Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Never forget

Something I'm noticing in submissions and contest entries is the turning point that doesn't turn anything-- the big event (usually around the middle of the story) which has no plot effect and the characters never contemplate.

Hmm. How does it happen? Well, first if you write out of sequence (as I do often), you need to carefully place big events when you assemble the narrative. I might have dreamed up (when I write this way, it's often subconsciously inspired) some big moment where the main character realizes her beloved mentor has betrayed her. And I write it up, make it dramatic and heartwrenching. And then I write other scenes that come to me in blinding flashes. Then I have to think about what goes where, right? And presumably write connecting scenes between the big scenes. (Kids, don't try this at home.)

The problem is figuring out what goes where... and why (what leads up to it and causes it), and what effect the event is going to have in the next scenes. But in some of these stories I've seen lately, that doesn't happen. The event is there, fully dramatized, powerful, but then... it's like it didn't happen. But you know, if she discovered her mentor betrayed her, there'd be an effect. She'd be less likely to trust, more wary, angry maybe. She'd think about what happened. Something would happen and she'd automatically think of asking her mentor for advice, but then stop-- oh, right. He betrayed me.

When there's no effect, the narrative propulsion sputters to a halt (you mean, there's no consequence to events?) and the author's credibility is damaged (maybe she forgot?). I think this happens sometimes because we have a purpose for the scene (this is meant to isolate her so she can trust only the villain, maybe), or even sort of a meta-purpose ("I want the reader to know something about the mentor that will be important in the sequel") or a desire to expound a theme ("Never put your trust in men").

But scenes, especially important scenes, should have two primary purposes: To advance the plot, and to develop the character. Whatever other reasons a scene might have, the reader expects it to advance the plot and develop the character. If the character has no reaction to the event, no change, then no matter how many other purposes get fulfilled, it's a failed scene. And this becomes even more glaring when it's a turning point scene, with a dramatic or emotional event that really ought to have great effect.

I can just imagine all of us shaking our heads and saying confidently, "I never do that." But it's so common that maybe we do and just don't notice. I know the way I write (often out of sequence) creates a real hazard here. Sometimes when a scene is inserted into an existing sequence, we might not recognize all the ways it changes the story and character, or the slight or great modification it might make in the theme or message, or the ways it might affect the interaction or feeling between characters. The reader, reading in sequence, will be trying to make sense of this, and we might have to --yes, once again-- read as a reader to notice the disconnect and how to fix it.

Has anyone faced this issue and dealt with it somehow?



Leah said...

This is a great insight, Alicia. I think it's why my brain refuses to work out-of-sequence in the writing stage. Life is lived sequentially, linearly--one moment to the next, each building on the one before, each shaping what comes after--and I have trouble understanding my characters unless I live vicariously through them in sequence. Who they are is a combination of everything that happened before the story, and during the story.

I wonder if it's a case of writers not listening well enough to their characters. You may start with an outline and an idea of where Jane Doe's character arc is going, but when things get rolling, she takes on a life of her own. Her tiniest reactions and thoughts shape her future. So that mentor-betrayal scene you have planned for the midway point may push Jane in a direction you didn't anticipate, because as you wrote, you discovered she had a deep, psychological reliance on her mentor, one that colored and guided her life to a degree she didn't realize until he broke her trust. And after that, everything changes. It's not just a pivotal scene--it may be the climax of Jane's character arc. But if you're not in tune with the characters on the page as much as the ones in your head, you might miss the significance.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I see it when I critique now and then.
The "tada" moment that's more of a revelation for the reader than a character.

The way I think about scenes is to ask myself, "can the character just return to the beginning of the scene as if nothing happened?"
Is the scene "reversible?"

Guy goes food shopping, comes home, makes dinner, goes to bed.
It's reversible because aside from eating and spending some money, nothing has really changed. He can go on with his life as if he never went to the store in the first place. The store doesn't matter at all.

Add the line:
Guy wakes up early for his 6am flight and realizes he left his wallet at the store which doesn't open 'til 7.
Now there's an issue. Now the guy can't just go back to bed, or make his flight, or really do anything. His life had been upended and he must act on this new information. The "turning point" is how he reacts to this, and the consequences of his decision.

Edittorrent said...

Good thoughts! We know that they were affected by their reactions, what they do next.

green_knight said...

I once wrote a novel out of order. Then I assembled the pieces and found that I had 115K of novel fragments - there was no character arc (or rather, character relations jumped back and forth) and most importantly, *I did not have a plot*.

I mean, there are plenty of events and relationships and character development, but nothing to tie the whole thing together.

I have no idea what kind of writer one must be to successfully write out of order, but I am not that person. Every time I try (and I am tempted on occasion when really cool scenes attack) I find afterwards that they could not have happened. Once I know that the mentor is a traitor the protag will find it out; and tht scene a month from now just cannot happen.

So absolutely no advice, just comiserations.

Wes said...

I'm in the camp of Leah and Green_Knight. While at times I'd like to write out of order, I can't. I need to plod along and create or follow a character's arc. I'm not saying one approach is better than another, I'm just commenting on what works for me.

Barbara Elsborg said...

I sometimes write a scene out of sequence but it's more a bare bones thing - that I can eventually catch up with and flesh out. I think the reason I don't write out of sequence is for the very reason you outlined - it doesn't always feel 'right' later.
What I try to do - if I have an idea for some pivotal scene is make a conscious effort NOT to write it but to let it simmer in my head until I get there. Usually by then, I'm excited to write it and the words flow.

Stevie Carroll said...

I tend to write in sequence, although I jot down snippets out of order if they seem particularly important. Then f I get to that point and they no longer fit, I discard them.

Having said that, I'm having trouble pinpointing whether I have one specific pivotal moment in my story. It may all be clearer once my first draft is finished.

green_knight said...

Barbara, I find that keeping a scene in my head and remaining eager to write it is a good way of getting through boring or challenging/uncomfortable scenes.

The disadvantage of writing all the interesting bits first was being left with all the less attractive ones in one large pile. Another reason to never do that again...