Friday, October 28, 2011

Your Turn - Spot the Themes

We've been talking about routine tasks in fiction this week. First we talked about two common errors in the reliance on routine tasks, and then we looked at two example of scenes in which routine tasks are manipulated to highlight theme.

Now it's your turn to apply some of the ideas we've been using. But I'm not going to make it easy for you! This clip is of a scene sequence from the film Pretty Woman, the eponymous shopping scene. This sequence is not without its problems, but it also contains elements which many viewers loved. The trick now is for you to watch the sequence with the concept of deeper story architecture in mind. What are the themes, and how do those themes resonate in this sequence?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Another Good Example - Dinner Done Right

We've been talking about routine tasks such as cooking and getting dressed. We started by looking at two ways these kinds of actions are misused in the narrative, with clues to diagnose and tips to repair them. Then yesterday, we looked at the first minute and a half of Lawrence Kasdan's film, The Big Chill, as an example of how routine tasks are manipulated to establish the dominant themes of the film. Today I thought we could take a look at another example from film, this time a classic dinner scene from Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.

First, take a look at the scene. Henry (Ray Liotta) and his partner have been sentenced to ten years for beating up a bookie. This scene takes places in prison.

It's a dinner scene, yes, and it goes into detail about a lot of mundane points: the thinness of the garlic slices, the number of onions, the need for pork in the sauce, the bread, the wine, and so on. But these details serve a deeper purpose by reinforcing the theme. This is a film that attempts to convince us that the mobster's life was glamorous and privileged even as it depicted the grittiness and tawdriness of it all. This scene hits that theme hard. They are in prison. It's not a pretty environment. Paulie wears a bathrobe, black socks, and sandals while he slices the garlic -- far from a glamorous look, and yet it shows us how relaxed his is, even in the cement-block prison environment. A single sheet hangs over the window in place of a curtain, and yet there is a linen tablecloth on the table. The gangsters have lobsters and steaks on ice in a makeshift cooler hidden behind an ugly oilcloth sheet. Everywhere you look, there are these pairings of something ugly with something that speaks to privilege and a better lifestyle.

What else do you notice in this scene that ties into the themes of the movie?


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How to Use Routine Tasks to Make a Deeper Point

In my post yesterday, we talked about scenes and scene starts which rely on trivial action in the wrong way. Today I thought it might be useful to look at an example of a scene that uses the same kind of action to make a larger point. I suspect most of you are familiar with the Lawrence Kasdan film, The Big Chill. The first minute and a half of that film portrays routine actions: a dad bathing his toddler son, a mom taking a phone call, a man dressing. I found a youtube clip of the opening -- it's got subtitles, but it was the only video I could find of the first scene. Take a look at the first minute and a half.

Now, the film's dominant themes have to do with the loss of innocence and the tension between idealism and everyday concerns. This opening sequence sets the thematic tone by using everyday, routine tasks as a counterpoint to the phone call that changes everything. One of my favorite moments in this sequence comes when, after the phone rings several times and is finally answered by the mom, the dad asks, "What's that?" We're all wondering the same thing because we know phone calls in movies usually have a big impact on the action. But, even though the dad has one eye on the phone call, the question, "What's that?" is actually posed to the kid, who answers, "Super-Nothing." The call is not about a superhero. It's about a Super-Nothing, a man who never found his way in life but now has found his way to death. The tragic news is delivered against the backdrop of a child in a bubble-filled tub singing Joy to the World.This image is filled with innocence and imagination, two key ingredients in the idealism examined by the film.

And then the opening credits are played over an image of a man getting dressed -- or being dressed, rather, for burial. Getting dressed is a routine act that we do every day, but we only are dressed for burial one time. The ordinary act is made extraordinary by its unique context.

Do you notice anything else here about the way the ordinary actions are used to make bigger points?


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dressing and Dining

We've all heard the advice to cut things like getting dressed or cooking meals from your narrative. And we've all heard the reasons behind this rule. These are non-dramatic actions. There's no tension or conflict in these actions. They weigh down the pace and bore the reader. They have nothing to do with the plot.

All true. But I thought it might be useful to look at two common ways authors slip into "dressing and dining" mode. I think there are reasons authors reach for these kinds of filler actions in certain spots, and understanding the usages might make it easier to revise them out of the narrative.

The Non-Transitional Transition

Sometimes, we see a long run of "getting ready" details at the start of a new scene. You know what I mean.

The next morning, Elsie woke slowly in the fading darkness before the sun crested the horizon. She stretched against the mattress and huddled deeper under the quilt. It would be at least an hour before anyone else rose. Time to herself. What a treat. With hardly a whisper of sound, she threw back the covers and donned her robe and slippers, made the bed, and headed toward her closet. It would be warm today, and Miller had warned her that their project would be physically challenging. T-shirt and jeans? But she wanted to feel pretty even if she was sweating over fence posts and rails. 

And so on, the prose continues in a languid manner, dawdling over moments of solitude and ordinary household and hygiene tasks. Maybe some of this information is tangentially related to the plot, and maybe some it sheds light on the character or conflicts. However, most (if not all) of this kind of passage can be cut without having any impact on the story.

I think there are two reasons for this kind of flat scene opening: the author isn't sure what happens next, or the author isn't sure how to transition between two events or moments in story time. To cure the first issue (what happens next?), just keep reading until you reach a point where some kind of opposition occurs. Remember in high school when you learned all the forms of conflict -- human versus nature, human versus human, human versus god, and so on? Look for that kind of oppositional moment in the scene. The first place it occurs is the first place where actual scene material is unfolding. That is the natural start to the scene, the place where "what happens next" begins to actually happen. You might still need some kind of transition or set-up before that moment, but you want to open the scene close to that spot in the narrative.

I've heard advice suggesting that when your scene starts slowly with a solitary character, you should cut everything that happens until a second character comes on the scene. But that's not always a cure. Sometimes, a character can be totally alone and experiencing a tremendous conflict. Or a second character can arrive and spend six pages discussing the weather before anything meaningful occurs. The better option is not to look for the arrival of another character but for the commencement of the scene-level conflict.

But sometimes, these long intros don't result from author confusion over what happens next. Sometimes, it's a clumsy transition. Usually, we can identify these by the fairly small number of lines between the chapter heading (or scene break) and the start of the scene conflict. These clumsy transitions rarely go on for more than a full page, though it is possible for an author to get really bogged down and "transition" for a few pages. Usually, there's a real sense of wheel-spinning in the text, often in the form of multiple adverb clauses mentioning the passage of time. It reads almost as though the author keeps trying to formulate a good transition, and tries again, and again, and then finally kicks into gear with real action.

In those cases, the first question is, do we need this transition or can we start with the natural beginning of the scene conflict? Sometimes, you can jump right into the fray, and that means cutting all the false starts. Other times, a transition is necessary. In that case, pick the best one out of the false starts -- or cut them all and craft a new one -- but keep it to a single sentence, maybe even a single phrase or clause if you can manage it. With only rare exceptions, transitions don't need to be longer than that.

We sometimes see an author try to fix a flat opening by moving things around without cutting anything. In those cases, you often see a line of provocative dialogue, maybe a paragraph or two of real action, followed by a long blob of, "after the last scene, this is what the characters all did" type information. That doesn't fix the problem. The only difference there is that, instead of being bored by the first pages of the scene, the reader will be bored by middle pages. (It is possible to place transitional information after the natural beginning of the scene, but it must be short -- a single sentence, a single phrase or clause, as mentioned above.)

The Blank Background

Sometimes it happens that the characters are having a meaningful conversation as they eat or cook or get dressed. The purpose of the scene is to have that conversation. The purpose of the scene is not to eat or cook or get dressed. The author includes that "dressing and dining" action to keep the scene from lapsing into "talking heads" mode. It's the right instinct, but the wrong result.

Funny thing. More often than not, the author who uses routine household chores as scene background tends to use the same ones over and over again. Any editor who's been working in this game for more than, say, ten minutes can tell you a story of a book where the characters spend half the book occupied with some very ordinary task, always the same task from the same author. One author might have her characters bathe or shower in every other chapter. Another sends them grocery shopping six times in a 60k-word book. The conversations always occur over meals, or the sequel musings always happen while cooking. I will confess that an early draft of one of my manuscripts had the characters drinking tea on a shocking number of pages. Every now and then we'll run into an author who rotates cooking, bathing, eating, and the like, but more often than not, they reach for the same kind of filler background over and over throughout the text.

There's no cure for this but revision -- not just tinkering, but a total re-seeing of the scene. It helps to overhaul not just the scenes, but the way the author conceptualizes scenes. I recommend starting with the setting. Figure out places to set your scenes that prevents you from reaching for routine background tasks as filler. Make the setting relevant. Make the action interesting. Think deeply about what these characters DO over the course of the story, what makes them who they are, and figure out a way to leverage that.

This doesn't mean you have to make your characters practice their trapeze act while they discuss the suspects and clues in your mystery. You don't want the scene and background to overwhelm the meaningful action, after all.You're looking for something which enhances the deeper architecture of the story -- the themes and motifs, the characters' core beliefs, that sort of thing. This is going to feel hard and even frustrating if you're not used to this kind of scene construction. But it does get easier with practice, so suck it up, work it out, and look forward to the time when you can do this kind of scene construction easily. You know, you might even find that it's fun. Lots of authors do!


Sunday, October 23, 2011

More on Scene Design

I'm still obsessing about scene design, and I'm thinking the essence of keeping scenes dramatic might be knowing what's important to narrate and what can be summarized.

Here are some common scene-narration opportunities:

Many readers skim over even a paragraph which is just description. I think that's more in popular fiction than general and literary fiction, however. In pop fic, the setting might be best filtered through the POV character, or done in kind an omniscient opening to the scene (where it's conventional and won't bother many readers-- that's not always the best way to open a scene, of course, so do what's best for this scene, to accomplish your specific purpose).
Filtering through the character (more common in deeper and single POV) means presenting it as an observation by this person. What would she notice? How would he describe it? This gives the description the secondary purpose of developing the character. If she thinks about how much everything in the room costs, we might think she's materialistic (if she's spot-on about the prices), or poor and envious.

In general fiction and literary fiction, the descriptive passages can reveal the author's voice and perspective. Make sure they do. That is, don't wimp out and have some generic description. (This was a wealthy collector's house. On the left was a Renoir nude. On the right was a Rembrandt self-portrait. On the floor was a Persian carpet. The furniture was Louis Quatorze.) Highlight your voice, your powers of description, your way of approaching setting.

Now many writers are erring on the other extreme and doing almost no description.
Careful there. Think about what the reader needs in the way of setting and character description, and when. Readers don't want to wait till the third page of the story to realize, "Oh, we're outside?" They're trying to put together an experience of this scene, and that does mean they need to know where they are and what it feels like. (Visual is not the only descriptor, by the way.)
So can you establish a few points in the first few paragraphs of the scene?
inside/outside (try doing this with "feel"-- like the wind)
Even the most distracted character would probably register that much.
Also, you can describe through interaction. If he has to push through a crowd to get up to his bleacher seat and he sits down and has to shift to fit his butt onto the metal bench, and he can feel the heat of the concrete floor through his sneakers and he has to put on his sunglasses to shield his eyes from the sun, and as he's eating his hot dog, he squirts mustard on his shirt and curses, and the guy next to him takes offense and shoves him and he goes sprawling over the plastic seatbacks, just as the batter 350 feet away hits a home run and it flies through the outfield and strikes Tommy right on the head... well, we're going to a good idea of the setting because the character is in constant interaction with the environment.

For awhile, I was narrating lots of MOTION. It would take a page to get the character across the street. ("He stepped off the curb. Then he moved his left foot forward on the hot pavement of the street. Then he moved his right foot forward. Then...") I don't need to tell you how excruciatingly boring that was to write (just imagine reading!). Wonder why I did it! Maybe just to get a sense of the physicality of the character, and that's good, but not when he ends up sounding like a robot. :)

So how much motion do you want to narrate? Not that much. Otherwise, it's probably moment-dependent. If the character is engaged in some intricate activity, like picking a lock, you might want to convey how complicated it is with a few lines (don't get to the boring point :) of close narration of what his hands are doing and what his ears hear and what his consciousness blocks out.

In an action passage, like where she's running from a malicious bulldozer, you might want to narrate closely her dash through the floodlit construction lot, her trip on a concrete block, her scramble through a hole in the chain-link fence. (Notice how quickly the setting is described when she's interacting with it.) At the same time, if you want the action to move fast, you don't want to slow it down with involved description of how she pulls the parts of the fence apart and latches each to the side, and ... Go for strong verbs-- she yanks the fencing aside and ignores the pain slashing through her hands and she scrambles through the hole and then she's free in the cold darkness of the highway underpass.

Again, in almost any scene, the reader needs some sense of movement, especially of the POV character. (I discuss this some in this post about action.) You don't want the reader stopping in mid-scene and thinking, "Huh? He's done with building the playground equipment? When did that happened? Last I heard, he was just unloading the tools from his truck!" If it's just "business," just what he's doing when he's thinking or talking, then you don't have to closely narrate, but you should narrate enough that the reader has some idea that he's halfway done, or close to done. Consider using the "business" to make action tags for thought or speech. I never should have let her go, he thought as he screwed in the last screw on the teeter-totter. He gave the plank an experimental shove, and one side came up and clanked him on the head. Just what he deserved for being so stupid.)

Give enough narration of action that the reader knows this character has a body that is doing something, and isn't suddenly pulled up short with, "Huh? I thought..."

But remember what your scene emphasis is here. If the action is central to the scene (like he's mercilessly beating up the bad guy), then narrate closely and keep the focus there. Tell the scene through/with the action. But if it's just "business," keep the focus on the conversation or thought or emotion or whatever you really think is important. Use the "business" as you would setting detail, to help anchor the scene and character in the environment and life. But the focus is still on the important aspect.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Today at Romance University

Today at Romance University, I'm talking some more about what makes a romance heroine a good character and why flaws don't necessarily make a romance heroine more sympathetic. It's all in the fairy tale structure.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ruling please?

How about a ruling on this sentence?  My problem is the "visibly".

The tears were running visibly down his face.

Tears can BE visible, but can they RUN visibly? That is, is this an adjective (modifying tears) which is being forced into adverb (modifying run) position? 

I know it's not a felicitous sentence overall, but let's just focus on "running visibly." We know what it means-- the guy isn't trying to hide his tears. But if the narrator sees the tears, why do we need "visibly"?  Also, really, running visibly?  I don't even know why that makes my skin crawl.

What do you all think? If you were editing, would you let that sentence go by?


Monday, October 17, 2011

Young author imprint

Here's an article (rather hagiographic for my tastes) about a Harper line that seeks out (and awards small advances to) young authors with books that might not get a good reading elsewhere.  One tactic that jumps out at me is that they might do a small print-run (usually that's going to cause the book to fail), but they are willing to go back and do further print-runs if the book seems to be catching on. That's the sort of action we seldom see with big publishers and "small books," but the willingness to go back to print is essential to create the sort of slow-burning seller.

One of the worst aspects of publishing since the 90s has been the willingness-- eagerness-- of publishers to declare a book a failure after it's been on the shelves a month. We know that "word-of-mouth" creates sales, but it takes a while for those mouths to get talking, and it does no good if the book is no longer available after a month or two.  This is another advantage that the demon Amazon has over physical bookstores, and e-books have over print-- being able to depart from the "limited inventory" model where the shelves have to be cleared for the next month's offerings. That's also an advantage that small imprints have over large-- there aren't 16 more titles coming out next month!

It's always seemed to me the most cruel aspect of publication, that the books we spent a year on disappear in a few weeks, that there's often no chance of a slow success. I'm wondering if the future will hold

Don't like the "small advance" model, of course, because that often means that a publisher can abandon a book early without much cost. But it's such a dysfunctional notion, and anyway, so few authors get big advances anyway... hardly seems worth fighting for.  I mean, how many of us ever got decent advances, even in the "golden era"?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Controversy question

I read an essay I liked, clicked on the author's website link (in bio at end of essay), and came to a blog where the writer showed an obsession with debunking the "myth of global warming." I felt as I did when I learned Ezra Pound was a Mussolini fan.

Should we care? What if the author -makes- us care by linking to a website with views we don't agree with? What's the dividing line? I mean, I don't want someone to think about me, "Well, she's all for semicolons and gay marriage, so I'll never read another book by her."  Is global warming debunking okay, but we draw the line at fascism?

Or if we enjoy the essay or book, should we just be glad for that and not care about anything else?
After all, if we avoided writers with aspects we don't like, we'd have to quit reading.  But....

Anyway, what do you think? This does really reinforce my thought that we should probably not link our creative work to controversial material. But of course, what might be innocuous to us might be controversial to others... also, how bland do we want to be, just to sell books to the greatest number?  Maybe some people shouldn't read our books???

Monday, October 10, 2011

Testing the Middle: Subplots

A few days ago, we talked about some simple tests for the end of a book to make sure it fits the story and reads smoothly. In response to that post, someone asked me to do a similar post on the middles of books.

Middles are hard! They're like Tolstoy's families -- good middles share similar characteristics, but every bad middle is bad in its own way. For this reason,  it's hard to say with any specificity how to fix a bad middle, because every bad middle is going to require a different kind of fix. That said, I can tell you some of the things I look at when I examine the rising action. First up, subplots.

Subplots create a lot of problems for a lot of books, and a junky subplot can confuse the reader and create a drag on the rising action as much as a junky main plot. We see a wide variety of subplot issues -- wandering action, irrelevant ideas, dull secondary conflicts, characters that are taking over when they shouldn't, conflicts that are overwhelming the main conflicts, and so on. When a book has subplots, there are a few things I do during the structural analysis to test the subplot.

First, I question whether the entire subplot is necessary. There's a great way to test the necessity of a subplot to the main plot. Look at the moment when the subplot is resolved. Does its resolution change the course of the main plot's action? If so, the subplot is necessary to the main plot. Next, we have to evaluate whether every scene in the subplot (not just that final scene) is necessary to reach the point where the main plot and subplot intersect. This isn't too difficult -- just take the subplot moment by moment and figure out which are absolutely necessary. There should be a pretty clean chain of causation in these subplot events. Anything not a part of that chain of causation can probably be cut.

Necessity isn't strictly, er, necessary. A subplot can serve functions other than pure plot functions. So if the subplot does not change the course of the main plot's action, I start looking for a non-plot purpose for the subplot. Perhaps the characters in the subplot are foils to the characters in the main plot. Perhaps there's thematic relevance. Perhaps the author is building a motif or a parallel scene to enhance the structure. There are legitimate reasons other than plot which would lead an author to write a subplot, and those reasons usually manifest in what I call echoes.

Echoes are little more than subplot aspects which resemble aspects of the main plot in some ways. Whether in foils, themes, motifs, parallels, or any other kind of non-plot element, relevant subplot echoes will relate in some way back to the main plot. That relationship will serve to underscore the element in the main plot -- that is, the subplot serves the main plot by making some aspect of the main plot feel more significant through repetition or reversal.

So first, I have to identify the ways in which these echoes exist on the page. And then I check whether those echoes are strong and meaningful enough to warrant the continued existence of the subplot. This requires a bit of subjective analysis, and it's not easy to say, "THIS is how you measure these kinds of echoes." All I can say is that, if it feels weak, it's weak. If it feels irrelevant, it's irrelevant. That doesn't necessarily mean it has to be cut, but it will need to be fixed.

So, on to the fixing. In general, I find that the first and last scenes in a subplot are the ones that count. This isn't always true, of course, but it's true more often than not. So I start with those two scenes, and I look at what is being accomplished in those scenes. Do the scenes in their entirety echo the main plot? Or is it only certain aspects of the scenes which contain echoes? Because the first and last scenes of the subplot anchor the subplot to the main plot in a more direct way, those echoes should be strong and clear. Those echoes should dominate those scenes. If they don't, we have to find a way to make them so.

Once the anchor scenes are solid, I turn to the middle scenes in the subplot thread. It frequently happens that an author will build an entire scene in the middle of subplots to accomplish something very small. So I look at those scenes and try to isolate the important echo bits. Can any of those bits be moved into other scenes? If so, do it and cut the unimportant parts. In fact, that's pretty good advice for any kind of scene -- figure out what's important in the scene, and cut the rest. But it's even more vital to do this in subplots, which need greater justification to survive the editorial ax.

At this point, we should have two solid anchor scenes and some bits or even full scenes remaining. Now I look at this collection of pages and paragraphs, and I try to determine patterns. With good, well-developed echoes, they will probably reappear in various forms and at various times throughout the text, but they will tie into a single concept -- so, for example, if water is a motif, and it's being used to develop the idea that secrets cannot be contained, the text will show streams, bottles of water, rain, swimming pools, and similar water elements at various moments. Do those water elements appear when the secrets are relevant to the action? They should, if that's the purpose of the motif. So, if you have a subplot scene with characters drifting lazily downriver on inner tubes, but none of those characters are worried about keeping or revealing a secret, then the scene is only accomplishing half its job. Either supply the other half in revision, or cut the scene.

Sometimes it will happen that an echo will be a one-off. That is, the particular echo will appear one time only in the course of the entire novel. That makes it a likely candidate for cutting, but it can be spared if that single instance is important enough to change substantially the way a reader interprets a text. This is more likely to happen if the echo is symbolic -- think of Eve in the garden eating the apple of knowledge. She only ate one apple, and she only ate it once. So even though it doesn't recur in the way a motif would recur, it's important enough that the entire story of the garden of Eden would fall apart without it. (Yes, that's a main plot, not a subplot, but you get the idea.)

As I mentioned, it's very hard to diagnose subplot problems in the abstract, but this is more or less the method I use when analyzing subplots. It all boils down to relevance, and generally, the result of this process is a pile of scraps on the cutting room floor.


Friday, October 7, 2011


Twice in the last month, my personal email account has been accessed by spammers. Personal email, not the editor account, so I have far fewer addresses in that book, but it's still pretty packed.  The hackers -- or spoofers, perhaps -- flood everyone in my address book with spam, but near as I can tell, that's all they're doing. The first time, I was online within moments of it starting thanks to a wise friend with my cell phone number. (Thanks, Sunny!) I changed my password and it seemed to stop the spam cold. They only got to about a third, if that, of my address book.

This morning, I woke up to a mess in my inbox. Hundreds of mailer daemon bounces, and close to the same number of complaint emails from people wanting me to know that it happened again. I don't know that they got to everyone in my address book, but it has to be darn close.

So here's the thing. I think my computers -- both the laptop and the desktop -- are like mini-fortresses. I run mozilla instead of IE (with a host of add-ons for security), two different antivirus programs, a firewall, and an anti-keylogger (thanks to a certain former boss who made it necessary, not because of anything to do with the hacks).

What else should I be doing at this point to shut this down? I don't store any financial information on my computer, so I think that's about as safe as it can be, though I do wonder if it would make sense to change passwords on my paypal account. I know that several of our readers are very smart about computers and tech things, so I'm asking for help. All advice is gratefully received.

By the way, I think they might be getting to me from yahoo groups. It was a good excuse to go through and clean out my groups roster. Amazing how many random groups I belonged to that I had totally forgotten about.

Theresa, annoyed

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fixing the End Point

So, maybe this is one of those Pantser-versus-Plotter* dilemmas, but some of us were talking on twitter recently about how to wrestle a recalcitrant ending onto the page. There were two side-by-side discussions unfolding in my stream simultaneously. One involved an author who had written the ending but thought it was flat and maybe a little to overcrowded with extra plot threads. The other involved an author who had brainstormed a dozen climax scenes and hated them all. She had no idea how to end her book.

I know both of these writers pretty well. In fact, I've edited both of them, so I have a strong sense of how their work is put together. I could be wrong, but my sense is that one of them is very controlled about her plotting methods, and the other prefers a more "discovery draft" type approach. Either method is fine, of course. The process is never as important as the final product -- in fact, the process serves the final product.

In any case, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at some of the strategies we batted around. I think these are probably useful for either plotters or pantsers.The thing that struck me about this situation is that no matter the method you employ, you can still run into the same kinds of problems with the endings.

When I'm editing a book, the first thing I do is read it straight through to get a sense of the story elements. I might pause to mark up a few details or make some notes along the way, but my goal for this first reading is to grasp all the large-scale and mid-scale elements as quickly as possible. Almost the first thing I do after reading the last page is return to the first chapter. I read the opening and ending together like this so that I can be sure the ends match. Ordinarily, they do. If the book opens with a dead  body, it ends with the arrest of the murderer. If it opens with a man and a woman seeing each other as potential romantic partners, it ends with them committing to each other. These kinds of big story questions -- Who done it? Are you the one for me? -- provide the large-scale structure for most books.

It sometimes happens that they don't. It sometimes happens that the initial problem in the first chapter has no impact on the outcome of the book. If this is the case, I have to figure out why. Did the plot get off-track? Or did the author use a false opening of some kind to get the plot moving before the real conflict could be established? Which piece better matches the middle of the book, the beginning or the end? Asking questions like these can often help pinpoint structural plot issues and identify possible solutions.

After I do this particular analysis, I think about what actually happens in the end scenes (the crisis and denouement scenes). Which details were surprising and which were expected? Some mix of both is usually best. That is, we might not know who is the murderer until he's revealed (surprise), but we can be darn sure he'll be revealed (expected). We might know that the hero and heroine will end up together (expected), but we don't know how (surprise). In other words, the innovative ending innovates in particular ways, within the established parameters of the type of story and the plot as it unfolds up until the end.

Then I think about all the loose threads that need to be tied up. Can any of them be tied before the denouement? Or before the crisis? A lot of times, authors try to withhold all of the answers until the very end, but this can lead to a crammed-text feeling that might interfere with the reader's enjoyment of the ending. For example, if your historical romance has an external plot about pirates and an external subplot about spies, you might be tempted to finish those plot lines during the same scene in which the hero and heroine demonstrate their commitment to each other. This might work. Or it might be better to wrap up the externals first (subplot, then main external plot) and let the internals have their own moment on the page. How do you know which would work better? It really all comes down to impact on the reader. If the externals and internals each have a strong enough impact to stand alone, it might be better to separate them. Let the hero swash and buckle and perform heroic feats, and then, after they've returned to safety, let him declare his love for the heroine. Especially if that declaration is going to be a powerful moment.

A similar type of crammed ending appears in mystery plots when the heroic sleuth gathers all the suspects in one location and dazzles them all by analyzing the clues and revealing the murderer. Every suspect represents a type of subplot, you could argue, that is being resolved in a single scene. In this case, of course, you don't want to eliminate all of the red herrings before the final scene. You want to keep some suspense about the ultimate outcome. But a clever writer will still analyze each of those bits closely and think about which can be resolved in advance. Focusing on some of the lesser suspects between the midpoint and the climax can actually help keep tension high in the rising action, as long as each eliminated suspect leaves the reader in doubt of the outcome.

So, if the ending is crammed, I try to think of ways to reel it out so that smaller threads can be tied down earlier in a way that will help the rising action. But sometimes, a final scene will have the right combination of characters taking the right combination of actions, and it will still feel flat. In that case, my knee-jerk reaction is to change the setting.

Does this seem like an odd solution? Remember our formula for a scene. A scene is:
  • Characters
  • In meaningful motion
  • Against a background
If you've got the right characters and the right actions, then this leaves the setting. In my opinion, this is the most overlooked aspect of fiction writing. It's not that we don't create good settings. We do. But then we use the same settings over and over again. Or we fail to incorporate setting details in ways that affect the characters and action. Or we always use the expected settings -- the bedroom for a sex scene, a coffee shop for a meeting between friends, and so on. Sometimes, if a scene feels flat, the best thing to do is change the setting and force a different backdrop into place. This almost always has an effect on the way the action unfolds and the way the scene reads. I mean, what happens if you take that sex scene out of the bedroom and place it on a balcony? Or under a moonlit waterfall? Or in the backseat of a car on the side of a busy highway? You instantly "see" a different scene, and it might be less flat.

(We brainstormed setting possibilities as an exercise for NaNo a couple of years ago. We also looked at some ways to use those setting lists to generate better scenes. Take a look at those posts for ideas about ways to leverage settings.)

So these are sort of the global things I examine in each book: matching the ends, testing the resolution of various threads, and setting. Specific books might also require other kinds of analysis, but these are the things I tend to do with each book.


*In case you're not familiar with these terms,
Plotter = someone who plans the book in advance, often with scene charts, indexing systems, and other tools.
Pantser = someone who "discovers" the story by writing it, usually in several drafts, and usually generating many discarded scenes along the way.