Saturday, June 18, 2011

Robert Kernen’s “Building Better Plots”, part 19

Exposition—that age-old demon who afflicts experienced writers as well as new ones. It’s like the stick that you realized was no good after all, so you threw it away. But look out! It’s a boomerang, and it whacked you in the noggin!

I see writers who haven’t shown their work to strangers much shovel in so much backstory and explanation that it reads more like stream of consciousness. I did it too, so I understand the impulse. Inexperienced writers seem convinced that readers need to know a whole bunch of stuff before they can fully appreciate the story. They don’t realize that when readers get caught up in a story, it’s because the plot—yes, this again—steadily moves forward. It doesn’t stop in the middle of running for your life, and say, “Well, pull up a chair, I want to tell you about the childhood of the guy who’s trying to kill you. And, well, about his parents’ upbringing too, because you can’t understand him without that.”

How about right now we run, and you talk later?

The idea of not dropping in chunks of backstory has been talked about in other places, so I won’t belabor it here. But I do like the way Kernen discusses it, so if you read his book, you won’t waste your time with this section. His main point, perhaps, is that in real life we get to know people gradually, often over a period of years. In fiction, you can mimic that by disclosing things about major characters a little at a time.

I am not fond of one thing he does: using “relevant revelations”.  Mentally I tripped over that a few times, and that interrupted the flow!

I do want to mention something else that Kernen touches on. Writing is not a straightforward depiction of reality. Even in a memoir, when you expect more realism than in fiction, you have to tweak *how* and *what* you say to fit the medium. Ever listen to somebody relating information in such a boring way that you covered up yawns as they droned on? You don’t want to make readers feel that way, because they’ll simply put your book down and leave it there.

My friend Ray writes plays. He doesn’t do comedies, but he is the funniest man east of the Mississippi. He can tell a story about the most dull and mundane thing, but spin it so you laugh so hard you literally can’t breathe. You have to make reality more interesting than it is. You have to compress some things, draw out others, talk about things from a different perspective.

What I like to say when I critique is, We write for readers, not other characters.

When I write a scene for the sheer fun of it, I let characters play freely off each other. I can follow the reasoning of their conversations, but people reading it would get lost in places. Every few days I work on the scene of Sandy’s wedding. It starts with him and Neal bouncing their particular quirks off each other. It helps me understand how both characters feel that day, but a lot of it wouldn’t go into a manuscript draft. Long sections *are only interesting to me*.

You gotta face it, champs. A story idea grabbed you, the characters burned themselves into your soul, and the whole thing won’t let you go. This is *good*, but nobody can feel it the way you do. So please, don’t drive potential readers crazy by telling them long paragraphs of stuff they really don’t care about.

It’s hard. I know. I am so in love with my characters that I could write hundreds of scenes without any plot at all and I’d still love it. But I won’t subject readers to that. Slowly, slowly, I’m learning to condense and delete. I don’t have to throw away that stuff because I do find it helpful, but look at it this way.

If you cut some stuff *from the manuscript* that helps you learn about your characters, the end product will look smooth as glass. Readers will think you were born with such an intuitive understanding of your characters and the writing process that writing well is easy for you.

Fiction writers are, after all, liars ;)

Next week: Another guest post, this time by retired Los Angeles police officer Kathy Bennett, who is anticipating the upcoming release of her first novel, "A Dozen Deadly Roses". You can read about it here: I think a lot of writers are interested in the backstory of other writers who have made the enviable transformation to author, and Kathy will tell us a bit about what it took for her to reach that goal.

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