Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Setting up the Plot

I'm reading an old "cozy" mystery, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, and it's brought up some issues about getting the plot started. The basic premise is that Mrs. P is an old lady (long widowed, kids in their late 30s, so probably she's near 70), and she becomes a spy for the CIA. And there's a series of books about her spy adventures.

This is the first book, and the opening chapters set up not only the first book but the whole series. So the set up is more meticulous probably than in most cozies. And it was written in the 60s, so the plot is a bit more creaky in prep than we'd have now, with our rapid openings. However, it does something missing from a lot of submissions and manuscripts I see today. Whether in the background or foreground, many books aren't really setting up the major opening plot action.
Two kinds of set up:
1) Major character motivation.
2) Action necessity.

Let's see how this is set up in this cozy mystery:
1) Mrs. Pollifax as the book opens feels so bored and useless she's actually contemplating suicide. And it's not just a theoretical "no one would even notice if I were gone". She's actually standing on her apartment house roof moving her plants around when the thought occurs to her to just step off. That's how bored she is, how much she longs for a more meaningful existence. Her doctor, recognizing her depression, asks her if there's anything she ever wanted to do that now (kids grown) she has the freedom to do. She remembers a childhood spent preparing to be a spy, a plan cut short by society's dictate that she marry. As soon as she imagines spying for her country now, she perks up and forgets to be bored.

2) But of course, we all want to be something, and the universe doesn't have to cooperate. It's not just enough that Mrs. Pollifax decides she wants to be a spy. Somehow the necessity for this has to also be set up. So in a complicated series of events (but not implausible), she goes to the CIA and applies and is accidentally assigned to a mission.

That is:
A. She is bored and depressed (her state as the book opens).
B. She is led towards an action that scares her into a better action (going to doctor).
C. Doctor gives her the seed.
D. She remembers her youthful dream.
E. She acts on the dream (goes to CIA).
F. CIA scoffs at her (conflict/resistance).
G. She's there at the CIA waiting for scoffing CIA agent.
H. CIA senior agent needs woman courier.
I.  Mistakes Mrs. P for the courier.
J. Appoints her to mission.

That's about two scenes (first chapter). Now, as I said, this is an older book. Now we'd probably compress that into one scene to get to the inciting incident (her being assigned to the mission) quickly, so she'd probably be at the CIA when the story opens, and there's some quick fill-in back-paragraph like "She wondered what Dr. Billups would say if he knew.... But he was the one who suggested...."

And we might now try to avoid the coincidence that got the senior CIA agent to choose her for the assignment. We might make Mrs. P secretly slip into the office and pretend that she's the supposed agent, or have the young agent who likes her maneuvers to get her chosen.

But one way or another, this is what we want-- to set up the motivation for the action, and then whatever is necessary to make the plot get started plausibly.

Today, we get things started quickly. But we shouldn't skimp on set up. We should set up what we need to set up the opening of the plot: Character and action.


Anonymous said...

As a reader, even though I was reading in the 1960s, I'm afraid my reaction is a little ... teleological. We already know what the story will be about (from the cover, blurb, or title), and I want to get on to the colorful stuff.

I know, and I know the author knows I know, that she doesn't become a spy because she consulted a psychiatrist; she consulted the psychiatrist because the author wants her to become a spy.

Hm. For some reason, the Reluctant Hero beginning of Star Wars doesn't have that problem. Maybe it's becasue of the very opening with Leia and the drones. But it's also that while Luke is being reluctant, we're meeting Knobe and the drones, who are major characters in the actual story, and Knobe is giving background of the actual story. Unlike Mrs. Polifax's psychiatrist, who is never seen again, and good riddance.

Alicia said...

See, that's the problem-- too many manuscripts I'm seeing "get to the colorful stuff" without setting up the internal and external conflicts and motivations (which will come into play later in the book too). We can do it well that way, but most writers who start "in media res" aren't doing it well. They're not filling in the gaps as they go on-- they just leap over all that stuff. So the openings feel thin and the reader is confused. "Colorful stuff" can be boring if there's no context.

Stephen King does it well-- but what is "done well?" He explains as he goes on. Many writers don't know to do that, or know how to do it, and need someone to point that out to him. Fortunately, there's me. :)

As for the cover, etc. I would NOT rely on that as a means of conveying more of the story to the reader. I've known of far, far too many books with inappropriate covers, and with cover copy that doesn't match the actual story, to suggest that any author (or reader) see those as actually part of the story.
The author in traditional publishing has no control over the cover or cover copy, so I wouldn't want to rely on some art director to properly set up my plot (not his/her job-- it's MY job).

As for "she consulted the psychiatrist because the author wants her to become a spy." Umm. we ARE the author. If we don't for a moment believe that the fictive dream must be coherent, the reader won't ever believe it either. We have to engage in the conspiracy here-- we are building this world, and this story, and it's our job to make it work. The moment the reader says, "Mrs. P went to a shrink because the author made her do it," the story ends. Pffft. It's our job to make sure the reader agrees to believe (only for the moment, but that's an essential moment) that the story exists, the world exists, and that the character exists. The authors we read have done that for us. Our own readers deserve our best efforts in making this "real," don't you think?

I would like to do that set up expeditiously, certainly, as you suggest, introducing characters, setting, all that stuff. Of course. But -- using Star Wars as you did as an example, though actually I remember thinking the opening was really slow --
1. We get the external situation set up (Leia, etc.) Check (necessity for plot action).
2. We get Luke's setting and background, how alienated he feels, how much he wants excitement. Check (character motivation).

In fact, it's doing just what I suggested-- setting up the "need for action" and his motivation in the first few scenes.

If it started with him meeting Leia or fighting stormtroopers, would that work better? I don't know, maybe if there was some backfill to explain who he was and what he was doing there and who Leia was and all that.

But Lucas went with a much more traditional opening, building the situation and providing the need for change, right?

Probably now that would go quicker, but I suspect Lucas would still have an opening that presented the opening situation rather than cutting to the fun stuff right away. :) Hey, it worked for him.


Shalanna said...

(I already know I love Alicia, but it wells up again when she does posts like this!)

I am constantly being berated by various first readers and crit partners when I try to do a bit of setup, no matter how brief and intriguing. They've all been brainwashed by workshops!! (LOL) But I really don't connect with a LOT of modern books. They just don't get me to care one bit before the car crashes and machine guns begin. They can fascinate a bit just for the sheer power of the action, but I simply DON'T CARE what happens to these thrown-about, throwing-up cardboard cutouts. I would at least like to see the heroine in her ordinary world for a MOMENT contemplating some fascinating question, and then perhaps "saving the cat," and THEN we can have the call to adventure. I often see contest entries where authors go for crazy openings and then in a few pages try to backfill like crazy, and that STILL doesn't work.

I tried to sign up for your workshop, BTW, but it was apparently sold out and the page would not let me click on the workshop title (it was grayed out)--this was late in July, before it actually began. Catch you next time.

And, for the captcha's information, I *am* a robot. *beeep-click-beep* That does not compute

Adrian said...

The Star Wars example is interesting, because many people remember it starting with Luke meeting Kenobi and heading out on an adventure. But really, that's at the end of the first act.

And the trick, I believe, is that the story accomplishes the setup for Luke's arc in parallel with immediate action and conflict. Specifically, Darth Vader captures Princess Leia while the droids escape with the Death Star plans. All that is related to Luke's arc, but it doesn't directly involve him. It does, however, give us a satisfying into-the-action beginning while taking its time to set up everything we need to understand for Luke's story.

But even the opening action has a setup: The movie actually opens with the famous text crawl that sets the stage.

We don't even meet Luke for quite a while. By then, we've seen Leia get captured, we've met Darth Vader, and we've followed the droids through a series of adventures from escaping in the pod, getting separated in the desert, and being captured by the Jawas. We meet Luke when the movie finally takes a breath and slows down. We've witnessed trans-galactic intrigue and rogue robotic adventures. There's this breathtaking contrast between the fifteen minutes of non-stop adventure (sprinkled with setup) and meeting Luke as he whines to Uncle Owen about having to help on the farm for another season.

The movie does not introduce Luke in the midst of a battle or struggling to learn the ways of the Force, perhaps with a flashback to his boring old life. And I think that makes his arc much more interesting.

I think this idea of starting out with one conflict to sate the reader's desire while you set up the larger conflict gives a story an epic feel. I like to follow my characters from their humdrum beginnings all the way to their Earth/galaxy-saving victories.

If grandma is already a CIA agent on a mission when the story opens, then she better become something even more impressive by the end of the story, perhaps a Jedi Knight.

Edittorrent said...

Shalanna, yeah, when the machine guns come out, I want to care. :)

Adrian, I wonder if films set up more than a lot of modern books. They have to get all those credit posted,for one thing! You're right-- we forget that longish first act with Luke in his "ordinary world."