Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Building Better Plots" by Robert Kernen, part 17

Kernen didn’t say I had to have 6 - 10 major plot points on my first effort at listing them. I have 20. Okay, so I need to cut! Actually, it’s a true miracle that my first pass had *only* 20. After a lot of hemming and hawing and gnashing of teeth, here are my 10 points:

1.  Spurred by a beating, and an outside offer of help from Sandy, Neal leaves his street gang.
2.  Neal finds his lovers and his kids, all murdered by the gang.
3.  Sandy admits to feeling responsible for the deaths of his cousin Renee and of his friend Greg.
4.  Neal gives up on drug rehab once, then realizes he has to try harder. Drugs continue to be one part of his past that he can’t seem to leave behind.
5.  Neal agrees to Sandy’s suggestion of starting a non-profit, and being an active and equal partner.
6.  Neal begins a life-changing relationship with Laurie. Her death sparks a serious falling-out with Sandy.
7.  Neal is caught in the Rodney King rioting, and is kidnapped by Tony Esteban, his biological father. While in captivity, Neal meets up with his mother, who abandoned him at age 10.
8.  Sandy struggles with the possibility that he can’t save Neal just as he couldn’t save Renee and Greg years earlier.
9.  Neal reverts to some gang-like behavior when Tony threatens his friends’ lives; Sandy and April fear how deep the reverting has gone.
10. Neal experiences his first tour as a member of the band. When he gets home, he’s frustrated by the lack of rebuilding after the riots and twists the mayor’s arm till he agrees to a tour of hard-hit barrios. (This point will probably change by the time my outline is finished.)

I cheated a bit by having more than one sentence for some points. I’m still not happy with this list, because I really feel I’ve left out big things that move the plot forward. Maybe professional agents and editors would come up with different points for me. At least it’s a starting place. I’m keeping my list of 20 points, because I think the two lists are important lessons in cutting.

And damn it, I feel like I’m giving my plot away here!  :P

Kernen says settings should be chosen with each scene in mind. He uses the example of Hamlet. The prince confronts his mother about her rush to marry Hamlet’s uncle, and he does it in his mother’s chamber—an intimate setting that amplifies Hamlet’s emotions, and is the same room where his mother slept with his father.

In my WIP, Neal and Sandy have their first confrontation—about staying with the gang or leaving—in the gang’s rattletrap hangout. In his comfort zone, Neal seems to hold all the cards in the scene. Sandy got himself lost and doesn’t know what neighborhood he’s in, yet he meets Neal’s belligerence head on. Suddenly Neal feels less sure of things, though he’s still in his own territory.

If that scene happened in Sandy’s neighborhood, the impact would be lessened. Some years later, Neal is kidnapped by his biological father, whom he’s only met recently. He’s hauled across the country in handcuffs and leg chains. He’s worse for wear, having been caught in the Rodney King rioting and been kicked around by cops. That’s all bad enough, because he’s treated like the gangbanger he thought he no longer was.

He’s in his father’s prison (a stinking, windowless room) with his ankles chained together, in pain from beatings. It’s here Neal faces his mother. She tells him he’s better than where he was born, but at that moment, all he knows is that he tried to get away from his past, and it’s swallowing him whole.

This scene would also have less impact on both characters and readers if it happened somewhere else. Plus, even minor scenes benefit from being in the right setting. See Becca’s *awesome* guest post for more on setting.

Next post—a bit of a rant about the sometimes hit-or-miss publishing industry. I learn something from my own rant J

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Robert Kernen’s “Building Better Plots”, part 16

“Many writers construct stories without ever clearly identifying [major plot points] and without looking closely at how they propel the audience forward.”

Argument accepted. This has been my problem, as mentioned in the previous post in this series. I had a bunch of scenes, some related, some not, most written independently of each other. There’s more to a good novel than just a bunch of related scenes. The relationship must be *intimate*.

Kernen suggests identifying each major plot point in my story. For a novel, he says I should have 6 to 10 such points. Ihhhh, wow. That’s all? I’ve started a tentative outline for this draft; I have almost 2 pages and I’m still describing early stuff. Granted, some of what I’ve included is to jog my memory for when I actually get to the writing part, but apparently I’m now confronted with my another problem I’ve struggled with before: condensing. I have to understand the details of how characters get from point A to point B, and I have to include that in my outline so I know how to write each scene. However, that doesn't mean *all* of that is important for anybody else.

Kernen describes the objective of major plot points this way:
  • How does this event advance the story?
  • Does it lead the protagonist and the audience toward the climax?
  • How does this event increase the tension and suspense of the story?
  • How does this event affect the development of the characters?
  • Where does this event need to lead the protagonist emotionally/mentally for the plot point to be successful?
Maybe I’ll copy those questions onto another sticky note for my computer screen. If you don’t have a program for sticky notes, a physical note will work.

Kernen then goes on to list some general examples of early, middle and late plot points, such as: the protagonist questioning the status quo; a secondary (and previously neutral) character showing herself to be an enemy; and the protagonist finding a hidden strength. As I read each of Kernen’s examples, I immediately think of scenes I’ve already written. On one hand, that seems good. On the other, I worry that I haven’t put those things in the best places. I guess I should think through what my major plot points are.

I am kind of confused as to exactly what counts as major in my own project. For example, everything starts after Neal leaves his street gang, but is that the first plot point? Without Sandy’s involvement, Neal wouldn’t have made that move. Those two characters interact with each other for the rest of the novel. Is Sandy’s offer of help the first plot point, or should it be included in Neal’s action?
  • Spurred by a beating, and an outside offer of help, Neal leaves his gang.
Or is it:
  • Sandy offers to help Neal. (Is that a hair I need to split now?)
  • Neal leaves his gang.
— then additional points that show how those two continue to feed off each other? Wait, here’s a clue. My plot points should ideally pull off several goals, and the strongest ones will have an intersection of forces. I should bring together setting, characters, current subplots, and the timing.

What Kernen doesn’t mention is that the relationship among these elements has to be clear to me at all times, but when they first show up, readers may not recognize them as important. That’s okay, because it allows for “ah ha” moments. “This character tried to sabotage her sister’s job interview. Ah ha, that’s why she said, during the birthday party days before, that sometimes you have to take fate into your own hands. She actually hates her sister.”

Okay. I’m off to mull over my plot points. I’ll have a report next time.

Coming up — Kernen didn’t say I had to have 6 - 10 major plot points on my *first effort* at listing them.  I have 20. :D

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Part 15 of Robert Kernen's "Building Better Plots"

“Each plot point should build upon the one before it to create a gradually growing cumulative effect.”  There’s a concept.  Novels I thought were great had that impact partly because I saw how each new major plot point grew out of things that came before.  Some things were surprises, but even those made sense.  Without points C, D, and E, plot point F would never happen. 

Characters’ personalities play into it as well.  One of the things I love about Katherine Kurtz’ novels is that I can see how and why characters act and react as they do.  Person A hears that something happened and goes postal, and Person B gets killed.  Person C hears the same news but reacts by getting a group together to talk about how to respond to the event.  At the meeting, they decide to do something that Person B could have warned them will be disastrous, but because Person B is now dead, disaster is *not* averted.

Things link together, like falling dominoes.

I’ve had trouble with this, because up until January 2009, I had bunches of scenes that were written mostly independently of each other.  I wrote during the first six months of that year with a better sense of things happening based on what came before, but I still didn’t have a coherent sense of *plot*.

And yet, the further along I got, there were times when I’d think, Hey, X could happen now, because that’s logical after U, V, and W happened.  Once I hit on Neal getting caught in the 1992 Los Angeles rioting and kidnapped by his biological father, I had a strong sense of holding a gift in my hands.  Frankly, when I wrote the first draft of that scene, I didn’t think at all about what might happen afterward.  I had no idea that scene would become pivotal.  It crystallizes everything Neal has been through up to that point.

So I believe in writing “by the seat of one’s pants”.  Yet, for the fantasy short story I’m also working on, I’ve been fanatic about planning major things out and having a ton of backstory that isn’t intended to make it directly into the plot.  I guess I’m the writerly equivalent of ambidextrous.  I’m sure I’m not the only one.  Stories can be like snowflakes: no two alike, from planning to finished product.
Kernen defines plot beats as “distinct movements of the plot, or individual sequences that make up discreet pieces of the story”.  These beats should be like short stories that are linked to create the novel.  Each should have rising action, a climax, and a resolution.

This is supposed to make it easier for the writer to handle all the plot points and subplots, but also offers breaks from all the drama for readers.  I see the wisdom in that, but wow, really?  I’m expected to plot out short story arcs that always bring me closer to the Grand Climax?  You want me to juggle twenty eggs *while* walking a tightrope??

And people wonder why writers drink.

I’m not sure those little arcs are *always* necessary.  I wish my WIP was an action or adventure piece, where the protagonist has to get from physical Point A to physical Point Z.  It’s got to be easier to move toward the climax in every chapter when your characters have to physically travel.

Would you believe I’ve read over this post to see if it has a stated goal and then moves toward that goal?  Plotting out blog posts??  My muse says that’s good, but I just think I’m fried. ;)

Next time . . . If you were a major plot point, what would you look like?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Look who's on Celebrity Apprentice!

While watching “Celebrity Apprentice” recently, I noticed Trump always has at least a couple participants with a career in rock music. Neal would be good at this show. Half the reason he’s been in the public eye since the late ’80s is his charity, CanciĆ³n de Vida. The other half, of course, is his connection to the band Sylvyr Star.

Who would I like to see Neal paired with? Trump always has a “mens’ team” and a “womens’ team” so let’s run with that. I’d pick—
  • Dennis Rodman
  • Arnold Schwartzenegger
  • David Bowie . . .
  • Ozzy Osbourne! Nah, Neal would bond with him, and they’d stick up for each other no matter how stupid either of them got.
  • Paul Hogan 
  • Hulk Hogan too, just for the fun of it
  • Snoop Dogg? If he kept lighting joints, Neal might slug him ;)
  • Robin Williams, in his Mork days
  • possibly Jim Morrison, with all that implies
  • Craig Ferguson
On the womens’ team, people I think would be interesting counterpoints—
  • Paris Hilton (“Yeah, there’s not many lights on upstairs, but she’s hot, y’know?”)
  • Cyndi Lauper (I’d bring her back because she’s bossy and I'd love to see Neal struggle with not telling her to shut the F up)
  • Dana Carvey’s Church Lady
  • Betty White
  • Tina Fey
  • Paula Deen
I’d love to have a group of strong, kick-ass women show up Neal occasionally. By 2011, he’s learned that he doesn’t know everything and that women are more than eye candy, but he’s competitive and proud. He’d be pissed if his team lost to a group of women more than once.

I can hear it now —

The Donald: I’m hearing some not so good things, Neal. You take action without clearing anything with your project manager.
Neal: I’m not talkative.
The Donald: Your project manager this time around - Arnold - says you’re not a team player.
Neal: I don’t think he’s a good judge of that. I’ve split the last twenty years between heading a major non-profit and being an active part of a successful band. Arnold governed California during some of its worst years. Who’s got the better ability to get things done?
The Donald: I hear you had some sort of altercation with Snoop?
Neal: Oh, that was nothing. Philosophical differences.
The Donald: Snoop needed four stitches. I don’t think he’d call that philosophical.
Neal: I apologized, he accepted, we’re good now. Long as he takes a separate car.

What do you guys think? Pick one of your main characters who might provide some fireworks when mixed with two or three celebrities, and share your ideas.

May the best team win!