Typing in the Dark

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

— Robbie Burns, To a Mouse

I had a very busy day yesterday, little of it related to writing, and something happened in the morning that got me thinking about plotting. So this morning I’m trying to compile my thoughts into a useful form, typoing in the dark (not an actual typo) and taking a page from Dave Freer’s book by using a bit of poetry. It’s a well-known bit there in the middle of the first stanza I’ve quoted. (That’s by no means all of the poem, and if you can read dialect you should enjoy the whole thing.)

What happened in the morning, you’re wondering, and am I ever coming back to it? Yes, I am! The strange thing that happened started in the bathroom, where my First Reader gave the dog a bath. Now, the door to the backyard where the Beast hangs out is reachable through the kitchen, so the first I knew of it, was a wet dog running into the kitchen where I was making lists for the day of cooking and canning.

Now you’re wondering what this can possibly have to do with plotting. Is it the surprise element? The sudden violent death of a community of fleas happily living on their doggy planet?

No, this is about cascades and consequences. You see, I try to keep the kitchen floor reasonably clean, but between Miss MuddyPaws (yes, the dog has a lot of names. Officially, she only has one, Tricksy. It’s descriptive of her) coming in and out the back door, and three child-things who are using the same door, the kitchen floor suffers. This is, sort of, like your protagonist’s life. It’s not perfect, It’s old, beat-up linoleum, but he’s content with it the way he has it, and he’ll straighten it out when he has the time.

Now, along comes the author like a wet dog shaking out her (fortunately short) fur all over the place and leaving pawprints. Your protagonist is suddenly in trouble. Not a lot of trouble, just enough to have him reaching for a kitchen rag with a slight feeling of dismay. Wiping down the fridge, our hero looks at his life (the floor) and realizes that the wet pawprints are a little muddy. Good Heavens, that did more damage than he thought. Time to pull out the mop and do a bit more damage control…

As an author, it’s tempting to let the characters we’ve created rest on their laurels. This can lead to what my First Reader calls the Golden Boy syndrome, where no matter what happens in the book, you just know it’s going to be all right. There’s no tension in any crisis, we know the hero will win. In this case, the mop will rub out the pawprints, and the kitchen work can begin anew and…

Nope. You know what’s coming next. Or you think you do. You might not expect that the brand-new sponge mop, still with the sponge wrapped in plastic, would snap in half when the plastic was pulled off. Our hero has completed his first try-fail sequence, and is now standing there with a perfectly good mop-handle, an effective weapon… but not the right tool for the job at hand. Here, we could cast him into despair. He could collapse in tears on the muddy floor, flailing with his rag and making it all worse. But you and I, we like Human Wave stories, so instead he just pulls the sponge off and tosses it, puts the mop handle where it could be used if needed, and pulls another mop out. Our hero is resourceful. He’s got no less than three mops in there with the broom.

At this point in the story it’s time to talk about escalation. That first crisis point wasn’t too bad, really. A quick swipe, and you’d have it all cleaned up, you think. The broken mop, well, that was a minor obstacle. But what you, my dear author, are going to throw at Heroic Mopper next is bigger, more time-consuming, and will take a lot more effort to cope with. He’s got his mop-bucket, a rag mop (not ideal for the job, but less fragile than the sponge) and he’s all ready to go… until he realizes that the floor a lot dirtier than he thought. He stares in dismay at the very muddy water now in the mop bucket, and takes a deep breath. Mentally rolling up his sleeves, he pours some vinegar in the water (because for some reason there is no floor cleaner in the house) and starts to get the whole floor wet, not just where the pawprints were.

Our hero is now stuck into the job, he has to go on, and get it done, there’s no going back. And we’re not going to make it easy on him, as authors. We’re going to force him to adapt, improvise (the vinegar) and overcome. In writing, this will appeal a lot more to readers than the guy who has all his sh*t together, can instantly lay his hands on the right tool, and probably didn’t have a dirty kitchen floor to begin with. However, even with our man making progress, we’re not going to stop throwing things at him. He’s going to get the whole floor damp, and then dump the (dear god where did all that dirt come from?) bucket to start a fresh batch of mop water, because this mess is too much to get in one bucket.

Now here we have a damp floor, the third sponge mop (with a self-wringer, which the rope mop did not have. We’re upgrading our hero’s weapons, since he’s having to fight and earn them), and a bucket full of clean, warm water with some vinegar in it. Our hero is going to triumph, surely! Victory is in sight! Plunge the mop in the bucket, wring it out, and….

Catch the bucket with the corner of the sponge, spilling it over most of the floor. Our hero, so elated a moment ago, stands there jaw dropping as a flood of water rushes across the floor, under the fridge, almost out the door to the front entry. As Authors, this is where we bring our hero to the breaking point. This is the lowest moment. The moment where the hidden dogbunny of dust and dog hair pops out from under the fridge to float defiantly on the cresting wave of defeat that is threatening the rest of his life… He springs into action. This time, he not only wields the mop, herding the water away from the fridge and entryway, he calls for help. With friends (coffkidscoff) at his side, he beats back the enemy, using everything in his armory against them. Mops, dirty towels from the laundry basket (damning that he’d done the laundry and there were only two he could call on), even pushing water out the back door and into the yard, he’s finally got the enemy licked.

And then, the crisis over, our hero can pack up the tools, put the bucket away, hang the towels to dry a bit before returning to the laundry, and look contentedly at his kitchen floor. It’s cleaner than it was, for sure. There’s still some damp patches, but those will dry. You, the author, can foreshadow a lead-in to a new book by inserting a little about the dogbunny cowering under the bed, shaking his wee fist and vowing revenge on his drowned and trashed cousin. But the Heroic Mopper stands triumphant, and then you give the readers their cigarette moment.

What’s that? Well, Dan Hoyt is the man who explained it to me as the moment of satisfaction following the final climax of the book. The hero had triumphed, and now you give him – and your readers – a moment of peace, a glimpse of the rewards he’d fought so hard for. In the Heroic Mopper’s case, that would be making Lego gummy candies, processing twenty pounds of peaches, making peach skin jelly from the peels, making a chocolate mayonnaise cake, and a batch of Old-Fashioned Ice Cream. Then he can stand there smiling while his family feasts, with a clean floor under his feet.


  1. Science Fiction, and Mysteries: you’re describing the surprise ending, The Twist. Where the plot suddenly changes, and if you’re writing a mystery the he-dun-it character didn’t. Now it’s back to whodunit and the surprise ending, usually two or three chapters.
    I managed a pretty good Twist in The Return ; the Twist turned the entire series upside-down, all 300,000 words of it. The clues were there, but the reader never saw it coming.
    In my latest SciFi, my ‘golden boy’ (who’s middle aged, or a bit past that by the time the third book ends), has managed to do wondrous things with almost no glitches. He’s a hero, he’s even ready to take on the BEMs of an advanced starfaring race…and then he hits the wall. It’s his first major failure. A mystery, at this point, would change from hedunit to whodunit. In SF, the Golden Boy is yanked up short, left wondering how to get out of the pickle I wrote him into. If this happened to be a mystery, the hero would find that an unsuspected character actually did the deed and a suitable resolution would happen. But SF books aren’t like that, or at least SF series aren’t like that. Irregardless of genre, good books must still have that surprise ending that no one saw coming.
    So my MC ages through the series until he gets to the third book ((NEO: Near Earth Objects, which went live Thursday afternoon). The next book will likely have a different MC inhabiting the same universe, a series Twist.
    With another version of the Twist in the book, of course, another surprise ending no one saw coming. Bad guys aren’t. Alien civilizations…you get the idea. Your book needs a Twist that amazes and entertains the reader.

  2. This is precisely the problem I’m facing at the moment. Except for a growing marital rift, things are going too well. They’ve lost their home and fled with the clothes on their backs and everything they’ve touched has been a success. The reasons are strictly economic – everyone’s doing well a the moment – but be that as it may, there isn’t enough conflict to keep interest. Yes, I intend to yank the rug out from under them and for them to lose almost everything they’ve gained, and wanted this to feel more crushing, but it’s ho-hum at this point.

    The bad thing is that the easiest resolution is going to smell like it’s PC and taken from a progressive POV of certain current events. Unfortunately, it may be the best solution. But it’s deflated my enthusiasm for the story considerably.

    1. ‘easiest’ and ‘best’ for you the author? Or the characters? Because it shouldn’t be easy for them. It sounds, from this bit, that some more conflict between the two characters could be part of the crisis, and that will make it not go well at all. And you can always skip ahead to the exciting bit (of crushing your protagonists, what sadists we authors are) and come back to this bridge later. Or write the progressive solution and later reveal it to be no solution at all.

      1. Easiest for me and more believable for the reader. Pure hell on the characters. It’s from the POV of a young teen who already knew things weren’t so well in his family, and is enduring not only losing everything, but watching his family come apart at the seams. It doesn’t help that all but his father blames him for their current predicament, even though what he’s done has probably saved their lives. He’s not having an easy time making friends, courtesy of something his mother has done, and he vents with his fists, which might would make him a bully except he’s not big enough to back it up, with predictable results.

        Economically, though, things are going well and the rest of his family seems to be starting to fit in, and here is where things are ho-hum. They’ve got to lose practically everything again and start over. I have a very clear idea where all this is going to end up and it’s going to be nasty.

        The progressive part is the conflict his family has with the community. I can imagine the reader thinking it’s a commentary on immigration when that’s not the intent. But there’s got to be a reason to leave, and the economic collapse that’s coming is going to provoke some things.The solution isn’t progressive, and there is no happy resolution in this community, because they’re going to have to make tracks.

        1. Marital rifts are always good reasons for doing stupid things. Ditto teenagers who feel responsible.

          Husband goes out and gets drunk, is seen kissing another woman. Wife cleans out the bank account, maxes the cards, takes the family valuables and leaves for where she thinks she’ll be happier.

          And/or boy runs away from home. You can scattered them all over the place, then gather them up again for the final crisis.

    2. Have you tried a natural disaster? I’m tossing one into the WIP, (not a total surprise because odd geologic observations have been mentioned in the previous books) to make the second “Oh SHEEP!” point in the story that much worse (and to push the story farther from the historical pattern I’m “borrowing.”) The MC still, not quite causes, let’s call it exacerbates things into a potential disaster, but the natural disaster will shove her into a serious corner.

      *evil grin* I wuv writing a pecatogenic world. [Pecatogenic – belief that bad events are caused by sin]

  3. It’s easy for writers of fiction to forget that the worlds in which they are writing–whether based on an existing one or imagined from whole cloth–are in some sense artificial on their own terms.

    That is to say that unless you are writing the exceedingly short-lived adventures of a man cast naked into the wilderness the surroundings that your characters (and if we’re doing our jobs properly, your readers) regard as the normal course of events is NOT the environment that will continue to exist if nothing happens to change it, but the environment that will only continue to exist so long as a great many off-screen characters work tirelessly to maintain it.

    I think this is a factor that writers of speculative fiction too seldom take into account when world-building and plotting. Because we as 21st Century civilized people are used to clean water from the tap and reasonably constant current flow from the outlet–not to mention food in the stores–we think of such things as normal. The baseline, as it were.

    I bring this up because I read from authors complaints that they are struggling to come up with ideas from challanges for their characters. Inherent in many of these posts is the assumption that “something must happen” in order to cause difficulties to the characters. But that’s not actually the case–in any place that human beings have colonized the fact is that something happens, and must happen unceasingly, to prevent the naturally occurring difficulties that would otherwise overwhelm the characters.

    I have seen this in dystopian science fiction–anarchy in the streets, but somehow the power plants and water pumping stations are kept running, by no one knows whom. In fantasy novels where inns or temples in lonely wastelands are somehow stocked with food. Even in far future epics where the artificiality of the environment is acknowledged–an orbital colony, and domed city on world with a poisonous atmosphere, a ship in deep space–the assumption seems to be made that once the technology is invented it becomes the new normal and will be hospitable to the characters forevermore.

    Cascades of events can serve to remind us of the artificiality of what we take for granted. A clean house may be what we believe should be, but it is not going to be the way that things are unless we take steps to make it so. In the same way I think that authors of fiction should be aware–even if the subject never comes up–of how the characters’ world would be if it were not constantly maintained.

    1. This is one reason why I think the idea of multi-generation colony ships is probably doomed in real life. Things wear out or break, and even a huge ship could only carry so many spare parts and materials. Then there are the stories of AI ships (etc.) which are extremely old and still functioning, when we all know that the functional lifespan of electronic devices in the present is very short….

      1. All I could think of when I was cleaning up the, er, last wave of events, was how I could use this for a story. The events just cascade and each one brings new consequences with it.

      1. I don’t know better. Why wouldn’t you add a little dish soap to mop water?

        1. Bubbles. The last thing I needed in that saga were bubbles…

          Honestly, just a little would probably have been fine. But I have a gallon of white vinegar I use for cleaning (we have very hard water) so I grabbed that.

          1. Ah! Yes, that makes perfect sense. I usually end up adding a little simple green to get the grease up off the kitchen floor, but have resorted to a few sparing drops of dish detergent when I’m out. So I was wondering what I’d missed!

            Bubbles. Bubbles would turn that into a sort of sorcerer’s apprentice-style pileup, wouldn’t it?

  4. To an extent, I think that the number and depth of escalating complications/dangers has gotten too extreme in some modern storytelling. it’s all exciting suspenseful, but too many times, these things simply reach levels that no one could possibly handle, and in many cases, the more extreme ones break my suspension of disbelief.

    1. I’m waiting for a Marty Stu to stop the eruption of the Yellowstone Hotspot by tapping it for geothermal energy, thus ending the danger AND removing the need for fossil fuel use.

      1. And watch the Greenies sabotage the plant, because while it’s all well and good to stop using coal or Nuclear, starting using anything else is just as evil!

      2. Tapping Yellowstone for geothermal isn’t that ludicrous.
        (Or is it? The Icelanders seem to do well with it, anyway.) It’s the power storage and transmission that’s the problem.

        1. Basically, geothermal is much like a steam plant, so output is typically constant as long as things are working right. This means energy storage isn’t necessary to put it on par with coal, hydro, or nuclear.

          I have been told there are corrosion issues, but don’t know, and the method used in California ended up causing earthquakes.

          1. Forgive me if I’m being stupid, but wouldn’t that last bit mean that geothermal would serve as sort of safety valve for seismic energy?

    2. Agreed. Series in particular tend to fall into this trap – for a good one to study, Larry Correia’s MHI series does a good job of steering clear of the bigger, badder, bester villains and heroes. It’s over the top to begin with, but it doesn’t jump the shark.

    1. Oh, keeping the kitchen floor clean is hopeless. Fortunately, the only one in my house who wants to eat off the floor is the dog, and she doesn’t care.

      1. Kitchens that are the pathways from other parts of the house and the backyard or garage are the invention of . . . someone who is childless, dogless and isn’t the one who mops the floor.

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