Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reinventing Your Book: Part 3-- Type of Story

3: Changing the Emphasis of the Plot

Reinventing your book.
First, think about what isn't working.
I found that if you can define what needs to be changed, you're halfway to changing it.
Let's go over the major categories, and share with us if you have other thoughts.

Say the book is fine, but it's a romance with a mystery subplot, and the publisher loves your voice and your characters, but wants it to be a mystery with a romantic subplot, for example. Or you decide that you want to make it a mystery because it will be easier to sell that way. At any rate, you've decided you need to flip the plots.
Most books don't just have one plot. They'll have what they call in the films an "A" plot and a "B" plot.

The A plot is usually the one that reflects what genre or subgenre this book is in, so if you wrote the book as a romantic comedy, say, the A plot is probably the journey of the romantic couple to fulfilled love.
The B plot is usually an important plot, and might actually take up as much space as the A plot. If you, for example, have your romantic comedy couple solving a crime, the mystery plot would be the B plot. If they are trying to rid the town of zombies, the B plot would be a horror plot. Because the B plot is usually so important to the structure of the story, it's fairly easy to beef it up and – if you need to—make it the A plot.
So let's start just with plot structure, and then scene structure.
Plot Structure:

Sometimes it's just a matter of emphasis and sequence that determines which of two major plots is the A plot, and if you fix the sequence, you can go a long way to flipping the plots.
You have probably absorbed a whole lot of "story grammar" and have done this instinctively or by learning: Usually we start with the A plot. That is, in the first scene or first chapter, usually we'll have the couple meeting if it's a romance, or a body being discovered if it's a mystery. We might have a slower opening, but we're still hinting in the opening what the main conflict/plot will be (like heroine has decided she'll quit dating –romance—or she's talking to her mom about how much everyone hates the mayor- mystery).

So if you want to flip the A and B plots, start there at the beginning. Revise the opening slightly so that the first hint of what's to come is the plot you now want to emphasize.
For example, in my women's-fiction-turned-mystery, I originally had the first scene between the heroine and her ex-husband involve her complicated feelings about him and his hints that he wants to move back home. When I flipped the plots, I kept all that "divorce heartbreak" stuff, but punched up Don's confession that he was getting sued by an angry client, and moved that up first. It took a bit of rewriting, but now the opening has changed subtly to make it a mystery opening.

Similarly, the A plot is usually the one fully resolved in the climactic scene (which is usually the second-to-last scene in the book). Again, it might take some rewriting to get the murder plot, say, resolved in that scene. But if you can do that, you'll be sending the structural message to the reader that this is at base a mystery novel.
Scene Endings:

The great script doctor and workshop leader Robert McKee offered this invaluable tip for establishing the genre (or sub-genre, or just major plot): End the turning point scenes, particularly the "inciting incident" (first turning point), on a moment that reflects the chosen genre. Sometimes this just means extending the end of the scene and closing on a comic note or a horror note or a mystery note. That is, you don't have to rewrite all the turning point scenes… just the ending.
This is quite helpful if you have been getting rejections that say, "You're a great writer, but this doesn't fit our romantic comedy line," and you just know that it's a romantic comedy. Look to the end of the inciting incident scene (which is probably in the first or second chapter). Does that end with a moment that reflects the chosen genre?
Let's try an example:

Tom is fairly young. Under 30. Start the scene
however we want, couple paragraphs maybe of Ordinary World or whatever
works here.

Out of the blue he gets a call from a funeral parlor, saying that his
Uncle Walt has died and is there and Tom was listed as next-of-kin. (Keep
in mind that we're going to be making choices all along, and every choice
leads to another choice-- you make a million choices in every scene, and
only some are conscious. And some can be deferred, so we don't have to
decide yet whether uncle Walt is his blood uncle or an un-related
(We also presumably will have to decide at some point whether Tom knows
Uncle Walt and is grieved by his death, or barely knows him, or has never
before heard of him and can't figure out how Tom's name appears as
next-of-kin. In a cozy mystery, for example, usually the murder victim
isn't personally important to the sleuth. So if you're, say, switching from a suspense novel—which has intense emotions—to a cozy mystery—which does NOT have intense emotions, you might want to make Uncle Walt more of a distant relation so Tom doesn't have to grieve.)

So he goes to the funeral parlor. Here maybe some internal conflict--
maybe when he was 19, both his parents were killed in a car accident and
he had to handle all the details, and ever since ge's avoided funeral
parlors. Now notice-- if we go with that backstory, that heavy tragedy in
the past, we are immediately darkening the tone of the book.
If we go with the death, and if it's going to end up a comedy, it's going
to be a dark or black comedy. One of the issues that comes up a lot with
openings is what I call "inappropriate emotion", and I don't mean
actually the character's emotion, but the emotion that the events inspire
in the reader. The opening and backstory do have to be tailored to the
scope of the book-- and, as we're seeing, it's really important that you
know as you draft, or as you revise, what your story IS.

If you mean this to be a suspense thriller, sure, go with the tragic backstory, and also maybe
make Uncle Walt a real uncle and close to Tom. But if you want to make it a cozy
mystery, the "coziness" comes from detachment from the bad
circumstances-- the victim is usually someone not well-known by the
sleuth or is actively disliked. And the internal conflicts are minor,
more quirks or annoyances than traumas.

If it's a deep dark wrenching romance, go with the tragedy. If it's a
sweet romance, or a romantic comedy, see if you can come up with another
reason Tom hates funeral parlors.

Think about connecting the conflict-causing backstory to the type of
story. For example, in a romantic comedy or a cozy mystery, that might be
something kind of jolly but embarrassing, like when he pledged his
fraternity in college, one of the challenges was to steal a shoe off a
cadaver, so ever since, he's been squicked out by funeral parlors.

Just keep the backstory appropriate to this scope. I can't tell you how
many contest entries I've seen where the story is supposed to be light
and there's some huge tragedy in the past, or when this is a "serious"
story, maybe a romantic suspense, and it opens with a "cute meet" or
clever comic scene. It's just jarring, and it makes me wonder if the
author is actually INTO her story. If she were into it really, she would
feel the right feeling as she wrote and conceived that first scene.
She would be sensitive to the effect this whatever choice had on the
reader. Again, begin as you mean to go on! Don't bait-and-switch the
reader. So if you're switching MOODS here—like from a serious romance to a cozy mystery—make sure that the backstory is changed to reflect the new choice.

Okay, so there's some stuff that goes on that is consistent with his
backstory and the tone of the story and the scope of the story that
influences HOW he meets the funeral director and what they talk about.
But at some point, the funeral director takes him to "the chapel" and
there's the coffin, and the director discreetly leaves Tom alone to pay
his respects to Uncle Walt.

If this is the initiating event scene, something's going to happen,
right? And the END of a major scene is when the disaster (or "surprise"
if we want to be politically correct happens.
Disastrous things can happen all the way through the major scene, of
course-- after all, getting a phone call that your uncle died is pretty
disastrous- but THE disaster should come at the end of the scene, to
impel the reader to the next scene. Yes, it's the cliffhanger, but it
doesn't have to be all dire and scary. The point is to disrupt the
trajectory of the story, derail the scene protagonist, and start
something new going. So the end of the scene can be some kind of question
or mystery or puzzle or problem—and you can shift that to reflect the new choice of a plot.

Okay, back to Tom and Uncle Walt. Tom is alone in the "chapel". Soft
lugubrious music is playing on the speakers. The room smells like (choose
one that fits your tone/scope-- lilacs, disinfectant, death, Tom's own
sweat, expensive wood....). The light is dim. He approaches the coffin.
It is (choose what fits) an expensive mahogany and satin casket, or a
plain wooden box, or a ridiculously elaborate shiny white boat with
gleaming gold handles.
The lid is (choose what works for the new choice) closed. Open. Half-closed.

He goes up to the coffin. (Does he have to open the lid?) He sees....

Now here is where you delineate the scene ending – the
disaster/surprise-- which makes this a major scene, but also a major

Let's say this is a mystery. What would he see if this is a mystery?

Let's say this is a horror story. What would he see, or what would

Let's say this is a comedy. What's going to happen? (And what if it's a
black comedy? What would happen that's different?)

Let's say that this is an adventure story. (Tom, I suddenly realized,
could be a Navy Seal!

Let's say this is a thriller.

Let's say this is a family drama.

Let's say this is a suspense novel.

Let's say this is a romance. (You can have a woman come in if so... but
why? Who?)

What if it's a romantic comedy?

What if it's a sweet romance?

What if it's a dark romance?

Let's say this is a paranormal/occult story.

Let's say this is an urban fantasy.

Let's say this is a literary fiction novel.

Let's say this is a near-future s/f post-apocalyptic dystopia.

Now very probably in the original, you're ending that scene on the moment that reflects that original type of story. So say you end with Tom seeing his father's signet ring on the corpse's hand and grabbing at it and knocking the coffin over and spilling the body on the floor—a comic ending.
If you're changing the A plot to a romance, you might just move the romantic meeting to right here—he dumps the body out, and in walks the funeral director's daughter… who will become the romantic heroine.

Go through the major scenes, the turning points, and look at the ending moments. Can you change most of those to reflect the shift in A plot?
Questions? Suggestions?

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