Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Just Plotting Along

Whenever I teach I'm asked by newbies how to write that boring middle section of the book, the part between the electrifying opening and the dramatic conclusion.

"You mean the plot?" I always reply.

Sayings and axioms abound about plotting, and I'll paraphrase a few here. Elmore Leonard said the famous "Don't write the parts people skip."

Other oft-heard quotes are, "Write a great beginning and a great ending and string them as close together as possible" and "Chase your characters up a tree, then throw rocks at them."

Ellery Queen and Raymond Chandler are credited with variations on "When things get boring toward the middle, kill somebody" and "When it slows down have two men burst into the room with guns."

All of these sort of touch on the central idea of plotting, namely, conflict. But none are really helpful except in the most general sense.

So here's what I do.

1. Give the characters at least two goals. A story goal, and a personal goal.

In my Jack Daniels series, the story goal is for Jack to catch the bad guy. Her personal goals are fixing her relationships and getting a good night's sleep.

There's something inherent in the human brain that desires order and completion. We want to fit all the puzzle pieces together and live happily ever after. So the first step on this journey is deciding where to go. This is the first stitch on the way to completing the quilt, and it gets the reader's attention and makes them subconsciously want to see it through to the satisfying conclusion.

2. Don't reveal everything at once.

It's natural, once you have a great idea, to want to spill everything immediately. But suspense, and reader interest, is piqued by the opposite--only give a little at a time. Ask questions, but don't answer them until later.

Questions keep the pages turning. The obvious question, "What happens next?" is what both your characters and your readers should be thinking.

In my book Afraid, both the reader and the main characters have no idea what is attacking the town until the second act; all they get are glimpses and pieces. Figuring things out is a lot more satisfying than being spoon fed.

3. Prevent the characters from reaching their goals.

The boring middle part of the book shouldn't be boring at all. This is the part where the author really gets to antagonize his main characters, heaping more and more conflict on them.

What is the absolute worst thing that can happen to your character? Make it happen. What will be impossible for them to overcome? Do it.

Along with being genetically wired to desire completion and order, we also like there to be a struggle before all is well. Adversity, conflict, and tragedy allow for admirable human attributes such as courage, love, and perseverance to blossom. We like winners, especially underdog winners. So heap on the abuse.

4. Subtext is subtext.

Sure, you may have an important theme to the work. Yes, you may love the written word and want to be as eloquent as possible. Of course you want to explore human nature, make the reader think about deep issues, and create realistic characters with complex motivations.

But don't do any of that at the expense of the story, dammit.

A story, in it's purest form, is: "Here's a mess, clean it up."

We're storytellers. Not charactertellers. Not themetellers. Not poets. The goal of a story is to present a problem, then solve the problem.

Are there exceptions? Sure.

But don't base your career on an exception.

We've been a species of storytellers as long as we've had a written history, and probably longer. The Epic of Gilgamesh is over 5000 years old, but the basic formula still remains the same.

Here's a mess, clean it up.

But Joe, you want me to follow a formula? Aren't formulas cliche and derivative and the work of hacks?

Not if you do a good job.

My wife hates going to the movies with me, because I always whisper to her what is going to happen next. It's not that the movies are the work of hacks. It's just that the more you understand about the storytelling process, the better you can predict it.

Of course, once you're able to predict it, you can do the unpredictable.

This isn't about muses or inspiration or magic or creativity. It's more like architecture than art. Yes, you can be dynamic and expressive and imaginative, but there are still rules.

Learn the rules.