Category Archives: Plots
Having recently attempted to mend a badly boggled plot, and as a result scattered a whole book to the winds, I decided it was time to work stupid. Plagiaristically, even. I pulled off my bookshelf a favorite old textbook. Not from a creative writing class – I never took one of those (and that was a bad mistake.) My chosen instructor was Vladimir Propp, Russian scholar of folk tales and author of Morphology of the Folk Tale.
Morphology analyzes the structure of the stories in a huge corpus of Russian folk tales assembled by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, who was the Russian brothers Grimm rolled into one.
Afanasyev’s collection, published between 1855 and 1867, filled eight volumes and included some 600 tales. Propp found that he could condense everything that happened in every single one of the tales into a list of no more than 31 narrative events. He called these “functions.”
Better yet, for those of us with plot blindness, Propp claimed that whatever subset of the functions was included in a tale, they always appeared in the same order. That is, a tale might include only functions 2, 3, 8, 14, 16, 18, 30 and 31, but in the chronology of the tale, those functions will always appear in that order. Marvelous! Pick your functions, fill in a few details and there’s your story! Right?
The subset of functions above is not random: they’re the ones I picked out for my ready-made plot. Here are their definitions:
INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is given.
VIOLATION OF INTERDICTION: The prior rule is violated.
VILLAIN CAUSES HARM, not necessarily to the hero.
HERO ACQUIRES A MAGICAL AGENT.
COMBAT OF HERO AND VILLAIN
VILLAIN IS DEFEATED.
VILLAIN IS PUNISHED.
HERO IS MARRIED AND ASCENDS THE THRONE.
Now, about those details….
Brainstorming is where I always get into trouble. It’s not that I can’t do it. I just find myself unreasonably delighted with the characters, settings and odd little objects that pop into my head. Once I’ve thought them up, I can’t sacrifice them just to make some stupid plot work.
The hot dogs are a case in point. I’m currently re-re-re-reading The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney’s 1935 masterpiece about a very strange little carnival. So my brainstorm around the Propp plot naturally begins by setting my story in a carnival. A magical carnival, of course. That decided, I need a combat at a carnival. Bingo! A hot dog eating contest now infests my story, and I can’t get rid of it. And wait! Carnivals always have lots of stalls selling food. Like state fairs… Have you heard about the deep-fried Oreos at the New Jersey State Fair? The deep-fried butter in Wisconsin? How about those Twix-stuffed Twinkies wrapped in bacon at the North Carolina State Fair? I’ve got to get stuff like that in.
Then, instead of casting about for an interdiction, my mind leaps ahead to the magical agent. It’s my favorite function, and my favorite form of it has always been the magical animal. Propp lists multiple ways in which these may fulfill the function; I end up combining three of them. The third, a bag of dragon’s teeth, wandered in from my long-ago dissertation on the Argonautika.
So now I’m knee-deep in hot dogs, fried butter and dragon’s teeth. When I finally start the search for a good interdiction, food is still on my mind. I get a good long way with “no magic in the food for customers,” but then that gets tangled up with a princess (actually the carny owner’s daughter) who isn’t allowed to eat because it messes up her magic…. Did I mention that Propp also condensed the character list into only seven people?
I showed my brainstorm to date to my writing group. They said, “???”
I’m determined, though. I’ve already caught myself in three intolerable contradictions and wrestled my way out of them. I will get a story out of this exercise, or eat a Twix-stuffed Twinkie wrapped in bacon.
I was whining away on a Facebook page the other day (Golden Age Detection) about how the current “rules” for mystery novels are turning them boring. So today, a positive note: a review of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries that breaks many of those rules, Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh.
The book begins, as Marsh’s always do, with a list of the “dramatis personae.” Marsh worked in the theatre, and some of her best mysteries take place during theatre productions. (Her very best book, in my view, is Light Thickens, in which she violates the most sacred commandment of the Detection Club by…
SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read Light Thickens yet, scroll past the single line in italics immediately below this one.
…ending the story with the entirely satisfactory discovery of a homicidal maniac.
I love to make my way through the dramatis personae list, imagining likely interactions, spotting promising eccentrics and provokers of conflict. In Dead Water, the obvious candidate is “Miss Emily Pride, Suzerain of [Portcarrow] Island.”
Dead Water comprises only nine chapters, and the first of them is that major no-no, a prologue. Its title is actually “Prelude.” It recounts the alleged appearance of a fairy in a modern-day (that’s 1963) UK fishing village, and village’s resulting transformation into a folklore-y spa. Conflict is confined to minimal levels of discomfort as the whole cast of characters is introduced. Far from leaving anyone hanging from a cliff, the final sentence of the Prelude informs the reader that the story is about to leap over the following two years. This prologue takes up its full 1/9 of the text.
(“Prelude” also sets up one rule-blessed plot thread of which Marsh was fond: a romantic young couple, who will – the reader always knows – live happily ever after once the inevitable murder is cleared up.)
The first quarter of Chapter Two is very heavy to backstory, another no-no. The vivid characterization makes it perfectly smooth and perfectly fascinating. One of Marsh’s best creations, Miss Emily Pride, born ca. 1880, was formerly French coach to rising members of His Majesty’s diplomatic service. The rest of the chapter sets the scene for future confrontations, but the participants in the main conflict of the story remain hundreds of miles apart.
In Chapter 3 the enemies meet and conflict escalates, but nothing worse than threats and minor assaults occur. Not until the end of the chapter does the detective/protagonist appear on this scene of not-quite-crimes. In this reader’s opinion, the threatened victim beats out our hero for character and interest. (I’ve never been hugely enamored of Marsh’s detective Roderick Alleyn. He and the mysteries he unravels serve, it seems to me, largely as an axis for the galaxy of her dramatis personae.)
We are now 1/3 of the way through the book. The first quarter of Chapter 4 is a comic and entirely believable account of a disastrous village festival, ending in nothing worse than a thunderstorm. Not until the end of the chapter, at the 40% mark, does the first and only corpse in the story appear, and it is not a cliffhanger but an elegant switcheroo.
From that point, detection takes over, with no diminution of character interest or involvement with the setting. Marsh’s brilliant plotting picks up from the early chapters clues and red herrings –– including the fairy and the thunderstorm – so subtle as to have been invisible even to experienced mystery readers as they passed by. When the usual climactic scene of derring-do is complete (another rule that Marsh generally followed), Chapter 9 continues with an extended explanation by the detective, a happy ending for the lovers and charitable provision made for innocent sufferers. This denouement covers two days.
Marsh’s editors seem to have had no problem with passages inserted for sheer fun. Here’s one of my favorites. A now-deceased character, whose sole function is to have made a plot-generating bequest to Miss Emily, is described:
My sister, Fanny Winterbottom,” Miss Emily announced, “was not free from this fault. I recall an informal entertainment at our Embassy in which she was invited to take part. It was a burlesque. Fanny was grotesquely attired and carried a vegetable bouquet. She was not without talent of a farouche sort and made something of a hit. Verb. Sap.: as you shall hear. Inflamed by success she improvised a short equivocal speech at the end which she flung her bouquet at H.E. It struck him in the diaphragm and might well have led to an incident.
So there’s an instance of brilliant, rule-breaking mystery writing. A small prize (a blog shout-out) is offered to all who can name a recently published equal.
Not winning the Freddie Award is quite a bargain.
The Freddie Award for Writing Excellence is awarded annually to the best unpublished, uncontracted and unagented mystery submitted to the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. The winner gets free admission to Sleuthfest, the Florida MWA chapter’s annual conference, a nice plaque and possibly a chance to pitch the agent or editor who did the final judging.
I didn’t win, but for my $30 entry fee, I got to submit the first twenty pages of my novel to be scored and commented on by three anonymous judges. That’s a lot of expertise for thirty bucks. Making use of it may prove a little challenging, though.
When the email popped up in my inbox, my heart turned over. I could tell from the first words, which showed up in the subject line, that I hadn’t won, but I was steeled for that. The terror came from facing the comments of three professionals, none of whom were friends, members of my writing group, or being paid to be helpful. However, I had thirty bucks on the table. I made myself hit “open.”
The Freddie has each judge fill in a rating sheet with separate scores on characterization, plot & conflict, dialogue, opening & setting, style & pacing, and mechanics. Most of the ratings were accompanied by a brief commentary on the reasons for the rating, often with examples and suggestions (not actual suggested wording, but “something like this….”)
Within each score sheet, the numerical ratings matched up well with the degree of criticism in the rater’s comments. But that’s where the tough part comes in. Here are the possible scores:
10 Author has done an excellent job. Very few if any mistakes and none that impacts the story
8 Though some areas might need polish, the author has done well overall
6 Entry requires extensive editing or story development to engage the reader
4 Major rewrites or restructuring is necessary
2 Serious flaws. An in-depth study of craft is needed
By the grace of God, I opened the score sheet from Judge JM22 first. S/he had given me a 10 in every category. The downside: there were no further comments. (The score sheet tells the judges to “enter comments in each section – especially if you take off points.”) I knew it had to be downhill from there, but with one perfect 10, at least I hadn’t been cast into the outer darkness.
Then the pain began. Judge JM21 gave me three 8s and two 6s. JM20 made it two 8s and three 6s.
I parsed those comments up, down and sideways for a week. I re-read the manuscript. I whined, “But don’t you see…?” to invisible interlocutors. Then I sucked it up and started taking notes. I wrestled with the wide range of the ratings, until I saw that whatever rating box they checked, the judges agreed closely on the nature of the problems they spotted.
- Too much backstory. Check. Assignment: Pick what’s needed for immediate comprehension. Find locations farther in for what will become necessary later. But that turned out to be the lesser benefit from these comments. Working with them, I’ve seen a way to alter a subplot that will be much clearer, easier to explain and actually work better with my main plot.
- Too little emotional reaction from Eliza, my protagonist, over the dilemmas I have posed for her. Check. I am a prim, mimsy New England Puritan, and we don’t get upset in public. It’s rubbed off on Eliza. Assignment: make clear how much trouble she thinks she’s in, either in speech or privately in thought. Just be sure to convince the reader.
- Too little sense of place, early on. Check. However, there was enough place-ness for one judge to conclude, correctly, that I want the location to be a major player in the story. To make my word count, I cut a lot of description. Back it comes, and I’ll worry about cutting later.
- No murder or mystery evident. Sorry, judges, no check for this one. I’ll ramp up the expression of conflicts and emotions, but I like to watch my murders develop slowly, out of situations and characters that just cry out for them. All my favorite authors do, too.
Maybe the best part of the whole exercise was the tone of the comments. They were frank, but nobody was snarky. When they liked something, they said so. The judge who gave me the lowest scores even attached a copy of my manuscript with quite a few comments inserted, some not even related to his/her remarks on the score sheet and the majority positive. S/he even gave me two happy faces for nice tidbits!
That judge prefaced her manuscript comments with the following. I’m trying to hold it in mind as I consider (but don’t buckle under) all the suggestions:
I hope you find some of my specific comments helpful, but please remember, I am ONE reader, and others will see things differently. However, when you’re submitting to agents, they’re going to be looking for hiccups and issues with the craft and mechanics, so I am pointing some of them out as they jump out at me. Take what makes sense to you and ignore what doesn’t.
Good advice of all of us.
P.S. One judge downgraded my Mechanics because spell check showed “a few flagged words.” S/he and I must have different spell check programs. Mine was written by someone who learned English as a second language. On Mars.
Heidi here, reporting progress for once.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, in just a couple of hours, one highly structured writing exercise adorned my bare plot with complex characters, details of setting and multiple red herrings. Truly, it happened.
After pantsing my first novel, I swore I’d never go through that again. I was already using Scrivener, though not handily, so I bought Stephanie Draven’s Plot Your Book in a Month with Scrivener. Then came the miracle.
Draven starts you off on characters, and you have to do it her way. The exercise requires you to set up eight, count them, eight, separate folders under each character’s template. These are Vocation, Vulnerabilities, Strengths & talents, Flaws, Ideals, Beliefs that must change, Goals and Problems. For each, she demands of you five examples in your character’s make-up.
I started with my villain. He was due to commit a crime (art forgery) for money. Ho, hum! But pondering his vulnerabilities (by which Draven means innocent weak points, not the character’s fault), I discovered the motive behind the motive. His desire for money has its roots not in greed, but in resentment. The origins of this are familial, but over a lifetime it has added malice to his purely personal flaw of greed.
As this dynamic developed in my head, suddenly, from nowhere at all, a countervailing vulnerability popped up. My forger works in a precise and detailed genre – but he suffers from a longing to paint in the Impressionist style. He is not at all good at it. For reasons I won’t go into, this innocent commitment will betray him.
From his resentment and malice flowed a conviction that “Hell is other people.” To him, they are either obstacles or nuisances, though he is usually careful to conceal this. It hampers him in dealing with new people in new situations. At the same time, it causes him to be a loner and to be perceived by those he encounters as lonely, a sympathetic trait.
Spending time in the character’s mind brought me into his physical world as well. I felt rather than deduced that his natural pace is slow and his focus on details. As he is well up in years, this lifelong trait can come across to new acquaintances, incorrectly, as the slowing of physical and mental faculties with age, another sympathetic trait.
This perception of his physical traits, in turn, spilled over into the creation of another character, with whom he will be in conflict. She was always going to be more than a generation younger than he, but now she is also taller, robust where he is lanky, obtrusively energetic. He, in contrast, seems hardly fit for the pace of the 21st century.
And while I was thinking physically, another connection occurred: I want the setting of my books, northern New Hampshire, to be vivid to my readers, almost a character in the story. So my villain, thin and not robust, is always cold no matter where the thermostat is set.
Draven knew what she was doing when she put the vulnerabilities before the strengths. Once I had watched my villain develop layers of motivation, it became clear that his strengths would not all appear, or in fact be, villainous. His desire for distance from other people, along with the demands his professional associations, require him to have excellent manners. His extensive knowledge of his academic specialty is necessary for his crime – but it also garners deserved respect from his colleagues and gratitude from the few outstanding students whose careers he promotes. (They, in turn, can be put to good use in his nefarious schemes.) It will also, I hope, form an additional thread of interest to readers.)
The whole exercise was so inspiring that it was hard to keep the categories separate even on the first run-through. Vulnerabilities suffered through no fault of one’s own blossomed into flaws via unfortunate methods of coping. Strengths quickly became ideals – because our own good points are always the really important virtues, aren’t they? Initial problems bred solutions that became complications of a straightforward criminal enterprise.
So thank you, Ms. Draven. If this thing ever sees print, a fulsomely autographed copy will be yours.
P.S. I have to say, the “one month” thing isn’t working out. Each new exercise takes me days to think through and tinker with. However, if you’re a wo/man of steel, and don’t eat or sleep much, maybe you could manage it.
So here I am, on what I hope is the final substantive rewrite of my first mystery. I pantsed it, and I had a great time. I loved my characters, just set them down on the page and let them romp. Have you ever watched very young children – five or six years old, say – make up a game out of their own heads, coming up with a story and acting out the roles? I had that much fun, I really did.
And now it’s all come home to roost. The bill has come due for all those joyous episodes of ‘Ooh! Wouldn’t it be great if …’ For instance, I have a character who started out a genealogy snob involved in a lawsuit and ended up burying his ancestors (literally) and switching sides on the suit.
Well, no disaster. I can see how that could happen. But as I romped through my game, I just sketched in the change, didn’t take time to act out in my head the character’s inner or outer experiences. Result: a vague and confusing switcheroo at best; at worst, a great, clunky meta-clue to the reader: this character is being manipulated to work a plot. Why, he’s not a real person!
My faithful TNW critics (make that critiquers) pointed out a similar problem with another character. I noticed for myself that the police showed up, getting things wrong, when I needed to spur my amateur detective on to greater effort, but not when the police probably would show up in a real investigation. To crown my shame, one colleague gently pointed out that the pair of cute ferrets I had introduced (to make this work a proper cozy) really ought at least to appear in the closing scenes.
This isn’t one of my usual streams of whining complaint. I really can see how to solve the problems, and I’ve set about it. I’m pulling together separate files of all the passages on each faulty character, each badly constructed plot line. And that job has me wondering: if I had done that work before I started writing, I’d be a plotter, wouldn’t I? It sure sounds more efficient. But would I then lose out on all that five-year-old, cowboys-and-Indians fun?
On a practical note, here is a question for readers: do you use a writing program like Scrivener? If so, is there an easy way to pull characters’ appearances and tease out individual plot threads to be looked at separately? It took hours to use keywords and the ‘Find’ function to do this job for a single character.
At present, I have each scene in a separate file, color-coded by the plot line that the scene mostly serves. But my writing is not so clunky as to confine each scene to actions serving only one plot. In Scrivener (I think – I’m no adept) I would have to put each paragraph in a coded file if I want to pull out individual subplots, and it still wouldn’t be precise. Ideas, anyone?
For some reason, when your friends know you are a writer, they become obsessed with sending you words. They may feel you are a connoisseur. They may feel that your vocabulary is inadequate.
Several of my friends have recently been hit with the word-sending bug. While they all said that their lists comprised merely “weird” or “interesting” words, a high percentage of the entries had intriguing connections with the mystery genre. I here offer the best of them to you, conveniently arranged in categories useful to those who murder on paper.
Apple-knocker: an ignorant or unsophisticated person (I was raised to call such persons oyster-shuckers.)
Badmash: Indian, a hooligan
Shot-clog: An unwelcome companion tolerated because he pays the ‘shot’ (i.e., the bill) for his companions (Note: as this word is attested only in the works of Ben Jonson, perhaps it should appear below, under Historical Fiction.)
Snollygoster: An unprincipled, shrewd person guided by personal advantage, not respectable principles
Suedehead: a youth like a skinhead but with slightly longer hair and smarter clothes
Wittol: a man who knows of and tolerates his wife’s infidelity
Absquatulate: to leave somewhere abruptly
Cacoethes: an urge to do something inadvisable
Eucatastrophe: a happy ending to a story
Exequies: funeral rites
Flews: the thick pendulous lips of a bloodhound or similar dog
Sprunt: To chase girls around a haystack after dark
Brannock device: the thing they use to measure your feet at the shoe store.
Peen: the side opposite the hammer’s striking side
Probang: a strip of flexible material with a sponge or tuft at the end, used to remove a foreign body from the throat or to apply medication to it
Bruxism: involuntary and habitual grinding of the teeth
Carphology: convulsive or involuntary movements made by delirious patients, such a plucking at the bed clothes
Uhtceare: Anxiety experienced just before dawn when you cannot get back to sleep for worry about the day ahead
Resurrection man: a person who, in past times, illicitly exhumed corpses from burial grounds and sold them to anatomists for dissection
Skimmington: a kind of procession once undertaken to make an example of a nagging wife or an unfaithful husband
Amphibology: a phrase or sentence that is grammatically ambiguous, such as She sees more of her children than her husband.
Interrobang: what it’s called when you combine a question mark with an exclamation point like this: ?!
Finally, I offer a small prize (a shout-out in my next blog) to the reader who can suggest the best way of incorporating the words below in a (single) mystery.
Ylem: (in big bang theory) the primordial matter of the universe
Feague: To put a live eel up a horse’s bottom. An eighteenth-century horse dealer’s trick to make an old horse seem lively.
I noticed a couple of links to blog posts on Facebook today. Possibly there were more but it was hard to pick out what was a blog post, what was a news (real or fake) article, and what was a personal post. Any post that wasn’t about Elizabeth Warren, Betsy DeVos, or the New England Patriots didn’t have much of a chance of getting noticed today.
One of the links was to a blog about benches. Yup, those uncomfortable wooden couches you sit on in the park. I read the tantalizing first line of the post and continued scrolling. But it did make me think, always a risky proposition.
When Heidi, Eleanor or I write a new blog post, the link gets posted on our personal Facebook pages so that our friends can get to it with just a click. I’m wondering how many of our friends “Like” our blog posts without reading them then quickly proceed to the more appealing posts of puppies, babies, donkeys, and a moose standing on top of a car.
Hey, I’m OK with that. If you aren’t interested in reading about writers, writing, books, and authors, you shouldn’t waste your time reading our blog. BUT if we were to make our blog more personal, a little sexier, might we make loyal readers out of you? Keep in mind, we are three gray-haired ladies in our sixties so you might want to temper your expectations .
While I wait for the green light from Eleanor and Heidi to spice up our content, I have some updates for you.
“NCIS New Orleans” tonight on the leak of sex tapes: we all have secrets. I believe that is true, whether the secrets are current or just partitioned off in our memories. (Feel free to reveal yours in the comment section.) I’m developing secrets for all the potential suspects in my novel, Gabby. I think you’ll like them–my suspects as well as their secrets.
Speaking of Gabby, I’m making progress but I haven’t added a word to my NaNoWriMo novel. How is that progress, you ask? I’m working on what I call the infrastructure of the novel. I’ve summarized the novel into a fourteen page timeframe, which helped me find errors in the timing of plot events. The timeframe summary is also useful for inserting and moving scenes instead of fumbling with 154 pages. At Eleanor’s suggestion, I set up an Excel spreadsheet with the dates and times of day on the left side and my characters across the top. Each cell contains a summary of where each main character is during that time period and what he or she is doing. It makes babysitting all of my characters easier. Still a long ways to go before I am ready to rewrite my first draft.
Arizona is heating up…slowly. We are looking at two days of eighty-plus degree weather then a cool down and some rain. Looking forward to when the temperature stays above seventy-five. I love walking out the door at night or in the morning and not getting hit with a blast of cold air. And when the sun is shining, which it does a lot more than back in New Hampshire, it always feels warmer than the thermometer says. I’ll admit, the cooler weather has kept me in the casita chained to the bed. Writing.
Aspiring writers, rejoice! There really is a point when the plot tangle breaks.
I was sitting on a logjam the other day when it suddenly broke up beneath me. No, I wasn’t swept downriver to my doom. The logjam was the one that had been afflicting my plot almost since it became complex enough to constitute the skeleton of a book.
Every new idea for a plot development took the story forward, but almost every idea also implied a situation rendered impossible by what had come before. One character, for instance, was intended to instigate a lawsuit against a certain building project. His personality was unpleasant: in fact, he was intended to be the first murder victim. Idea! What if he was, in fact, the murderer? I found him a victim. Two victims.
But wait! To commit the first murder, he had to be in town. Unfortunately, at the intended time of death, he was elsewhere. (In prison, as it happens.) Well, that could be changed.
But wait! If he murdered for the reason I had come up with, he wouldn’t have taken the stand he did on the building project…. You see the problem.
For what seemed like aeons, I shifted and chopped and changed. The longer the manuscript grew, the more changes every new development required. I persevered.
And then, one day, the logjam broke
As it happened, I had been amusing myself with a book of acrostics the night before. When the logjam broke, I recognized what was happening, because it had just begun to happen in my acrostics.
(If you don’t do acrostics, they work this way: as in a crossword, you are given a definition and must come up with the word intended. Each letter in that word is assigned a number, which you then enter in a numbered space in a linear form. When all the correct letters are entered, they make up a quotation.)
I had reached the middle of the puzzle book, where the “medium difficulty” acrostics take on a new character. The definitions become vaguer, more allusive, slangy or punning. The quotations include longer and rarer words, names and complicated clauses.
At this point, the game shifts. Your ability to see the shape of the quotation’s prose, the rhythm of its clauses, its repetitions, lets you fill in words before you have guessed many definitions. The meaning of the quotation leads you to the detail of the words, not the other way around. And the puzzle goes much faster while also being much more fun.
Here is the beginning of the quotation I was working on when the game shifted. Have a go.
_ _L _Y L_V_ _Y P__N M_ P _SS_ _N
Just like that, as I drew near the end of the umpteenth draft of my mystery, the feeling of the changes changed. My solution worked, if only… and I clicked in my Scrivener binder to an earlier scene, altered three words, and all was well. Onward. The solution continued to work, if only…. Back up in the binder, cut a paragraph, and all was well.
I now have only two or three scenes to rewrite (plus a couple of new ones to tie up a subplot), and I will have, not a draft, but a book. Still deeply in need of editing, but a book.
Here’s the whole acrostic:
I’ve spent this week altering plot points in an important scene in my mystery novel. Since first I wrote it, the characters have evolved, their motivations have changed, and clues have moved, both geographically and logically. But when I surfaced from the job, I found that I had written almost nothing but plot. The reader was getting far too little help visualizing the scene precisely, getting the details that make places and events real and memorable.
Back to my trusty pocket notebook. It contains much plotless writing about things that have seized my eyes and my mind for reasons I wouldn’t even try to explain. None of them are directly relevant to my book. Still, reading these passages fills my mind with the experience of just noticing, of Being There. Maybe they’ll inspire me to find the details that will make my not-too-bad scene really good.
Here are a few of my pocket-notebook inspirations. I’d love to read some of yours.
At a meeting of our local weekly discussion group:
V_____ (a husband) talking, making sense, but pretty platitudinous. J____ (his wife) listening with unchanged expression and posture, but the hand holding her off-V_____ elbow was massaging it, tightening and loosening regularly.
G___ (a husband) discussing photos of galaxies in a book he owned, which he had already discussed with R______ (his wife.) He was addressing the rest of the group with the same arguments he and she had already gone over, but his eyes were usually on her, reliving their own discussion. A committed couple.
At a writing conference:
Up on stage, an author on a panel yaws his orange, desk-style chair rapidly left and right in a short arc. The other authors, in identical chairs, are perfectly still.
A writer teaches a class. As he speaks, in time with an upward lilt at the end of each sentence, his face first rises straight up, then straight out, always maintaining its vertical plane. With the adolescent (he’s not one) intonation, the gesture seems to mean, “You do see, don’t you? Am I being clear? Do you agree?” Sweet, if a bit phony. Yet somehow the gesture also seems mildly aggressive, snakelike.
In the room where I write:
A bird flew into the glass of the door to the balcony behind me. There was a softer thump than usual. I hoped that this would be one of the occasions when the bird just flew off with a headache. But when I went to look, he was lying on the balcony floor. I knelt to look, and saw that his eyes were open and unblinking. (At least I thought they were, but what color are a sparrow’s eyelids?) He wasn’t still. He lay on one wing and his little body was rocking quickly on its longest axis, backforth, backforth, backforth. I saw that he was not convulsing. There was no other movement, no movement of any part. Just his whole body, backforth, backforth, backforth. How could he do that without pushing any part of him against the floor? Then I realized that his heartbeat was moving him. In back and forth, I saw systole and diastole. Bismarck (my cat) came to the door and chittered. When I wouldn’t let him through, he sat and watched. I left, and when I returned, the bird was gone.
Months later: I am working at a card table. My elbows are braced on the table, coffee mug between my hands. My knapsack-purse stands across the table. I am motionless, but one strap of the purse, the looser and closer one, trembles. Why? I am seeing systole and diastole, my own.
A fruit fly remains on a piece of white paper where I put some grapes. A single fruit fly casts a shadow, even on an overcast day.
In the summer Music Tent in Aspen:
A description of Finns. I call them Finns because I think they might be, but more because the first of them I saw made me think at once of a Scandinavian gnome. He was an old man of middle height. We were sitting two rows up from him in the Benedict Music Tent, so I couldn’t see whether white hair sprouted from his ears. But his face was such that I was sure of the ear hair. His skin was a dark brown, but it looked weathered rather than tanned. Or perhaps “tanned” in the sense of leather. Large wrinkles divided his face into subsections. His eyebrows were wild, almost long enough to obscure his vision. His nose was large and long and bulbous, three lumps separated by two none-too-narrow narrower places. His mouth was wide, his lips not especially so. He was smiling, nodding, and talking energetically with the people who accompanied him. They were Aspen Standard, as far as I could see. I can’t remember whether I saw that his teeth were scraggly or assumed it. He was wearing standard old-guy-in-Aspen clothes, a vaguely Western sports shirt and slacks.
The woman was sitting in the row behind them. She came in later with other people, but they all seemed to know one another. My first thought was that she was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. But at the same time, her face was welcoming. I had to work not to stare, and then not to be caught staring. She was the man’s age and about the same height. Her skin was almost as brown as his, very smooth but speckled with large age spots. Aside from the old-lady, nose-to-chin wrinkles, she had almost none. In profile, her face made a perfect convex curve. Her chin was well back, but not receding in a slant; it looked firm, and she didn’t have the feeble, chinless look of a Bertie Wooster. Like the man, she had high cheekbones and a very notable nose. Her nose curved like a raptor’s beak, but not like a witch’s: it didn’t curve back in, but ended at its outermost point, with the septum horizontal to the ground. Not small, but neat. Both man and woman had large ears, his relatively larger than hers, but her hair framed her ears and made them stand out. Her hair was long but not full, clipped back with barrettes behind the ears and straggling down her back. From the roots to her shoulders, it was a slightly grayish white. There, in a visible line, it became a faded, reddish light brown, as if some instantaneous shock had flipped a switch in her scalp. She too was smiling and talking, and her expression made me want to know her.
Now, back to my scene. I’m going for three, very short details with the feel of these passages. I suppose “short” will be the hard part.
I write to dig my fingers into the mulch of my life. I’m talking physical objects here, not narratives, far less theories. I know what calls to me in life, but if I’m going to find out why it calls me, I need to roll in it.
So I start with the most basic principle of (dis)order: the Pile.
Think dragon’s hoard. Yes, dragons take only jewels and precious metals, but within those limits, anything goes. If the plundered castle contains a diamond-studded chamber pot – and any castle of mine would have one – into the hoard with it!
My childhood was filled with piles of treasure, or at least, the piles are what I recall most clearly. Take the old Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, which I visited weekly, alone, for hours. The Peabody hoarded curios of the Yankee clipper trade: Samoan canoes, Chinese porcelain, Indian bronzes. It also welcomed spears, pots, moccasins, anything looted from the local Native Americans, as well as booty from the tribes of the west.
Nothing changed at the Peabody from year to year, but I never came to the end of it. The “displays” were crammed, glass-fronted enclosures that did no more than corral the stuff. The glass kept kids like me from fingering the bead work and pulling the trigger of the flintlock, so I had to do the fingering in my head. The exercise shaped me for life.
(The museum has been modernized now. One or two objects are presented in a case, hedged about with respectful placards that nail down their meaning for you. This is held to be educational.)
You do grow up eventually. You become one of the people with the keys to the display case, and – alas – it is up to you to create some kind of order. This is where lists come in.
At their best, lists come close to letting you finger the beadwork. Your shopping list for Christmas presents, say. You may cross things off, but I’ll bet you don’t scribble them into illegibility. Possessing your list, you possess Santa’s sack.
In your fiction, lists drop the reader in at the deep end. Enter a room, be submerged in the agglomeration of a character’s possessions. If you avoid clichés like garish sofa pillows or boring nineteenth-century paintings, your reader can meet an original character even before she walks onto the stage. (Avoid reverse clichés as well, e.g., you enter a room starved of eccentricity, geometric, neat, and suspicion dawns. You cannot trust the owner. He is either hiding something or deeply neurotic.)
Chris Holm, who won this year’s Anthony Best Novel award for his thriller The Killing Kind, says that lists are where he hides his clues. The villain, ransacking his pockets for his Porsche keys, might turn out used Kleenex, coins, a rubber band, half a paper clip, crumpled receipts, cookie crumbs, laundry lint. While the reader tenses over the frustrated get-away, that lint actually means….
Once you have spread your hoard out before you and made your list, you have a basis for elaboration. My hoard for one book includes a painting titled “Mom and Dad at the Gates of Hell,” a rhododendron bush heavy with rain in a square in Dublin, a wooden shack over a spring, papered with appeals to St. Bridget, a silver rack of hot toast, two vodka gimlets…. I have little idea where I’m going with this. I shuffle and rearrange the list to own my great delight; sometimes I push some items to the left of the page, to become categories, or to the right, to dwindle into mere fragments of scenes. I’m sure there’s a cosmogony in there somewhere.
Pile-to-list requires a critical mass. Two items, for instance will not do. Your middle-school English teacher’s quiz instruction, “Compare and contrast” misses the mark entirely, as so many of her instructions did. But if you sort and imagine, shift and juggle, keep the right things and toss the wrong ones, there will be a story.
Of course, you might make it on structure alone. You could outline your story first, sub-outline your outline, sit down, type it over with “the” and “is” inserted where necessary. No one could argue that you haven’t written a book. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code reads like a series of index cards, ordered plot points fleshed out with an albino monk here and there. He made $250 million. But I bet I’m having more fun.