February 21, 2009

Serendipity - On Being a Professional Amateur

Maya's series continues this week with some thoughts about plotting (or a lack thereof). I love this post, because at one time or another, this happens to every writer.

Serendipity (or Writing by the Seat of Your Pants)
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Sample sentence: Baldric concocted a cunning plan to scare the killer lawn gnome into staying away from the cave entrance so he could sneak in.

Writers sometimes use expositional sentences like this to cover plot holes. We’re writing by the seat of our pants—making it up as we go along. We’re stuck for a way to keep the bad guy out of the cave and we got nothin’. Instead of using the opportunity for some clever plotting we wing a cunning, but undisclosed plan.

It’s a form of deus ex machina. Sometimes it’s a magical mechanism or previously unknown power or ability that saves the day. The weapon or talent the hero wields to kill the rogue lawn gnome does not exist until he needs it. The magic horse is simply there when the prince is stranded someplace nasty. The pebble in the heroine’s shoe was just a pebble until it became more convenient for it to be a magical pebble.

Ultimately, the reader wants to be able to divine from action and dialogue and story arc a set of subliminal rules that help him predict what might happen and to whom. Plot twists only really work with those rules in place. Why? Because if the writer just makes stuff up as she goes along, the reader can’t tell a plot twist from the other gyrations the writer is putting him through.

“Just ‘cause” explanations, convenient objects or talents and repetitive changes in direction not only lose the reader’s trust, they wear the reader out. Any plot device that is important to the main thread and resolution of your story needs to be carefully worked out at least in part onstage, where the reader can watch.

No, you can’t think of everything up front. Sometimes you have to ad lib or you have an epiphany that results in a new plot twist, but then you need to go back and lay the ground work for it in the earlier portions of your manuscript so that it is appropriately built up and foreshadowed. If you provide the hero with a magical, singing sword of hoary legend on page 250, the reader needs to at least get wind of the hoary legend somewhere around page 75.

And if your hero needs to slip into the cave unmolested by that rogue lawn gnome, impress the reader by having him come up with a cunning plan worthy of showing off.

Exercise: Look at your own fiction or at fiction you've recently read—do you see signs of what I describe above? See if you can’t come up with a dynamite plan to sneak your hero past the lawn gnome—then let the reader in on part of your (hero’s) thinking. It will not only engender trust, it could prove pretty darned entertaining.


J Sherer said...

Maya's advice gives us all good advice. How many times have you been working on a story or novel only to suddenly realize, "Wait, why would this character do this?"

Not only does plotting relate to believability, it also relates to your characters! How? Well, think about their motivations. Would they truly behave that way?

Take a minute, try Maya's excerise, and then write a comment here about what you've discovered.

Thanks for reading!

PS. I had to cut out a really cool example out of Maya's post (because the original article was too long). I also should mention that she did make the comment that children's literature (and some magical realism) is able to get away with some of these items. But, remember, you have to write to your audience and what they might expect.

Anonymous said...

I should note that this can be done to put the protagonist in peril as well as to save his patoot.

I've seen a number of manuscripts that had threats suddenly appear that often had nothing to do with the action or the environment or the natures of the existing threats.

Just as our hero was confronting a wily ninja, a lian springs out of nowhere and begins to threaten our hero. Simultaneously (and suddenly) a helicopter swoops in and the ninja escapes.

"Wait," I think, "I'm pretty sure that lions are not native to Japan and where'd that helicopter come from -- no one even heard it?"

This is gonna sound weird in view of what it is we writer's do, BUT when you're writing this sort of action, don't make stuff up.

If you've done your work right, your world and character back story should provide you with enough threats and cool "surprise" talents to keep the story going.

In simple terms -- obey the rules of the universe in which your characters live -- even if you made 'em up out of whole cloth. :)

Anonymous said...

And please pardon all the typos in the previous post. :)