Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Details Details


As you plan your book, every detail of the story should be your conscious decision.  You leave nothing to chance in shaping your book.  This applies to the characters and the plot—along with all the other elements, you also have to consider setting, dialogue, conflict, the resolution, the pacing.  Each detail determines the shape of the story.  As I said in a previous post, this is not reality.  It must seem real to the reader, but you are the one who picks each detail.

You develop your plot through a series of scenes which are self-contained yet linked to the rest of the action of the book.

Each scene has a beginning, middle and end.  And each scene should have more than one purpose—to reveal character, advance the plot (what's happening in the story), give the setting, or show the character's problem and how the character deals with the problem.

Every incident of the plot should be there for a reason.  Nothing should happen at random.  Every element in a story should have significance in terms of the rest of the book.  It should contribute to the effect you want to create and build toward a crisis point or the climax of the story.

You may have heard that if a writer has a character discover a gun in a drawer, that somebody better fire that gun by the end of the story.  And sometimes this situation is literally true.  Night over Water, by Ken Follett, a book I’d call romantic suspense, is set on a Pan Am Clipper flying from England to North America.  During the course of the story, a boy discovers a gun in the pilot’s drawer—a boy who knows how to shoot.

In Harlan Coben’s Hold Tight, two girls are having a sleepover at one of their houses.  One girl shows the other the loaded gun in her father’s drawer, and we wonder if the scene is going to lead to tragedy.  But we know for sure that Coben, like Follett, is going to use that gun.

In both these books, the characters bring about a resolution to the problems generated by the plot.  And this is a must in your own stories.  In today’s fiction, no author should rely on the deus ex machina.  The phrase means “a god from the machine,” and it was used frequently in Greek tragedy.  At the end of the play, a god would come in and make everything right.  In your book, if the heroine is going to be saved at the end of the story by money she inherits from her Uncle Herbert, then we need to know about this uncle.  We need to know he’s sick or off on a dangerous expedition where he might get killed.

One problem with plotting is that you know what’s going to happen.  You know Colonel Mustard bashed the victim over the head in the hall with a candlestick, and you’re bursting to tell the reader about it.  If you spill the information too quickly, you may have turned your eighty-thousand-word book into a short story.  You have to hide the information and string the reader along.

By the same token you must make sure that the climax of the story is not a surprise.  You must lay the groundwork for the way you end the book.  In Lassiter’s Law, my action climax is precipitated by the heroine’s surrendering herself to the villain.  On the face of it, that’s a pretty foolish thing to do, and I spent a lot of time during the book preparing the reader for her actions by showing how much she needed to prove herself.  She was in jail for several years.  Her self-esteem is low.  She’s willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good because she thinks she’s not worthy of a happy life.

One romance plot trope I hate is when either the hero or the heroine has a deeply held conviction that keeps the couple from working out their problems.  Then at the end of the book, the hero or heroine completely reverses himself or herself—for no good reason.

I had this problem with Shattered Magic.  It’s been drummed into the hero, Prince Grantland, all his life that witchcraft is evil.  Now he’s making an alliance with a witch.  How can he change his mind?

I hope I’ve made it clear that he’s doing it because it will benefit his kingdom.  He’s doing something he hates but says that sometimes a ruler has to make difficult decisions.

I’ll talk more about plotting next time.  Do you try to make sure you’ve got more than one reason for every scene you write?  Do you consciously think about how each scene you write is moving you closer toward the climax of the book?


15 comments:

  1. I tend to keep my scenes moving forward from one exciting point to the next, skipping details by using transitions, such as "the next morning." But that means I often have to go back into chapters already written and plant the seeds of fruit I will need later on to avoid awkward coincidences. While items may appears handily in real life just when you need them, this kind of coincidence doesn't work well in stories.

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  2. Agreed. I'm going back through a ms now, adding details that I actually didn't know when I wrote the original draft. Which illustrates my theory that you don't have to get it all right the first time.

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  3. What a great post, Rebecca! You make a great point. Don't you just hate when a character in a movie suddenly "changes their mind" and all is okay by the end? Makes me want to throw a shoe at the TV.
    Your comment about not getting it all right the first draft was very timely for me as I'm writing a new story now. I'll keep your comments in mind!
    Thanks for sharing and keep up the great work. I loved Dark Moon.

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    1. Thanks so much. Yeah, giving up deeply held convictions at the end of a book always reminds me of that Gilda Radner character on Saturday Night Live who used to say, "Nevermind."

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  4. I love this topic. So many writers feel that it's wrong to use specific info--like names of real places and restaurants or stores--but specific details are one element that help the reader believe in the story. I use tons of details to enrich the historical fiction I write.

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    1. Right. If you live in central Maryland, you will probably enjoy the details about Ellicott City and Columbia that I put into my current Intrigue release, HER BABY'S FATHER.

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  5. It's not just the total turnabouts that make me put a book down and shake my head in disgust. As you said, it's the stupid actions that are clearly there just to make something happen. Incidents of that type used to happen a lot more frequently in some of the older Harlequins. You almost knew that, at some point, the heroine was going to do something totally idiotic, usually disobeying an explicit instruction to the contrary, so that the hero could save her. At that point, I usually wanted the hero to leave her to her hideous fate because the fool had it coming to her. I guess, even though these are fictional people, I want to respect the decisions that they make. When characters make consistently stupid or contradictory choices, I lose my patience with them. They no longer are people I want to get to know better. I don't have the time to read about blithering idiots, I guess.

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    1. I have a name for this. I call it "jerking the characters around for the sake of the plot."

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  6. Pearl, I am soooo glad that TSTL (Too Stupid Too Live) heroines are now an endangered species. They still crop up and that book tends to hit wall (or did until I started reading digitally because...uhm...ereaders are expensive!).

    Rebecca, I know what I'll be doing tomorrow--checking the chapters of my WIP to make sure. Sometimes I think I have multiple reasons but upon rereading, realize I need more layers. In the current project, I have most of the big scenes written--or at least plotted--and its those transitional chapters that are giving me fits. I'm a "puzzler"--I plot by the seat of my pants but end up writing scenes and then fitting them together in the right sequence before filling in the blanks between them. This process usually works quite well for me. Tomorrow, I'll look to add details to those transitional chapter--or delete them altogether. Thanks! You're advice is, as always, timely.

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    1. I am different. I try to write straight through (then go back and layer in editing.) But I seriously can't imagine leaving the transitions for last because I hate them so much. I write the scenes I want to write as a reward for doing the ones I hate.

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    2. LOL That's why I save them for last because I hate them, too. Maybe I should try your method! ;-)

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    3. I am trying to imagine sitting at the computer facing a whole bunch of scenes I knew I would hate writing!

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  7. I'm a proponent of what I call, and not originally I'm sure, "organic writing." Plot points have to lead to other plot points--they just can't be tossed in or planted last minute to make everything work out. That, of course, goes for all kinds of important details. Everything has to be there for a reason. And there's no better way to paint yourself into a corner at the end of a story than not to plan ahead how it's going to resolve. The "out of nowhere" ending drives me up a wall. Especially in a mystery--I feel duped.

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    1. Agreed. But if you think of a better ending, you CAN go back and put in details that will lead to it.

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  8. Its always smart to have a will. Just wanted to mention my site about how to tighten skin.

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