Monday, March 15, 2010

Just Peachy

I’ve been struggling with a plot. This is the most I’ve struggled with any plot. This isn’t writer’s block; I’ve got plenty of other plots floating around in my head. The thing that makes this different is that there are a significant number of restrictions on this story. They are all self-imposed, but it doesn’t matter where they come from, the fact is that they are there and that is making this process difficult.

The basic constraints are these: The story must involve Sara, Kelly, David, Neal, Kelly’s mother and Kelly’s father. Sara must be the protagonist. The movie studio from And Thy House must be filming a movie on or near Main Street. At the end of the story, Kelly’s mother must have accepted Christ, Kelly’s father must be back in her life, and Sara must be in love, or so Sara tells me. Add to that the fact that I want everything to turn out well. But it has to be a good story.

You’re probably starting to see the problem and just writing it out like this is helping me. I think the big problem here is that I’m afraid to follow Vonnegut’s sixth rule, “Be a sadist.” So far, what I have is a bunch of fun stuff that we would like to see happen to the characters. Kelly will be acting in a movie. David and Neal will be close to home. Kelly’s mother is going to get her life straightened out and Kelly’s father is going to make amends. That’s all great, but it makes for a boring story. So how do we fix that? What we need is to find some bad stuff to throw at the characters, especially Sara.

For Sara, about the lowest blow I can come up with is to kill off Ellen, Mark or Mark Jr. I’m not sure if I want to go quite that low, but it’s worth a thought. If we could destroy Ellen’s restaurant in the process, that would only add salt to the wound. So what we need is something to come crashing through the front windows of Ellen’s restaurant while one of the three is sitting there. Let’s say it’s Mark Jr. and he’s sitting there because Sara sat him down there with a coloring book to keep him out of trouble. Now she feels responsible. We need the movie studio tie-in. So whatever comes through the front window must be something related to filming the movie. It could be a camera crane, a light stand, a car used in a chase scene or whatever. It will look like an accident, but this “accident” must be directed at Ada, making it a sadistic thing to do to Kelly as well, since those of you who have read And Thy House know the relationship between Kelly and Ada. But it hurts David also, because he has grown to love the movie studio and this accident is going to hurt the studio financially, as well as in other ways. Then there’s Kelly’s mother, who may have done something to cause the accident, out of her hatred for the movie industry.

That gives us some strong emotion, but where’s the story? We find that in Sara’s reaction to what happened. Sara isn’t one to sit around the hospital waiting for her brother to die. She’ll sit there for a while, but if it doesn’t happen right away, she’ll go back to work. She’ll also start asking questions. She’s nosy; she can’t help herself. There’ll be other accidents or maybe some have already occurred. The police may not think there’s anything to it, but Sara won’t be satisfied until she understands.

It makes things a little messier, but it adds interest to the story. We can still stay within most of the constraints, without it seeming like everything is just peachy. But now we have to wonder if this plot is too much like so many others.


Heather M said...

Sure it's a standard plot in a way (fishy accident, search for answers) but it's been done successfully and to me it kind of depends on what you do with it. What I want to know is what's she going to find out! And is it going to be complicated, is there going to be a twist in it.

I don't know your characters, who've obviously been through a lot in previous novels, so the ins and outs aren't clear to me but...

To me the real drama in a plot comes with the character's choices. Not just a choice of attitude or an inner choice, though those are *always* going to be a part of things, but a real practical moral dilemma: what's the right thing to do here, I don't know. Wouldn't it maybe be interesting if Sara's search turns up some reason why maybe she shouldn't keep searching, or shouldn't expose what she finds out? Then, see, she has a strong emotional pull--this is her brother after all, but if she proceeds it's going to (for some complex reason) badly hurt some other innocent person, maybe someone she cares about--but her brother may be dying! What she chooses is up to you (and her) but putting her in a dilemma gives you a central drama. (This is assuming she's the main character.)

Just a thought. That's what came to my mind. I like plot problems too. I didn't know Kurt Vonnegut said "Be a sadist." But my favorite SF/Fantasy author, Lois McMaster Bujold, has a principle she calls "Worst Possible Thing"--find out what the worst possible thing to do to your character is, and do it! I like to interpret that as a personalized thing--what's the WPT to do to *this* character...

Timothy Fish said...

Heather M,

There are many writers who have offered similar advice and it’s hard to know who said it first. It isn’t bad advice if you’re kind of stuck and don’t know where to go, but as I said in a previous post, there is another side to it. Throwing the worst stuff at our characters results in dark fiction. In that post, I gave the example of Ellen’s café burning to the ground with her family trapped inside after she is raped by the arsonist. In a worst case scenario, I could do the same thing with Sara, but that is much darker than I care to go with this series. One way to avoid this problem is to define the antagonist first and then determine how far the antagonist is willing to go, placing a limit on how dark it can get.

Working with the plot described in this post, the antagonist is unknown, since this appears to be a whodunit, but the cast of suspects include Kelly’s mother, Kelly’s father, David, Kelly’s step-mother and others. We don’t know these well, but if any of them kill someone, it won’t be in cold blood and they have no reason to harm Ellen’s café.

But I have this thing about letting my characters tell me what they think. I’m going to go talk to Sara and on Friday I’ll be posting her comments.

Heather M said...

About the dark fiction thing: that's what I meant by the personalized bit, though I didn't unpack it enough. Obviously the worst possible thing to do to any character is to get them raped, tortured, murdered etc but of course you'd end up with awfully dark books, and though it's not wrong to write a dark book there are lines it's very risky to cross.

So what I meant by a personalized WPT is... it's hard to explain. I grew up in France and among the jokes French kids tell are "worst possible thing" jokes. What is "le comble" (the worst possible thing) for a cyclist? To get recycled! What is "le comble" for a gardener. To have to moon the tomatoes to make them turn red! Actually "le comble" doesn't mean precisely the worst possible thing but I carry over the concept. It's a combination worst possible thing and *funniest* possible thing. And maybe weirdest, or most extreme.

So Bujold, for example, has this guy courting a woman but not really telling her his intentions; instead he gives her a contracting job he knows she'll love doing, so that he can be around her more, but while he's trying to be all subtle with her he blabs to his friends because he's so excited about this wonderful woman. Then he gives a dinner party and invites her and all his friends, who mostly know he's trying to romance her, and his ex-boss who has memory problems and doesn't even know the courtship is a secret blurts out in front of everybody, "Oh, is this the woman you're going to marry?"

If you know the characters it's this amazing "comble." It's the worst possible thing for the ex-boss, because when he realizes he's made a huge gaffe he thinks it's because of his memory problems, which he's constantly embarrassed about. It's the worst possible thing for the woman, because she's *extremely* reserved, has trust issues, has been burned in love before, and just *hates* being in the dark about anything and being the center of attention. It's the worst possible thing for our main character because his Clever Plan is totally bust (and oh, he loves his Clever Plans) and the woman he's after stands up and runs out of the room, apparently never to return. (She actually does marry him in the end, but he's forced first to genuinely humble himself, which he really needs.)

So that's the kind of Worst Possible Thing I think a writer should go for. Maybe it's not so much "be a sadist" as "be a really mean practical joker." The kind who would take a car that's his target's pride and joy, disassemble it and reassemble it inside his dorm room with the motor running, or who'd take a girlfriend who loves her stuffed bunny and kidnap it and send her pictures of it tied to a chair. It's a matter of knowing your character well enough to know where it'll hurt most: is it their pride? Their anxiety? Their jealousy? Their car? Their supposed ability to win all situations with a Clever Plan?