Politics? Bah! Economics? Please! Current events? Enough already!
Perhaps my Esteemed Co-Conspirators will provide some such material a bit later in the day. Just now I have storytelling in mind.
Some years ago, when I was finding my stride as a fictioneer, I had something of an epiphany about plotting. Crafting a satisfying plot is quite difficult. Not many writers can pull it off, at least if we judge by the overwhelming display of trite, unoriginal stories being vended today. Quite a lot of writers rely on a formula of some sort to guide them in plot construction. However, plotting by formula usually produces unoriginal fiction and an unsatisfying reading experience.
Yet beneath all fiction lie important truths, including (in the majority of cases) the answer to the question “Why does this piece of tripe bore me out of my skull?” The late John Brunner captured the answer to that question and many others in his Two Laws:
- The raw material of fiction is people.
- The essence of story is change.
The insight a writer can derive from contemplating those simple dicta is too huge to capture in words. If you’re not writing about people changing, you’re not writing a story. But why do people change? What are the drivers of change in the human psyche?
There are reductionist analyses of the genesis of human change, some of them rather famous. They pertain to the things that address and activate deep motivations that virtually everyone shares. Yet if I may judge from the torrents of essentially indistinguishable tales being pumped out today, those things tend to bounce off many a writer. This might be a consequence of inadequate life experience, though even the widely traveled, widely experienced man can fail to understand it.
So as a public service to writers who can’t quite understand why they keep producing crap, I offer – girls, hold onto your boyfriends – a “formula” of my own. It marries the development of characters with the construction of plot. As with most of my bilge, it’s worth what it costs. Operators are standing by. Past returns are no guarantee of future performance. There are no warranties, express or implied. Sorry, no CODs.
First, love – the desire to love and be loved – is a fundamental motivator. The writers of conventional romances lean on it heavily, some of them exclusively. It’s a valuable, reliable element in plot construction. But you can’t simply contrive two characters and throw them at one another. There are questions you must ask yourself first: Why are these persons currently without love? What developments in their lives would give rise to romantic possibility? Can I make them different enough to make their attraction to one another fresh and intriguing?
If in answering those questions you can come up with motifs and character elements that are fresh, or at least not yet so overexploited that all the bolts are falling out, you can produce a satisfyingly original romance. It helps if the setting is averse to romantic entanglement, too – we all need a challenge to surmount – but that’s a sidelight rather than the “main event.”
You’d be well advised to avoid the overused paths so heavily trodden by contemporary romance writers: billionaires, special-forces soldiers, vampires, and so forth. Once upon a time, those were fresh motifs; today they’re cliches that have been worn flat. Try something else. Also, there’s romance and “advanced” romance: the combination of love with other motivators and modifiers. But that’s a subject for another day.
Second, duty drives a huge share of human actions. To get through life without incurring any duties is an aspiration of some. Incredible as it sounds, a few persons actually achieve it. But it’s not much of a life. Moreover, those who manage it tend to be uninteresting, mere tourists through life regardless of what they may have seen or done. For a character to command readers’ attention, duties of some sort are essential.
In plotting, introducing your protagonist character to a new duty – one he can’t walk away from without doing critical damage to his self-regard – is a fine way of getting the action going. The obstacles he must face in the performance of the duty are meat for the tale. Don’t make them too easily overcome; the harder he must work, the more gripping his story will be.
You can ramify this by including important persons in the protagonist’s life who are averse to his new duty. What if his new love feels the duty to be her enemy in winning his heart? She might become determined to impede him from carrying it out. What if she’s morally or aesthetically repelled by his new duty? How does he slice through that knot?
When the action starts to flag, bring on a man with a gun. – Mystery writers’ maxim
Third, a truly riveting tale will usually include some sort of adventure: a challenge presented to the protagonist(s) by other people or environmental conditions. If there’s danger involved, all the better. Danger “wakes up” the reader and forces him to pay close attention – if, that is, you’ve managed to make him care about your protagonist. This is especially effective when the danger arrives suddenly, without any warning, and threatens more than just the protagonist’s personal well-being.
It’s long been observable that the television shows that most reliably command viewer loyalty are those that involve systematic danger. Usually the danger is built into the characters’ occupations:
- Cop shows;
- “Secret agent” shows;
- Doctor / hospital shows;
- Lawyers and courtroom dramas.
Now, unless you’re writing for television, you probably can’t use any of those patterns “off the shelf.” Nevertheless, the lesson they offer is valuable. Also, there are ways to vary these ideas. Consider Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels, for example. The nomadic Reacher is unusual and interesting all by himself, but add to his choice of modus vivendi that he’s always finding danger: if not for himself, for others. A retired military policeman, his tropism for danger and bringing justice drives everything he involves himself in. The effectiveness and longevity of Child’s formula seems well explained.
A random thought along these lines: Most fiction is “single-threaded.” The story advances along a single timeline, as a single set of protagonists, antagonists, and Supporting Cast involve themselves in a single skein of events. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of construction – quite a lot of famous fiction follows that path – but an alternative approach can increase the complexity, mystery, and conflict of a tale. This is usually called a “braided” plot.
Braided plots usually have either two or three separate lines of action and development. The construction of such a plot is several times as difficult as that of a single-threaded plot, because the separate lines of action must be kept relevant to one another. Moreover, the plot skeins must be tied off in a single knot at the end of the book. So this is not a course a writer should adopt lightly.
A question occurred to me as I’ve been writing this piece: can one produce a braided plot with only a single protagonist? Is there a way to separate a single protagonist’s love, duty, and adventure motifs into three distinct plot threads? Or would that be merely a single-threaded plot whose developments alternate among three driving motivators?
I don’t consciously plot according to this “formula.” But in reviewing my own novels, I found the love / duty / adventure trio of drivers in virtually all of them. That suggests that there’s something fundamental about the combination. For readers: What about the tales that have most pleased you? Can you find the trio in most or all of them? For writers: What uses have your stories made of the trio? Were they conscious, or did they “just happen?”
Food for thought.
The best thrillers have several threads, all of which need to be untangled at the end, and, often, have some unseen relation to each other.
Tom Clancy’s original books had that, in spades. And, one other thing that I noticed Clancy did – he seldom just killed someone. First, he introduced enough of a back story – why they were running late, what they were looking forward to doing/or who they were anticipating seeing, at the time of the death.
The people who investigate the deaths are not cold – they care about the senseless waste of a human life.
That aspect of his writing impressed me. Your minor characters need to be, at least a little, filled in.
> braided plots
The most extreme example of that I’ve encountered is Tim Powers’ “The Anubis Gates”. It has several character threads spanning different historical times, with occasional side threads. For the first half of the book I was going, “wtf, dude, none of this is connected to anything else!”; the second half began tying them together, one by one, and closing them off, with a very satisfying (to me, anyway) engine.
Alas, few of Powers’ other works have come close to “The Anubis Gates”, which seems to be mostly forgotten. But I stayed up all night reading it, then flipped back to the beginning to read it again, or as much as I could before I had to get ready to go to work…