Something Must Happen – Novel Workshop 3

*Sorry to be so late.  We have ROOFERS, which means early mornings are not my own and late night is the only time I can concentrate to write, without roofers hammer-hammer-hammering on heaven’s roof.  Or something.*

Something Must Happen

 

When you’re starting to write, you don’t think of the parts of a novel or whatever. You think “I have a story and I’m going to tell it.”

Except that very few of us get fully-built-stories in our heads, by which I mean fully functional narratives with fully functional characters, an interesting build up, a solid climax and for preference a good emotional kick.

No, what we get, what you’ll hear at any gathering of writers, is “prompts.” You know “I have this idea for a novel where the sky is made of sponge cake.” Or “I have this idea for a world where the males are the ones who give birth.” Or “I have this character, right? He’s the king, but he finds out his father was illegitimate. The guy making war on him, otoh, is the bastard grandson of the real king. And because magic in this world goes with the blood of the kings, he’s all conflicted…”

The last one is the least interesting when you’re telling it. It’s also, I’m afraid, the type of newbie writing who has a hard road ahead. I know this. I was there once.

What I got were fascinating characters, but they didn’t do much of anything, except sometimes angst. Which makes for boring reading.

After a few people told me I needed a plot (ah!) I started reading how to write books, where I found the following definition of plot “plot is where things happen.”

Uh. Right. Thanks muchly.

Some of the books went into a lot more detail about the sort of things that should happen, but either they didn’t explain well enough for a born character-writer, or I was more obtuse back then, in my twenties. (It has to be the first, right, because I could never have been obtuse.)

I never made the most likely mistake in these circumstances. I know it’s the most likely, because I’ve seen a lot of fledgelings make it.

This is:

Make a lot of things happen around your character. Sometimes your character reacts to them. Sometimes he’s like a uber-Aspergers character and just wonders around, relating things as volcanoes blow up, Earthquakes destroy the land, monsters eat all his friends and corpses tumble from the sky at his feet. (This is the accurate description of the “plot” of a friend’s story when we were all beginners.)

This is things happening. It might even be fascinating things happening. But this is not plot. Not only does it reveal nothing about your character (unless your character is a camera) but it does not “pull” the reader forward. There is no reason to see what happens next, if what happens next is a random disaster, and we don’t care about the characters to whom the disaster happens.

This is also, btw, 90% of the drek on Amazon.

So, the next level, which I did fall into for a while (and which is why there’s a long trilogy awaiting a full rewrite) is to have things happen TO your character. This is mildly more interesting, at least if your character isn’t a simpering Sally like mine was, who just sat and cried about everything that happened to him and all his misfortunes. If you care for the character, you’re going to care that he gets eaten by monsters, has lava erupt under his feet, etc.

Only after a while it gets really tiring. You can get away with it in a short story. But not in a novel. After a while this process, which my friend Kate calls “dropping walls on characters” – i.e. the character is going along, and another unexpected event flattens him – gets really boring. And if you’re like me and start with a character that grows organically, after a few hundred pages of this treatment, he becomes mush. He doesn’t care anymore. He just wants you to kill him.

The next level up from that is to have stuff happen that’s in a crescendo. This is a “things get worse” plot. Yeah, you’re still dropping walls on the character, but they’re GRADUATED walls, and people watch, if nothing else out of the same morbid fascination that draws us to train wrecks. Works pretty well for short stories.

For novels, it tends to be curiously unsatisfying. It can work, mind, provided the disasters are interesting enough, but it leaves much to be desired. (Almost all novels of apocalypse, zombie or otherwise, written by beginners, follow this.)

So, Sarah, since you’re a know it all, what is a plot, optimally?

Optimally a plot, after a precipitating incident, consists of things that happen due to the actions of your character, which are in turn informed by this character’s flaws, and which proceed in a crescendo of seriousness and difficulty, until they reach a climax where all is either lost or won.

Yes, it bears a superficial resemblance to the things above, but the difference is it proceeds from the situation and the character, and resolves or highlights the character’s flaws or strengths. (Or both.)

Translated into human speech this goes something like this:

-there is an alien invasion

-Bob is caught at the office, where, out of a sense of decency, he tries to save as many people as possible. Which makes him responsible for Sobbing Sally.

-Sobbing women irritate Bob, so he tries to ditch her, which leads to drawing the aliens to them.

– This makes Bob have to fight them off.

-Sobbing Sally realizes Bob was trying to ditch her and walks off, which is okay with Bob who hates Sobbing Women, but Sobbing is captured and leads the aliens back to Bob.

-So Bob now gets he’s stuck with Sobbing, and has to escape and drag her alone.

– this escalates in problem severity, until Bob gets that Sally is Sobbing because she’s missing her favorite gun and can’t fight the aliens.

– they break into a gun store, get the gun and Sobbing and Bob defeat the aliens. (Yay.)

Yes, that plot is stupid and simplistic, but it is a functional plot.

Now grab your favorite novel and do a dual diagram, chapter by chapter – How do things get worse in each chapter? (be warned in novels there might be respite “catch your breath” chapters.) How did the main character bring this about by what he’s done and what he’s failed to do? How does this highlight his flaws/strengths? (If you don’t have a favorite novel, do this to Monster Hunter International.)

Next Week, Twirling our moustache and plotting – W plots, Thriller plots, romance plots, twisty plots.

 

34 comments

  1. One thought on plot, I think you want your character (or characters) to act instead of reacting.

    To steal Sarah’s character, we want Bob to stop running/escaping from the aliens and to find a way to fight back.

  2. “Some of the books went into a lot more detail about the sort of things that should happen, but either they didn’t explain well enough for a born character-writer, or I was more obtuse back then, in my twenties. (It has to be the first, right, because I could never have been obtuse.)”

    The nitpicker in me is compelled to point out another alternative. I’m not saying this is true, mind you, just a logical possibility: it has to be the first because you could never have been MORE obtuse than you are now.

    Nitpicking: it’s a gift, and a curse…

  3. Sorry for the hijack. I just finished Pam Uphoff’s ‘Outcasts and Gods’ and with her agreement, gave her another psuedo-SJW review. It just posted on Amazon.
    5.0 out of 5 stars Crypto-rapist writers’ ideological basis exposed! October 29, 2014
    By Pat Patterson
    Format:Kindle Edition
    That marginalized segment of so-called writers who specialize in exploding spaceships and heaving sweaty bosoms on maidens in distress has long denied any particular shared ideological basis for their work. We hear them nattering along about market-driven work, a pernicious falsehood exposed by their recent assault on the integrity of the Hugo Award. However, if they lack the proper ideology, or have no ideology, there is effectively no responsibility to the people to maintain appropriate decorum. And this has been what they have stated; that they have no ideology.
    Recently, though, our attention has been drawn to one Pam Uphoff. A quick survey of her work might have left us with the (false) impression that she is one of those exploding-spaceship ink slingers. However, acting on a tip from a dear friend who Knows Such Things, we have read her novel ‘Outcasts and Gods,’ in which she rips the thin veil of deception from the crypto-rapist denial of ideology, and exposes that ideology as fascist, racist, and thoroughly bankrupt.
    The ideology, denied by the crypto-rapists as their unifying principal, is that a woman’s role is to be limited to Kinder, Kuche, and Kirke, or Children, Kitchen, and Church. The serendipitous acronym in German identifies this ideology as being jointly developed by that most American of all racist organizations, the Ku Klux Klan, and by the National Socialist (Nazi) party in Germany. While the perfidious theory has largely vanished from public view, thanks to actions by progressive elements, we have ample evidence in both the actions and writings of reactionist writers, such as exposed by Ms.Uphoff. The chains of Kinder, Kuche, and Kirke, whether forged in Deutschland or in-bred Appalachia, have bound women in society as well as in so-called literature.
    We most definitely do not wish to give away key elements of Ms. Uphoff’s plot, but we point out that she destroys the Kirke link in the title of this most delightful tome, and the Kinder link in the first chapter, where it is revealed that super-beings are being vat-grown, and some are raised collectively in a proper socialist environment. The final link in the chain of Kinder, Kucke, and Kirke is shattered by the development of a yeast product which can be modified to be both nutritious and tasty. In a brilliant exposition on the covert sexual orientation of the protagonist, Wolf, he and his fellows are eating a meal composed of tofu loaf and discussing plans for an anticipated leave.
    “I still think people should say what they mean. Although they should also avoid give a sweet innocent like myself too big of a shock .” Wolf looked down at his empty tray. “Although I must say I appreciate the ability of your conversation to distract me from what was coming in my mouth.” He got up and walked off. “Wait a minute, did Wolf just say what I think he said?” “Yeah, but did he intend to say it?” “It’s scary to think that we might have finally succeeded in ruining the Nice Boy.”
    Uphoff, Pam (2014-01-09). Outcasts and Gods (Wine of the Gods) (p. 102). Iron Ax Press. Kindle Edition.

  4. I’ve got to do homework and cook dinner now, but if anyone else wants a goof review of their work, I’ll be checking out my next KU this afternoon.

      1. Okay, so I take that to mean you don’t want a gonzo review, not that you don’t want to be read. Since I came here originally because someone (Ringo? Corriea? ) was bragging on your brilliance, and since I’ve read your stuff through Baen, I believe I’ll see if I can find some KU Hoyt and write a normal review.

          1. Okay, this is strange. I did the search, and only draw one in the dark showed up as a freebie NOT as a KU. So I downloaded it and am reading it, then I see your response and check again. Now there are 10 KU titles.
            Well, I’ll reread D1itD and then move on to the next mad genius, and pick up a different Hoyt title on the next cycle.

                1. Oh. Witchfinder is Sarah A. Hoyt. The search might consider it a different author.
                  The others are Sarah D’Almeida. Elise Hyatt won’t have anything under it.

                  1. There are two Witchfinders. One is by Leonard Eaton, the other is by Loren D. Estleman. The search engine brings up 10 titles for Sarah Hoyt, 11 for Sarah A. Hoyt, which includes your Amazon Author page. Neither list includes Witchfinders. So: if you aren’t using the pen name of Leonard Eaton or Loren D. Estleman, I wonder if the Amazon search function is disturbed.

                    1. Okay, that’s messed up. It’s not showing on my search, maybe because it’s not listed as a KU book (but is supposed to be, acc’d Sarah). And I was squeamishly going to try to read the Eaton book when I thought it was Sarah’s, and I’m glad I don’t have to, because it’s all about torture and yuck. I don’t like torture and yuck.

  5. “It has to be the first, right, because I could never have been obtuse.”

    Self-deprecating mockery aside, there is an actual point there.

    The people who make the best teachers are seldom the ones who have been good at the thing they’re teaching since shortly after they first tried it. They’re the ones who used to really really REALLY suck at it, but have done a lot of work, made a lot of mistakes, learned from both, and now suck way less than they used to…perhaps having even worked their way up to “above average”. Folks in the former camp generally have a lot of useless advice, but very little that’s actually of benefit to the sort of person who needs to be taught the skill in question.

    Too often, though, the folks writing advice books come from the former camp.

    1. There is, IMO, a second group that is “good at teaching.”Ones who have seen others struggling with something, and have had to help them learn how. In the Mid-8’s I did “computer support” in a student lab, for a local University branch.My primary job was helping clueless journalism students learn to use a “just like news rooms use” program for word processing. (It was my 10th{?} wp program, and even _I_ had trouble using the “tutorial.”) I ended up re-writing it, for use by students. Even teachers started telling students to “ask for my version.”

  6. I also just finished Pam Uphoff’s “Outcasts and Gods”, and I liked it. (With a quibble about the ending, and I should not criticise endings ‘cuz I can’t do one either.)

    But the idea of Wolfgang being in the military provoked a thought that I’m going to try to develop in the NaNoWriMo challenge. A variation on a theme. Different character (though heroic). Presuming Ms Uphoff doesn’t mind.

    I’m hoping she doesn’t hold the copyright on a heroic figure in the Modern Marine Corp with Marine Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey screaming “drop and give me twenty!” in the face of our beloved heroic character who has a secret identity.

    1. Ideas are free. Only the words in that order get a copyright. 😀 Go for it!

      Oh, and Exiles and Gods takes off right from there. I originally wrote it as the end, but then I realized that it was addressing a completely different problem (surviving on a parallel earth) the first problem having been solved.

  7. Before you specified MHI, I was thinking one of the MH books. Then I remembered that I may not have changed my official favorite book from Swiss Family Robinson, which probably isn’t near as good a guide to pacing.

    I was planning on reading a couple new to me Rick Riordans from the library anyway, but I think MHI is likely my best bet.

  8. So how do I know if the stupid thing my character does that sets everything else in motion works? It’s send it to the friend who volunteered to read it time, isn’t it? He’ll probably appreciate the break from fixing grammar in essays by pre-med seniors, at least.

      1. Which it is, self-obviously stupid, but he’s grieving and not thinking quite right. Or at least that’s what I tried to write.

  9. Timing. I needed this. (Especially with NANO starting tomorrow, and a fresh idea perking on the old brain) Feeling embarrassed, too. Also explains why my reedits of old novels Just. Don’t. Work. Because that thing that is missing? It’s a real plot and I can’t SEE it yet.

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