Category Archives: Structure

Rx for Plot-Blindness

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.

Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev

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.

Eat Me!

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.

Win-win.

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Breaking the Mystery Rules

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.

Icebergs in Arizona

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon

Gabby has me diving into the freezing cold water of the North Atlantic, searching for the seven-eighths of my book that is underwater. Although just a meager portion of the seven-eighths, this is what I’ve uncovered:

  • Subplot. I’ve fleshed out a murder subplot that wasn’t in the original NaNoWriMo novel. I wasn’t certain I even could use it when it appeared but I’ve grown to like it. I’ve been massaging it, expanding it, and I can see its potential as both a red herring and a means of inserting more of the backstory of some characters.
  • Murderer. I’ve  changed the murderer. This is big!! And it’s involved reworking not just the murder itself but also relationships among the characters. This change helped me flesh out the relationship between a mother and daughter, going back eighteen years to the daughter’s conception.
  • Conflicts. You can never have too many of those, can you? Possibly in your real life but not in a book. My NaNoWriMo conflicts were superficial but now I’ve created some meaningful ones that will help Gabby develop into a well-rounded, mature woman.
  • Family history. I’ve delved further into the history of the paternal side of the protagonist’s family, starting with the life of her great-grandfather. One of the perks of being an author is that you are in control of what happened generations ago that affects your living characters. It’s more fun, and easier, than using Ancestry.com.
  • Whodunit? Most recently I have visited with each of my characters in order to discover who he or she thinks is the murderer. Through these conversations, I have learned more about my characters’ flaws, as well as gained some insight into where I need to place clues.

At this point, working with the separate parts of the structure of the novels means that I will have to fit all of this information together to form the novel. It is going to be like taking the pieces from numerous jigsaw puzzles and jamming the pieces together to create one much larger puzzle, all the while looking under the sofa and the coffee table for the missing pieces that make up the dreaded hollow places.

During all of this, I haven’t written one word that increases the word count of the novel. And that’s okay. For now.

 

 

 

The Plot Acrostic

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:

plot-acrostic

 

A Writer’s Matrix: Lists and Piles

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.

 

 

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