Sunday, September 11, 2011

Robert Kernen’s “Building Better Plots”, part 26

I’m a little annoyed with Kernen’s chapter on constructing an outline. Funny, that’s what I’ve been waiting for, and he starts out telling me some things he’s already mentioned, and telling me other things too cryptic to be of use.

He says that to build an outline, I should decide how the story ends and start there. Well, he’s previously given exercises on plots, so by now I have a bunch of plot points that span the novel. He tells me to focus on the climax scene and list all the elements that need to converge in that moment: which characters need to be present (I’ve done that) and which points need to be cemented in that scene. Well, but I won’t know *all* of them until I know how the story plays out. Unexpected themes and plot twists happen while I’m capturing scenes, so I can’t project that far ahead.

I suspect there’s a boatload of themes, metaphors and motifs in Street Glass, because they intertwine and some are subtle. Aren’t those terms synonymous in this context? I know many of the themes I want to explore, but as I see it after having done a first draft, some of them are *felt* rather than *heard* in the climax, to use a music comparison/metaphor/trope/thing.

For example, by the time I get to the scene with Neal and his mother Lola where they talk about his past and his future, readers should realize that Neal feels his past is smothering him without my having to be blatant about it. It’s a gradual build-up.

Neal struggled to make a good life once he got away from the gang. Attempts on his life were made. He overcame racial and social prejudice. He gave up a safe, private life to co-run a public, non-profit group that works to prevent kids from turning to drugs and gangs. He thought that at long last, his past no longer had a hold on him.

But then he’s caught in a riot and picked up by cops who think he’s just another troublemaker because he looks the part. He’s tossed in a holding cell with gangbangers and miscellaneous rabble-rousers. That’s bad enough. Then his biological father Tony (whom Neal hates) shows up. A brawl breaks out in the holding cell, and Neal is handcuffed, his ankles are chained together and he’s tossed onto a plane. He winds up clear across the country, where he doesn’t know anybody. He’s now battered and at the mercy of a father who has already made it clear that his only interest in Neal is to get money from him.

Locked in a lightless room, Lola visits him, the mother who abandoned him as a child. By this point, readers should realize that when I say he finds it hard to get enough air, it’s not just because there are no windows. Realizing that Lola is the only person who can free him makes everything worse. When Neal gets his hands on Tony and nearly strangles him, readers should understand why.

So I guess I’ve already got the bones of the climax scene. I know generally what leads up to it.

This is kind of funny: Kernen says that one way to bridge the gap between the inciting incident and the climax is through interpolation, which he defines as “predicting the location of something by knowing two points, one on either side of it.” But the dictionary in my word processor defines it as to “insert something into something else: to add one thing, often an unnecessary item, between the existing parts of something else.”

Contradictory information even at the most basic level! I’ll say it yet again people wonder why writers drink!

Coming up: the physical side of outlines, and I don’t mean the “word” part.

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