Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Building Better Plots", part 4

Under “what to leave out or withhold” in chapter one, Robert Kernan says: “…the simple act of including something in your plot you are saying to your readers that this is an important piece of information that is worthy of their time and consideration. While the occasional red herring…can be a useful device, if you cry wolf too often, your audience will quickly lose faith in your perspective.” [my emphasis]

Especially for new writers (but for all of us), I think that issue can’t be overstated. When you offer a written work up to the public, you’re promising to give readers something valuable in return for their time and attention. The sad fact is, readers are not going to be as enamored of our plots and our characters as we, the writers, are. We have a much more intimate connection with our creations than our readers ever will. We have to work at presenting our novels in ways that not just promise an exciting ride, but deliver one.

With my own novel, I want readers to come away with a sense of having peeked into parts of society they wouldn’t otherwise see. I want them to learn some things, but I don’t necessarily want them to realize that, at least not right away. I’d rather the learning happen just below the surface.

Deciding what information not to include is tricky. I plan on sometimes using Neal’s point of view, sometimes Sandy’s. Each character may know or learn things that maybe should be kept from the other character; is it still okay for readers to know? Of course I won’t know the answer until I get to those details, but it’s an important question to keep in mind.

One specific issue that comes to mind is that of Neal’s biological father. Neal has known for years that somebody besides his mother’s husband is his real father, but doesn’t know anything else about the guy. Currently, in an early chapter, his mother tries to visit him while he’s in rehab but he’s not allowed visitors, so she leaves him a short note and his birth certificate. Since he hasn’t seen or heard from his mother in years, he wonders if the visitor was in fact her. Seeing that the birth certificate names another man as his father convinces Neal that the paper is genuine and his visitor must have been his mother.

But that isn’t something he shares with Sandy. I planted it there, so readers would feel suspense when his father finally shows up. I also hoped that by letting readers know right away that Neal is illegitimate I would avoid having it look like a tired cliché when other characters find out. That may not be the most effective way to reveal the information, though. Taking Kernen’s example of Star Wars, the fact that Darth Vader is Luke’s real father was revealed at a moment that was already highly charged, ramping it up even more.

Maybe what I’ll do is make a list of things that are sensitive and dramatic, so I can keep in mind the right time to reveal them as I work on plotting. There shouldn’t be many. I think a great plot needs a few big surprises, but too many weakens all of them.

I’ll close with Kernen’s description of what a plot is: “A plot isn’t merely a string of occurrences; it is a carefully orchestrated telling of events that might include breaking up their temporal order, taking out certain pieces or emphasizing other pieces. It is in that manipulation that a simple story becomes a plot.”

That makes so much sense, doesn’t it? Newspapers are for flatly told tales. I remember the time when, reading one of Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni stories, one of the main characters got seriously injured. Because I was so invested in that character, and what might happen to the others if this guy died, I dropped the book in shock. That’s the kind of emotion I’m after.

Next time, back to basics.


  1. Just wanted to say I've kept up with your posts and they are very interesting. Also, kudos to you for being able to dissect your writing with such a clear mind. I don't think I could've answered this questions so well.

  2. You have an interesting blog here. I'm very curious to get to know your blog better.

  3. Thanks, Stephanie and Summer. It's been a roller coaster getting to the point of being more objective about my writing. For my first several months on Critique Circle, I had pretty thin skin!

    I appreciate both of you leaving comments. I'm determined to beat my WIP into a marketable piece, so hang on for the ride ;)