Wednesday, September 19, 2012
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?