Saturday, October 8, 2011

pt 30 of Robert Kernen's "Building Better Plots"

Plot devices! Kernen says these are ways to focus the plot on the most important parts of characters’ lives, to clarify the context, or sharpen the story so that its fundamental meaning is well-defined—I like that. I think that’s just what I need to tackle the murky issue of Neal’s life during months-long tours.

The framing device. This is pretty much what it sounds like: circumstances and interactions happen at the start that we don’t fully understand, a narrator takes us back to where everything started and shows us how we got to that opening scene, and now we understand the connections and happenings. Kernen uses the example of the movie The Usual Suspects as one effective way the framing device has been used. I can see how some stories would gain excitement and tension from this device, but I don’t think it’s what my story needs.

The episodic plot. Kernen doesn’t really define this one, but says that this device is often used badly because the episodes are not well connected. He refers to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Each story is almost completely unrelated to the others. I personally think that something like the Tales remains popular partly because the society they show us is so different from what modern readers know. I do show glimpses of closed societies in Street Glass, but the differences are not as dramatic. Anyway, I don’t think an episodic form will work for my novel either.

The flashback. Yes, it’s true, the flashback is often a clichĂ©. But the device can still have value if you use it right. Don’t stick one in just because you’ve thought of a clever way to ease into and out of it. The information you offer has to be important, and preferably, the flashback should be the best way to get that info out. Kernen relies on two movies for examples of this device, but I think that’s a failing. We’re talking about writing flashbacks so I’d much rather have an example of a book where that’s done well. I do have one flashback in an early chapter but I’m going to stop there. I think telling this story in a linear way will help readers experience the changes along with the characters.

Parallel stories. Kernen says you need balance and timing to pull this off. I can see how it could be tricky. You don’t want to confuse readers but parallel stories can add depth and tension. I could say that Sandy’s changes parallel Neal’s as the story progresses, though both characters change because of their interaction with each other. There’s no separation in time or location. I’m sure that many fiction pieces use more than one of these plot devices.

It occurs to me that my original pile of individual scenes could be considered an episodic plot form. As Kernen mentions can happen, they were too loosely connected in that form to make a coherent story.

Kernen points out that the way to use any plot device successfully is to let it happen. Trying to force something onto the characters never works. For example, the first couple of times I posted early chapters of Street Glass to Critique Circle, readers complained that Sandy seemed too nice. Why did he offer to help Neal, who had nearly killed him? Sandy only had one dimension and it wasn’t even an appropriate one for the situation.

In Art Edwards’ Rock And Roll Writing course through Basement Writing, we were challenged to get to know our characters better. I combined this with an exercise designed to help us create compelling characters. We were told to write about an alcoholic coming home for Thanksgiving. I discovered that Sandy had a cousin who resented his success and blamed him for her life falling apart; when she died, he shouldered the blame. With Neal, Sandy sees another young person whose life is out of control. By helping Neal, Sandy hopes to right a wrong and maybe put his cousin’s memory to rest. Now Sandy isn’t just Mr. Nice Guy, he has a personal reason for helping Neal. That background info comes out in a flashback.

Next post in this series is the last! I discuss the final sections of the book and wrap up my impressions of the whole work, and add some comments on other stuff coming down the pike for me.

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