Exploding Plot

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion–that’s Plot.”

–Leigh Brackett

Have you outlined a tidy, well-organized, and logical plot for your story? Are your characters busy being civil, well-educated human beings going about their lives and work, sighing now and then over a lost dream or one of life’s disappointments? Are they angst-ridden mopers propped up on bar stools, feeling sorry for their failures and delivering beer-sodden soliloquies that are your insights to life?

Are you typing and typing and typing, compiling a ever-growing page count while in the back of your mind you worry whether your story is actually going anywhere and how will you end this thing anyway?

And if you have a reader that’s honest with feedback instead of simply an ego-supporter, and that person is quiet after perusing your sample pages and hasn’t much to say in reaction, then it’s time to face reality:

Your work-in-progress could well be a self-indulgent, staid, lackluster, sanitized bore.

As Winnie the Pooh would say, “Oh, bother.”

Where, I ask you, is the fire?

A book, a story, a yarn intended for the commercial market isn’t a collection of words, or character speeches, or passages of description, or self-conscious style, or even a slice-of-life duplication of life’s most mundane moments.

Instead, it should be alive, with vivid characters bursting with emotion. It should be messy, because human beings are squalid, and tender, and ferocious, and petty, and heroic, and gentle, and greedy, and contradictory messes themselves.

Your characters should be in trouble. Not just suffering from a bad day. Not simply afflicted with the choice of whether to purchase a white car or a blue one. Not concerned with how to afford those Starbucks lattes while paying little Jimmy’s private school tuition. When I say trouble, I mean plagued with worry so intense the stress is eating them alive. Blighted with jealousy so white-hot it sears them every time they look at the person they believe is their spouse’s lover. Terrified in mind-numbed paralysis by the stalker that leaves eerie messages and gifts inside their apartment while they sleep. Raging with the grief and frustration of being falsely accused and convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Horrified by the cruelty of cyber-bullies that have been secretly grinding their once-happy daughter into a withdrawn, bulimic, isolated, social outcast.

At its essential core, a story is what pits one character against another. It’s how those characters clash in struggle against each other, how they grow fiercer in striving to win–or survive–and how they overcome the biggest challenges of all at the end to achieve poetic justice.

You cannot generate a successful, emotionally satisfying plot that comes alive in reader imaginations unless you’re willing as a writer to get your hands dirty. By that, I mean willing to step right into the intense emotional quagmires within your protagonist and antagonist. Until you do that, you will never fully understand their motivations, and of course without motivation the actions a character takes will always seem contrived and artificial.

In other words, you can’t write at a distance from your characters. You can’t remain tidy and detached. You must be willing to crack open a sleek character’s facade and look at what’s seething beneath the mask.

More than that, you must be willing to apply more pressure to a protagonist already in tremendous trouble. This is done by not protecting or safeguarding your lead character. This is done by allowing the antagonist to hit the hero where he or she is most vulnerable–and hit that person hard.

Until we push a character hard enough, how will we–let alone readers–ever know what that story person is really made of?

Until we push a character hard enough, that character will not take action, will not take risks, will not dare to strike at another individual, will continue to hide or stay safe, and will remain dull and boring on the page.

Think about the best mysteries you’ve read. Often–in cozies anyway–the first victim is a sly, wicked, conniving, ruthless, immoral blackguard so rotten every suspect has a solid reason to wish him dead.

Think about your favorite thriller where the protagonist is swept up in the sudden terror of an ordeal so dangerous and horrific the suspense is tightened to an almost unbearable degree. The danger forces the protagonist to flee whatever comfort zone she has always known and attempt the unthinkable in order to survive.

Think about those romances where sparks fly between hero and heroine who stand on opposite sides of an issue yet are pulled together by a physical attraction so potent they are nearly powerless against it.

Think about the fantasy where magic is the only way to save the person the protagonist most cherishes, yet using that magic will extol a terrible price the protagonist fears to pay.

Do you see how, in each of these genre examples, I’ve set up a situation that puts the protagonist inside an emotional or ethical pressure cooker? Yes, some of these examples are stereotypical, and the tropes are well worn, but they work to illustrate my point.

Brackett’s quote says that explosion creates plot. If so, then you need intense emotion, conflict between characters in active opposition to each other, and situations that demand frequent clashes. They are your dry tinder. Additional pressure and/or stress is the spark.

Result?

Conflagration … and a plot that comes alive.

 

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Growing Acorns

“Sometimes … the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”  –A.A. Milne

Through my career, I have often been asked by newspaper reporters or newbie writers how I get ideas. It is not a good question, or a useful question, or even an insightful question. Most professional novelists sneer at it. Some might even label it “dumb.”  Innumerable jokes have been generated by it. When asked, you feel superior and clever. You try not to smile or burst out laughing, if you’re a courteous person. And if you’re a kind person, you might even answer this question with some degree of honesty, especially if the inquirer is a new writer genuinely trying to understand. But if you’re neither kind nor courteous, then you could succumb to the terrible temptation of being flippant, disdainful, or even misleading.

For a long time, I found the very notion of seeking an idea to be laughable. My imagination was teeming with so many plots, characters, and settings that I despaired of finding time to write them all. I had no patience with anyone that claimed to suffer from writer’s block. I felt that anyone lacking in ideas should go and do something besides write.

These days, I’m less arrogant. I’ve learned that you can hit emotional dry holes that leave you empty, too drained or distracted to create. It’s not the same as being blocked–not exactly–but the result is similar, in that you sit at your keyboard but produce nothing beyond a new Pinterest board. I’ve also realized that some new writers feel so timid and unsure that they can’t judge any idea that comes to them.

Fear and uncertainty can kill ideas by draining away all the belief and excitement generated by creativity.

Expectations that are too high can blight a story idea before it barely gets started. I’ve known beginning writers so determined that every word be perfect, so focused on the mistaken belief that their first writing effort would not only be amazing but an instant bestseller that they could not move their project past an endlessly polished Chapter One.

And good ideas can starve and wither when an unprepared writer lacks the skills, experience, or craftsmanship to write them well.

Writers at all stages seek ideas every day, and every day good ideas come to them. Some will make a writer clap hands and chortle with glee. Others don’t look like much at first glance. They get pushed aside, ignored or even forgotten.

But often the best ideas are much like the Milne quote I began with. They are small and quiet. They creep into your mind when you’re paying no attention to them at all. But unlike your grocery list or your promise to walk the dog after supper, they aren’t forgettable. They take your notice, fade to the back of your thoughts, then return. And each time they come again, they’re slightly bigger or they’re better or they shine with a gradual brilliance that finally forces you to look at them, thump them, tug them this way and that, and at last to start testing them for inherent conflict, unpredictability, and marketability.

Milne wasn’t writing about writers when he penned that sentence I’ve quoted. His simplicity of expression, that bell-like quality of purity and the direct thinking of childhood, is what grabs our reading attention and makes us think, Hey now. That’s profound. I’ve pulled this quote from its original context and applied it to our topic without any straining to make it fit.

As writers, what takes up the most room in our heart? The big overblown, over-plotted, grandiose story with a cast of hundreds? Or a story of smaller scale that’s deeper and more complex? Either or none or both?

You decide.

But the little idea can grow into something large and worthy. Don’t be too quick to judge it invalid. Don’t dismiss it as foolish. Don’t call it silly. Don’t criticize it to death to prevent others from potentially picking holes in it.

Evaluate it by all means. Ideas have to be turned into plots, and that process involves stringent tests and plenty of thought.

But don’t try to make it bigger than it wants to be. And don’t throw it away because it’s only a short story idea and you wanted a novel or it’s in a genre you don’t want to tackle or it’s sweet when you want to be dour and mysterious or moody when you want to write romantic comedy.

Listen to it. Think it over without prejudgment. If it stays in your heart and grows, give it a chance.

 

 

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Shaken

Firstly, I apologize to the followers of this post for having neglected you for so long. This year, I have found many such apologies in the blogs that I follow, and I understand. Sometimes, we’re interrupted or become over-committed. LIFE gets in our way. In my case, I could kick about my situation or complain about LIFE stepping in and throwing my recent writing goals to the curb, but as a writer I know that we need LIFE to give us new material.

Also, after my three recent books on writing technique, I felt for a while that I’d said all I had to say on method and approach. This attitude is unfair to you as followers and shirks my responsibility to you. However, as a writing teacher once said to me many years ago when I was as yet unpublished and living on dreams and sheer determination … “From time to time, you have to let the well fill back up.”

Earlier this summer, when I was feeling guilty about posting nonsense about toads instead of advice on killing adverbs, I told myself to pull it together. It was time to walk into my office, sit in my writing chair, and resume posting on writing techniques.

Instead, a weird thing happened. I was plowing through a stack of possible novels to assign to my university course on genre fiction this fall when I read a book by a highly successful author of romance and romantic suspense. It was my first exposure to this writer’s work. I don’t know whether it’s representative of her usual effort or an aberration or a new direction for her.

All I know is that this genre novel had next to no plot. The protagonist hit a strong and dangerous problem in chapter one. That problem was resolved in chapter two. The romance was clenched in less than twenty-five pages. The subplots were introduced and resolved without any conflict. And the rest of the story filled in with illness, personal makeovers, and wardrobe decisions.

That book poleaxed me.

In hindsight, I realize that it got to me because I was tired and stressed due to LIFE. Worry and lack of sleep had sapped my reserves more than I realized. And for the last three weeks after reading that book, I kept thinking, What is the use?

That question is always a danger signal for any writer, at any time, in any situation.

It means, in effect, that the writer is surrendering, giving up, and abandoning the art and joy of creating with words on the page. Whether a writer is stymied by lack of time, distractions, hindrances, self-doubt, criticism, lack of support, or whatever form of resistance being thrown at her, too much of it becomes a tsunami that can drown intentions, goals, writing schedules, and projects.

What is the use, I wondered, of standing on technique, of trying to teach unwilling and recalcitrant students how to form scenes, follow plot questions, or handle pacing? It was as though I was trying to swim across a river, and that novel was a cement block thrown at me instead of a life preserver.

In recent years, I’ve seen waves of poor writing flood our entertainment industry, whether in books or films. I’ve read too many reader reviews raving about books that turn out to be nothing more than gimmickry or a mess of episodic events strung together. I’ve attended writer conferences where young, up-and-coming writers thumb their noses at plot and story design. I’ve watched the publishing industry crashing in Zepplin-flames as the seasoned editors retire or are driven from their jobs in the name of corporate downsizing.

From food to stories, the fashion du jour seems to be deconstruction. I understand this is a fad. I understand that youngsters love rebellion and delight in taking things apart. Yet in a year where the whole world seems to be embracing the cause of anarchy with no signs of stopping, I can’t help but think of that era of history when knowledge and civilization faltered, and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages.

See what I mean? In such a gloomy mindset, how easy–after reading a pleasant but utterly plotless effort by a bestselling author–for me to say, “Writing has reached its end. Stories are dead.”

Yeah, I realize I’ve been a drama queen about the incident. But writers have to over-react. Writers have to be too sensitive. Writers have to be so empathetic that we absorb the emotions of others and vibrate to their joys, tragedies, and comedies.

Good stories are still being written. Plots still exist out there. But, for the past month, I clung to the cement block and sank. I spent a lot of evenings thinking and pondering whether to abandon the abilities and skills I’ve been honing for a lifetime. Was it time to walk away? To say, no more writing?

Well, one of the precepts of genre writing is that readers will accept any emotion in a character except self-pity. It seems to me that it’s a good precept to follow in real life as well. So I dropped the cement block and floated back up to the surface.

Meanwhile, LIFE has backed off its pressure slightly. Stress has dropped a fraction. Sometimes, I get more sleep. I have been reading other books from my stack and they are better. I have dug down and found that my innate stubborn determination is still within me. It’s shaken but intact.

There is usefulness in what I do and teach. I will not stop doing what I know and believe in. I am competitive enough, stubborn enough, certain enough, and trained enough to go on. And if American literacy drops even lower than its current, shameful fourth-grade level, and we become monkeys able only to point and click, then I will hold my lantern aloft for as long as I’m able.

Meanwhile, my intention is to resume regular posts and put my writing schedule back on track. We’ll see how it goes.

 

 

 

 

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Phelps, Jr. Update

He’s back.

Haven’t seen this summer’s primary amphibian for a few weeks, but tonight he was enjoying the cool, late-night breeze by paddling in the dogs’ water bowl on the patio. Either he’s returned from mysterious toad perambulations or we caught him by going out for the bedtime stroll a few minutes early.

He’s grown larger. No doubt he’s thriving on a luscious diet of June bugs. He’s not remotely a Jumbo–no toad obesity yet. But he’s taller and fuller. Instead of floating spreadeagled on the bottom of the bowl as before, he was sitting up with his head above the water.

I always keep two outdoor bowls of water side by side although my dogs seldom drink at the same time. One of my dogs was lapping away, ignoring Junior’s perky pose in the adjacent bowl. Even when I took the garden trowel and gently nudged Junior to vacate, his wet splodging about provoked no more than a Scottish look with no pause in lapping.

(You know a Scottie is getting old when former prey hops right past the beard and jutting eyebrows and no terrier fizz ignites whatsoever.)

My aim was to herd Junior off the patio, but he escaped me by diving for cover beneath the wrought-iron fern stand. I let him be. No doubt the moment we all trooped indoors, he slipped back into the water bowl to finish his swim.

Ah, summer. When even the toads have it easy.

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Critters: Part IV

And now for the final installment in my animal saga. The last notable denizen to move onto my property since March is a bird that chose to nest in my ornamental cherry tree. I noticed it only because a) it’s not a mockingbird, the variety most often seen in my backyard, b) it’s very large, and c) it chose to nest in a tree barely adequate for the task.

I am an avid, though casual birdwatcher. I love having songbirds in my yard, and two homes ago I was fortunate to live where enormous shade trees supported an ample variety of cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers, doves, wrens, finches, orioles, and hummingbirds. I made my office in the den at the back of the house and had a wall of large windows overlooking the backyard and patio. Wrens nested each year in my Boston fern, and the cardinals would come precisely at noon each day to feed. If their feeder was empty, they would peck my window glass and fuss at me. I fed generously, supplying the cardinals with black sunflower seeds, the jays with striped sunflower seeds and peanuts, the doves with cracked corn, the finches with Nijer thistle, and the hummingbirds with nectar.

Of course, the squirrels learned how to pull the top off the cardinals’ feeder and would hang upside down while filling their cheek pouches to bursting. I watched the woodpecker court his new lady friend by bringing her to the feeder and selecting the best nuts to feed to her, one by one. There was the day of the hummingbird battle, witnessed through my kitchen window, in which a small green-throated hummer struck his larger, teal-blue opponent such a fierce blow to the head that the blue hummer fell to the grass and lay stunned. I thought he was dead, but after several minutes he roused and flew off.

The doves cooed and grew fatter, making their small heads seem even more absurd. And the obese tan-and-white field mice benefited from all the spills and dropped seeds.

However, my current home is in one of those newish subdivisions carved from raw prairie ground. It has developed slowly. So although I’ve lived here nine years, new streets are still being cut at the back of the development, and the cedar thickets providing habitat for varmints of all types, including coyotes, continue to be forced back. The ground is hard red clay–the kind you make bricks from. Tree roots can’t penetrate it and rope across the top of the lawn instead. (If the tree lives at all.) Required by the HOA to plant and maintain at least two trees on each property, neighbors exhibit varying degrees of success in each small yard. Scrawny saplings, staked and cabled to protect them from the unceasing wind, offer next to no appeal to songbirds. They wear water bags, like unbuttoned cardigans slung around a girl’s shoulders, and still they die or–at best–grow stunted.

When I moved here, I found a few sparrows and house finches, mockingbirds, and an occasional red-winged blackbird. The sparrows sit and twitter in my rose bushes. The mockingbirds nest in the shrubbery. And I saw no cardinals at all until last year, when one flitted shyly in and out of my yard. This year, there are more of redbirds. They come cautiously to sample the bits of hulled sunflowers placed in a saucer for them on the flowerbed wall. They remain unsure and do not stay long. There is no arrogant pecking on my windows … yet.

Last summer, eagles flew over my house regularly, soaring on the wind currents, but they have not come back this year. That’s probably due to the new streets cutting down more of the wild thicket to the west. (The coyotes no longer howl and yodel in the night, making me shiver while I wait on the patio for the dogs to finish their late-evening perambulations.) The mockingbirds sing but that’s all. The doves that sit on rooftops do little cooing. Instead, they utter raucous cries that are harsh and discordant.

But in March, I noticed a peculiar reddish-brown bird sitting on the backyard fence. It was spotted and large, with a long tail. A mutant mockingbird? No, definitely not. I watched it flick its tail up and down before it flew into the fragile branches of my cherry tree. This tree–planted as a mere whip when I moved here–has grown slowly, slowly, slowly to a height of perhaps eight or nine feet. Its top spreads maybe five feet wide. It did not bloom for the first three years after planting. Finally, it began to open a few delicate pink buds as dainty as a baby’s ear. This year, thanks to the balky spring and fluctuating temperatures, only a few blossoms opened. And there, making the entire treetop sway alarmingly, was this large bird and her nest.

I decided she must be a thrush. I haven’t been outside enough to hear her sing. After all, I’ve been busy fending off the unsavory newcomers. I don’t know if Mrs. Thrush eats insects or will come to a feeder, but I suspect the former. Even so, she’s more than welcome. I hope she’ll stay, and if she migrates, I hope she’ll return.

 

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Critters: Part III

In this chronicle of what’s moved into my house and yard since March, I want to move now to a happier tale. Not everything that happens in my household is a disaster. So in this post I want to describe the young toad that’s managed to charm me this year.

My yard always has toads. In fact, it’s even equipped with a cute toad house that was a very kind gift.

I used to flinch and jump during my first summer here, shying from plump toads that hopped from the evening shadows across my sidewalk. Initially their presence excited my Scotties to fever intensity. There was a spell of determined toad hunting, resulting in the excavation of the backyard sprinkler system and a great deal of spitting and mouth foaming until two stubborn dogs learned not to bite their prey and not to dig up Mama’s expensive sprinklers. Since then, the dogs have become indifferent to our amphibian wildlife. And while last year there was some temporary investigation into what was living between the dog house and the patio’s brick wall, once we discovered that it was only Jumbo–surely the largest, fattest, most obese toad I had ever seen–Jumbo hunting ceased. (Incidentally, Jumbo cannot fit through the doorway of the toad house.)

This year, ever since spring temperatures warmed up, I’ve noticed that the dogs no longer want to drink from their outside water bowls. Because they’re outdoors a great deal, I make sure they always have water in the shade. Two large, deep bowls are kept filled on the patio by the back door. Indoors, there is one small stainless steel bowl. And while normally they prefer to drink outside, this spring they have marched past the outdoor bowls to drink inside. I am constantly replenishing that inadequate metal bowl. They gulp down its contents like they’re dying of thirst.

I was puzzled by this at first, and then recently when I took the dogs outside for their bedtime stroll, I found a toad in the bottom of a bowl, submerged completely beneath the water.

Using a garden trowel, I fished him out and bumped his backside gently to send him hopping off the patio and onto the grass. The next night, there he was again, taking his evening bath.

Small wonder the dogs did not want to drink the water he’d been swimming in.

This toad is small as amphibians in my yard go. I am calling him Phelps Jr. No doubt, once the June bugs come out, he will feast well under my patio windows and grow rotund.

Meanwhile, he’s a smart toad. After several dipping sessions with the trowel, he’s learned to take his bath earlier in the evening, before we troop outside at bedtime. I no longer catch him in the water. Instead, I see a very small puddle on the dry cement next to the bowl. It makes me smile every time.

And I go inside to fill the utility room water bowl yet again.

toad1Given that the evening patio lighting is too low to get a real photo of Phelps Jr. floating at his leisure, I’ll share this old photograph of my rubber toad instead.

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Happy Memorial Day!

Here’s an opportunity to thank every veteran you know, every reservist, and everyone on active duty. Our freedom comes at a price, which these individuals have paid over and over with their courage, sense of duty, and service.

Above all, we honor our dead heroes who gave their lives for America. Let us always remember their sacrifice. Let us always remember what our country stands for. Let us celebrate our differences, speak our various opinions, but never forget to stand united, shoulder-to-shoulder, as Americans.

And let us remember loved ones whom we’ve lost over the years–whether family or friends. Whether our grief is fresh or years old, we can cherish our memories and be grateful for how they touched our lives.

Let summer begin. Stay safe.

liberty urn

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