Posts Tagged ‘Plotting’

We all know there’s no question that tension helps a scene, but what amazes me as a writer is how easily the potential for it can be overlooked.

Recently, I was writing a scene in my WIP and found my characters being, well, a little too chummy. They were meeting for coffee. They were laughing. They were getting along so damn well. It was delightful! It was precious! It was…

…dull as a fast-food knife.

Now don’t get me wrong: I want them to be chummy and ultimately I need them to be chummy, but what’s the rush? The scene was reading ho-hum.

Until I added tension.

Suddenly Susan and her father weren’t so glad to see each other on this bright and cozy morning. Suddenly Susan was cross because her father had offered something precious of Susan’s late mother to a stranger.


What had begun as a cheery, mushy–and daresay, throwaway–scene suddenly turned into a thrusting-head-long rocket into the plot.


And it didn’t stop there. More tension followed. More things that Susan and her father (and several other characters, of course) were losing, or wanting, or both.

Tension, I adore you.

You make writing and reading a heck of a lot more fun.

So what about you all? What’s rubbing your characters the wrong way lately?

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I’m a sucker for a heist movie. Always have been. On any day, give me The Thomas Crown Affair, The Score, and certainly, Ocean’s Eleven. Recently I stumbled on a gem (pun intended there, oh you bet) called The Hot Rock from 1972. With an all-star cast headed up by Robert Redford and George Segal, and directed by Peter Yates of Bullitt fame, it’s a winner. Well-written and well-played, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

And I think I finally understand WHY I am so enamored with heist movies. At one point toward the end of the movie, there is a scene where Robert Redford is tasked with, not surprisingly, having to construct the plan for a doozie of a heist. He knows he has to figure out a way. The camera pans to his face and he is angst-ridden, you can see it. Then he begins to write. Scribbles fly out of him, one idea, then another. Finally he returns to his crew and shows them his notes, one scrap of paper here, a napkin there, explaining as he hands them out why this one won’t work, or this one, or this one.

I think you all know where I’m going with this.

Now I’ll go out on a limb here and say none of us are professional thieves accustomed to constructing heist and getaway plans. We’re even better than that: we’re writers.

When Robert Redford was sitting there, burning holes in his notepaper with his eyes, I knew EXACTLY how he felt (well, minus the danger of incarceration). So many times as a writer I’ve known I had to get from point A to point B–I had to get the gem–but how? On a later draft of LITTLE GALE GUMBO, I had to rethink a key plot point. It simply didn’t work. It was too harsh and frankly it didn’t fit with the mood and spirit of the story. But the ending was to remain the same. Like Mr. Redford, I was faced with a set-in-stone ending, but I needed to find out how to get there. I went around and around. I scribbled. I charted and graphed. But no matter what, the safety deposit box was too thick, the bank guard was too alert, the alarm system was too foolproof. What I mean to say is: there was always a sticking point that kept my “heist” from working.

Until, one day, there wasn’t. Eventually, after enough huffing and puffing and scribbling, the solution was there. And it worked.

So how do you all “plan your heists?” Do you take long walks and let the ideas percolate?

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Rising dough. Paying off a student loan. On hold with your insurance provider.

These are things that take time.

But what about the timeline for a novel? Does that have a built-in life expectancy?

For LITTLE GALE GUMBO, I took my time. Almost forty years, to be exact. When we first meet Camille Bergeron, she is a shy teenager helping her mother work a spell in the back of their Voodoo shop in New Orleans. By the story’s end, she has left a legacy on an island off the coast of Maine, started a Creole cafe that will become an island staple, and raised two remarkable daughters who share their own struggles and celebrations throughout the course of the novel.

Wait for it...Wait for it...Some things take time. Like bird photography. And, if you're this heron, a good meal.

So when I sat down to write my next novel, it was hard to imagine, but I was feeling a little less, well, patient. The story that was coming to me wanted to be told faster. MUCH faster. As in, one week faster.

Is that possible? Is that blasphemy? Can a reader care about people who have the literary lifespan of a fruit fly?

Why not?  Just because a story takes place over a short period of time doesn’t mean its characters can’t develop believable relationships, does it? Admittedly, it’s a challenge. In particular, building romances. No reader accepts the love-at-first-sight clause without proof. And what about the ending? Can you provide resolution for your reader–believable resolution–when only a matter of days have transpired? I mean, how much can a character REALLY grow in seven days?

Well, I’ll let you know. I’m finding that out right now, and I’m here to say, I think they can grow quite a lot. But I am holding fast to one rule: Be it seven days or seven years, the evolution of a character requires consistency and authenticity above all else.

Frankly, I’m loving the challenge of this structure. I love the idea of a compact story with bursting characters whose years of history aren’t nearly as crucial as the seven days in which that history comes to the forefront and collides with their future and those around them who hope to be a part of it.

It’s almost like accelerated dog years. For every seven years of character development, I get one day to let it live.

So what about you all? Do you find it’s easier to write a story that spans a long chronology–or do you prefer to keep your timeline short? Any examples come to mind of short-termed storylines that left you feeling full or midnight-munchies starving?

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Those who know me well, know that I love, love, the movie Jaws. I can’t tell you many times

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to your bookshelf...

I’ve watched it or how many more times I will, but it is one of possibly only a few movies (Sideways being a close second) that I know I can always turn on and fall into, and never grow weary of its journey.

Last night, having dinner with friends, our host asked me what it was about the movie that made it so watchable to me. I didn’t hesitate. The pacing, the plotting, the writing (yeah, even the really stinky cheese lines!) but most of all, the characters and their chemistry with one another. The three unwitting musketeers of Brody, Hooper and Quint. The tender union of Brody and his wife. And I haven’t even touched on the music yet…

I can quote nearly every line, every gesture. The Indianapolis speech still gives me the chills, as does the look on Roy Scheider’s face when he learns his son is “in the pond.”

In my mind, it is a perfect film.

But the question got me thinking–and it occurred to me that my reasons for watching Jaws over and over aren’t so different from why I re-read certain books. Clearly, I know the punchline. I can’t recreate that final moment of will-he or won’t-he nail-biting suspense that I endured the first time watching it (though that doesn’t mean I don’t still find the tension palpable), anymore than I could re-read Fight Club with a fresh innocence about its mind-blowing ending. And yet, I could and have re-read Fight Club. For the same reason I have re-read The Shipping News and The Shining. Because these are books that are so well-crafted and written that I know I will always glean something from my journey with them. Sometimes it is something new, other times I am delighted to report it’s because it’s exactly what I remember.

What about you? What books have sat on your night table more than once? And what about them makes you always come back for more?

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Some days you want a flourless torte, some days you want a trifle, some days you want a four-layer Red Velvet.

And some days you just want a good yellow cake.

Writing can be the same way. Sometimes we get so fixated on a “hook”, on coming up with the twist or ending that no one saw coming, that we forget the power in a straightforward, well-developed story.

We can feel as if it’s a competition, to see who can come up with the plot/genre that no one’s thought of before.

Vampires in the dinosaur age?

What about time travel by way of a fast food drive-thru?

It makes me think of the recent trend in the culinary world to kick it up a notch with escalatingly-odd flavor combinations. Sea salt and cumin ice-cream?  Rosemary and espresso potato chips? Sure, why not?! Who cares if it tastes good–it just SOUNDS so cool, right? But the fact is that the flavor is everything,  just as all the twists in the world can’t elevate a story with hollow characters you can’t care about.

Butter, eggs, sugar, vanilla, flour, baking powder, salt and milk.

Characters who want something above all else and are thwarted in their goals.

The recipes aren’t so far apart.

Sure, I like roulades and I like tiramisu. I might even like sea salt and cumin ice cream. But yesterday I craved a basic yellow cake. 

And getting back to the basics never tasted so good.

Care to share any over-the-top flavor combinations (or fiction couplings?) you’ve sampled (or turned down) lately?

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Having had a lot of experience in theater over the years, one of the things I always enjoyed when I was acting was having a prop in a scene. Food to be eaten, clothes to be packed, dishes to be set, you name it. I always felt an inherent ease and believability in having a task to accompany my performance, something to keep my hands busy while my head was immersed.

But props in a play aren’t always a good idea. When chosen poorly, they can appear contrived, or distracting, drawing the viewer’s focus from the emotional core of the scene.

It’s the same in writing. Just like in acting, props have to have a place in a scene to work, and using them well can be tougher than it seems.

For starters, props can be structurally tricky. Much in the way some of us nit-pickers can’t help but notice that a film actor’s glass of wine/cigarette/sandwich grows and vanishes, grows and vanishes during the course of a five-minute scene, props in writing must be organized and consistent.

Eating and drinking scenes are especially tough. Sometimes characters are gluttonous–you can have them serving themselves twelve slices of pizza before you realize it–or refilling their coffee so often your reader wonders if they don’t have a leaky mug. Dressing your character (or undressing, whichever the case may be)? Be careful they don’t put on more than one pair of socks (unless they’re going skating on a pond in Maine in January) or zip up those button-fly jeans, or tie those sneakers so many times your reader will wonder if they’re practicing knot-tying for a merit badge.

Frequency is another stickler when employing props in your scenes. I’ve re-read scenes of mine where my use of props was so prominent, I wondered if I was writing a scene or a recipe. (In my defense, there is a scene in LITTLE GALE GUMBO where the goal is to teach one of the characters how to make gumbo, so the actions of the “props” took on an unusual focus in the scene. But in most cases, you don’t want your props to overwhelm your scene.)

So when do props work?

1. When they are part of the background, there to reinforce/give authenticity to your setting: Julian handed Anna the menu and she smiled as she took it. “Brunch is my favorite,” she said, setting it down. “I hear the Eggs Benedict here is wonderful.” She couldn’t help checking out the stack of individual jams in their shiny metal basket. It was nothing to alphabetize them while he looked over the Specials Board.

When they reinforce the goal or mindset of a character:  Anna pulled out a second napkin and set it in her lap so he wouldn’t think she was prone to spills this time. OR Anna worked the napkin in her lap, shredding it to ribbons while she listened to him explain Margot’s perfect triple axel.

I like props, I do, but I have to remind myself they are part of the background, bit parts, never leads.

So how do you all use props in your writing? Any favorites you find your characters using from story to story?

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…a first draft.

(I  know, you were thinking of another ending, and, yes, you’re welcome for the ear bug I’ve now left you with.)

Part of the joy of letting a first draft flow is, well, letting it flow, and forcing yourself to just get to THE END. Because as we all know, you can’t have a second draft (or a third, or fourth, or…) until you have a first.

So that’s the good. Now for the bad.

Sometimes re-reading that first draft can be utterly crushing. Sure, there are some good parts–maybe even a high percentage of them–but much like the feeling you have after that second slice of cheesecake, the earlier, blissful sensation of anticipation is drowned in the all-too-real sensation of heartburn. You know you were enjoying yourself at one point, but that delight is gone.

Right now, I have acid reflux. Bigtime. The first few bites of my WIP tasted so good, I couldn’t stuff my face fast enough. Then came a hundred pages/bites in, and Ooof. I put down my fork, I sat back, I groaned.

What had happened?

And then I remembered, this is ALSO the good. You want to find those gaps, those breaks in the flow of your story/character, those albeit painful places where you need major work. Because that’s what makes your second draft your second draft.

I’m taking comfort in this fact as I read on. Comfort, and Tums.

What do you take to get through your first draft?

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Arguments in life and arguments in writing are very different animals. 

Now I don’t care what the experts say about “fair fighting” and “thinking before you speak” during an argument. It just doesn’t work that way. In the heat of the moment, we’re erratic, irrational, flying from one subject/gripe to another. Making coherent and relevant points? Good luck with that!

And yet, in writing, it can be necessary–even imperative–to outline an argument. In fact, right now in my WIP, two of my main characters are having it out–and believe me, it’s about time–this battle has been brewing for nearly 345 pages! But this is tricky business and while I’d like to be a pantser on this one (as I usually am in most cases), there are important points that need to be made, as well as reveals that need equal screen–er, scream–time.

But what about the all-important element of spontaneity? Keeping that balance between script and scrappy can be tough–but crucial. I believe there is a balance and I’m determined to find it, but probably not on the first go-round.

Anyone else lucky enough to get there on the first try?

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We all know the phrase: Timing is everything.

Most often it’s applied to comedy, but punchlines (and roux) aren’t the only things that benefit from good timing. Deciding when to reveal something to your readers requires good timing too.

Stop me if you've heard this one: Plot reveals are like a good soup...

We readers are savvy. We can smell a set-up a mile away. We can also smell an “info-dump” from 50 feet. You know, that point in the story when you can feel the author is about to present a lot of backstory, or maybe explain a crime or a plot twist. 

But, oh, as a writer…it’s so tempting to fall for the easy, breezy, utilitarian “info-dump”! You can see the scene, practically feel your protagnonist’s palms grow moist as he takes his place in the center of the living room, his lover’s eyes fixed adoringly on him as she settles snugly into her seat (and she better be snug–this could take awhile), waiting patiently for all her questions (and ours) to be answered at long last.

Oh, it will be perfect! There will be Murder She Wrote moments (“It WAS you outside the museum!”). There will be Three’s Company moments (“Well, Gee Whiz–no wonder there was a life preserver  in my shower!”). There will even be Dallas moments (“I KNEW it was only a dream!”). And you can’t wait to craft them all, you’re giddy with excitement, dizzy with impatience. Believe me, I know. I feel the seductive charms of the “info-dump” with every novel.

Then, just like Pam Ewing, I wake up.

Now don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, and in some genres (mysteries are the obvious ones here), the big reveal is unavoidable, the living room, homage-to-Agatha, blow-by-blow impossible to avoid–and what’s more, it can often times be expected and looked forward to. But in other genres, that sort of wrap-up can just feel forced, cliched.

Because the fact is, in daily life, we rarely have someone’s undivided attention for the duration of a thirty minute explanation, nor are we so sharp and with it (I am speaking for myself, of course) that we can neatly and smoothly deliver an A to Z wrap-up without so much as a pause.

BUT, all that said, our reveals should have a certain panache. They should be well-timed and tidy enough that we don’t a) miss them or b) bury them or c) throw them out to the reader like strings of Mardi Gras beads. We don’t want to show our cards too early but we can’t hide them too long or the reader will get understandably bored, or feel manipulated.

Like I said, it’s tricky, tricky stuff.

So how to know what time is the right time? I don’t know if there is a right time. There are certainly wrong times–and we know those at once (they usually come with wincing and eye-twitching)–and perhaps right times are merely the absence of those aforementioned winces and twitches, who knows?

For me, I’ve come to think my characters know best. They know when it’s the best time for the novel–even if sometimes it’s not the best time for them (“What? You couldn’t have told me this BEFORE I got the tattoo?!”)

So what about you and your reveals? Any tried and true tips to knowing when to say when?

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Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.
–Kurt Vonnegut

In my list of favorite writing advice from the masters, I would say this tip is up there in the top ten. It’s true. Someone, in every scene, has to want something for the reader to care.

There are the big wants, the ones that are the spine of the story, be it love, family, justice, revenge, etc.–and there are the smaller ones (ie, the drink of water) that drive the scenes and the characters toward the big want. Which is why when one of my scenes stalls (or my plot as a whole) I will very often look at what my characters want*–only to discover they either don’t know or don’t want anything!Huh?

Now, let’s be honest: everybody wants something. Even the most indecisive, weak characters have to want something. Otherwise, there is no journey for the reader. Why should we follow a character if they want for nothing? There’s nowhere to go, nowhere for them to take us. Even if all your character wants is to buy a stamp, we can care and we can follow. But without a mission, a desire, however small, your reader will surely get off at the next stop and search out a train that has an actual destination. Who wouldn’t, right?

So does your character know what he or she wants for Christmas?

*Sometimes I will go through my whole manuscript and identify the wants in every scene and make sure there is one (of course, there will usually be as many wants as you have characters in that scene, even if some of the wants aren’t on display…)

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