Thursday, March 10, 2011

Robert Kernen's "Building Better Plots", part 8

Chapter two opens with a discussion of the story arc, and using the three-act structure. We need conflict, crisis, and resolution. My problem with the suggestion to take major events and write them in along a drawn arc is that I don’t have a clear resolution or climax yet. I can’t gauge whether or not each plot point moves me along toward the crisis if I don’t know what the crisis is.

Kernen says less about how to find the climax than I like. He spends paragraphs trying to convince me why having all these points plotted out on a graph will help with writing the actual story, but what to do if I don’t have one or more of them figured out? I don’t think just putting down “crisis happens here” will help anything.

He sticks in questions to ask to be sure that scenes are necessary and done effectively, though I think that issue itself might be more effective if left till later. After all, we’re still deciding on major plot points. But, because it’s a valid issue and I don’t want to risk forgetting about it, I’ll add his scene evaluation here.

  • Is the scene absolutely necessary to the central plot line?
  • If not, does it constitute a meaningful, necessary subplot or tangent?
  • If it is a worthwhile subplot or tangent, is this a good place to put it? Would it be more effective somewhere else?
I’d just amend to say “is this the best place to put it?” There are probably more than one “good places” to put necessary scenes, but the best place is where they should be.

Back to the arc and the crisis. Two or three blog posts ago, I said that it seemed like things were pointing toward Neal getting caught in the 1992 L.A. riots and being kidnapped by his father as the crisis point. I don’t like that though, because that would mean the resolution phase has to happen right afterward, and that’s supposed to be a short section.

I have a scene that takes place some time after the riots where Neal has risen to some public prominence, and becomes disgusted at the lack of progress in rebuilding after the riots. He confronts the mayor with a mix of in-your-face Latino pride and a willingness to meet Anglos (whites, Caucasians) half way. He displays a self-confidence only arrived at by everything he’s been through before that moment. It seems to me that the scene, as well as the mayor’s reaction, illustrate Neal’s growth from undereducated, rough-around-the-edges, coke-addicted 18-year-old to self-possessed, hard-working, compassionate man.

I also have a scene in mind, not written at all yet, between him and Sandy that might show how their friendship has evolved and might contribute to a sense of story resolution, if I can do it right.

Kernen suggests thinking of the crisis as “the final sequence of events where the outcome of the story is decided, the time at which control of the characters’ situation slips into the hands of fate.” Well, it seems to me that at least for some novels, the characters lose control early on and the story concerns how they deal with that fact. The crisis could then be the final effort to fight against fate, and the resolution could be acceptance of fate.

I will say that it helps to think of the crisis as the moment toward which the previous parts have been moving. That crucial event should make sense, based on what came before. “Of course that happened,” readers should think.

And yet, it shouldn’t be so predictable that readers also say, “Nothing about it surprised me.”

Tell me again why I want to do this??

On the horizon a breakthrough!

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