart). Likewise, I just finished the novel "Repo Men" (of which I'll write a review soonish) and while there ultimately is a plot in there (somewhere), it's cleverly and intentionally broken up in such a way that you never can clearly see what order things happened in until the very end of the novel.

And that may be part of what the "anti-plot" crowd is getting at. Though the more I write here about that mindset, the less I realize I actually know about it. I have some reading to do, I suppose. Anyway, I think it's fair to say that you CAN write a very engaging novel that follows the traditional "plot-driven" structure of "A leads to B leads to C, etc.," but as my buddy John at Microsoft always liked to say, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should. And just because you should doesn't mean you must." There are other, less linear ways to tell a story, and it's not automatically wrong if the plotline(s) don't leap out at you right from the start (or ever).

But I digress. In my novel, the first quarter or third of the book (up through about chapters 14-17) is an exploration. It's a tableau I've painted, where I introduce the reader to a new, different world and invite them to wander around in it. I let them meet interesting (I hope) characters and see how they interact as they live their daily lives. There's a bit of action, a fair amount of history (both of the world and of the individual characters) and a lot of story threads that I dangle out there but don't actually pull just yet. It's intended to make the reader wonder "Why?" Why is the world this way? Why does that character do that? Why did that happen? And, of course, What will they do now?

The "storyline" will come - the sequential, action-oriented events where characters race from conflict to conflict, building and shedding dramatic tension as they go. But we're not there yet. Just now, we're juggling, telling a few jokes, setting the stage for what's to come. It's a lavish, full stage, and the reader, I believe, needs time to digest what's on it. Not every last prop and set decoration in detail, but some of the key ones certainly, as well as the overall effect of having them together. If the juggling's good enough and the stage is interesting enough, then the audience, the reader, ought to want to stay for the main performance. Soon enough, the juggler will light his torches, do a final, amazing flourish with them, and then bow out so the main play can begin. Then all of the characters we've met will take their places to strut and fret their hour upon the stage.

In the end, it may not work. The way I'm building the novel may need to be adjusted or radically changed, but I don't know that yet. And if I don't know it, as the author, then nobody else does either. We're going to have to wait and see once the novel is largely complete whether the early chapters were a suitable lead-in or not. Hopefully my fellow writers will stick with me, give me the benefit of the doubt and let the story reach that stage before judging it. I'll be sad if they don't, but as the writer I need to trust myself enough to follow through with it anyway and see where it ends up.

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