Writing to a deadline, I found myself fighting with a character of my own creation. Surely this has happened to some of you? You run into a particularly disagreeable fellow who won’t do what he’s told (or wants to dictate his own parts). Naturally, we had an argument…out loud… and there’s nothing like getting caught yelling at an empty sofa. My long-suffering spouse no longer asks “who are you talking to?” He is more apt to say “Give ‘em hell, sweetheart!”
These moments of frustration represent the growing pains of character, setting, and story. As I said in my post about character building, characters and their interactions with the story world drive plot in unexpected ways. I like Carolyn Haines/R.B. Chesterton’s idea of story “seed.” Her brilliant depiction of scenes arriving in flashes that we have to feed, water, groom, or unearth rings true to me. But there’s something else about seeds. It’s actually very difficult to know what sort of plant you’ll end up with by looking at the seed alone. We can’t always see the whole story. Plots don’t thicken; they, like our characters, grow up.
I’ll use an example from my recently published series, The Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles. The initial idea came from a confluence of events—a graduate class I took on gothic literature and a very vivid dream. The details are lost on me now, but when I woke, I could see him plainly, from his too-long blond hair to his quirky grin: Jacob Maresbeth, teenage not-vampire. I knew something about direction, too. I wanted to turn the vampire myth upside down and start with a medical condition. I knew, too, that our hero wouldn’t want the whole world to know about it, for fear of being farmed out to research labs, or worse, staked through the heart. The trick was how to get these ideas to re-order themselves as story. I needed a plotline, and plotlines need conflict and action.
What sort of conflict might happen to a sixteen-year-old boy? Well, he might be forced to spend the summer away from home with an eccentric maiden-aunt who mistakes his condition for bowel trouble. That’s almost world-ending when you’re sixteen, but it isn’t really life threatening. I intended all along for Jake to face 1) his appetite and 2) his fear of being mistaken for a monster, I just wasn’t sure who would do the mistaking. That problem mended itself with the creation of Aunt Sylvia’s seductive graduate assistant, Zsòfia. Hungarian and slightly exotic, Zsòfia quickly had Jake’s rapt attention—so far, so good. But given his age, awkwardness and the influx of puberty hormones, it was going to be a short book (ending with Jake walking happily to his doom). Luckily, a character I’d created as a foil suddenly found her way to center stage: Jake’s theatre-loving sister, Lizzy. Younger, but highly protective, Lizzy’s cool head provides a counter-point to the mysterious machinations of the fair Hungarian. So, in nurturing the plot’s conflict, I had also been maturing my characters, giving them depth and personality. Meanwhile, the introduction of new characters helped the plot move ahead to its climax—in a cemetery—in Cleveland.
From these beginnings, new plot lines emerged. Henry, a character only mentioned in High Stakes, becomes crucial to the story of book two, Villagers. A character first glimpsed in Villagers returns to be a driving force—and a returning villain—in book three, The Vatican. And along the way, that seed of story became a very different plant than the one I’d imagined, stronger and healthier for the tugging and pulling of conflict, character, and action.
Action! A Word about Method:
The first time I wrote the climax for book two, I essentially summed up the whole of the action in three sentences of extended metaphor. A kind friend pointed out that the reader waited all along for this moment, and instead of rewarding them, I gave them cliff notes. The solution wasn’t to write overly detailed or wrought descriptions at every turn, but rather to choose carefully when and how to reveal action. My strategy is three-fold; 1) write a bare scaffold for the action, cliff-note style; 2) Go back and write a heavy version, spilling words with abandon; 3) Go back again and see which parts are really necessary for revealing the story and which parts only serve to slow it down. The resulting method combines plot and structure, but allows for the middle step to be a messy, crazy, hair-pulling wrestling match between my ideas and the demands of the text itself. Note: this is usually when I end up yelling at the sofa.
In the end, the plot frequently goes in directions I didn’t intend. That’s the beautiful part about writing; it frequently surprises the writer. If that ever stops, I’ll hand up my pen. But it’s still a tough thing to swallow when your carefully constructed plans don’t materialize. In my classes, the students struggle with this, and some never get over it. I remember one writer who desperately wanted to include a roof murder scene on the 4th of July. The story and its characters simply did not live up to that plotline, however. To be honest, they were better than the plotline. Ex-lovers, maybe; clearly there was a tension underlying the narrative that begged to be let loose. But the writer forced the plot into the original outline, much to the detriment of the story (and the frustration of his peer group).
I know there are some who write to formulas, and if it works, I say do! But for me, it ushers in a kind of stagnation, stifling the living, breathing characters and the constantly maturing story arc. Light, air, and water—a little healthy wrestling—these are my means of bringing up plot. What are yours?
Author, historian, and adventurer at the intersection, Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between literature and medicine. Taking a cue from Edward Gorey and John Bellairs, she writes Gothic fiction with a medical twist. Her first series, The Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles, will be out spring 2014 with Cooperative Trade. Dr. Schillace is research associate at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, managing editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, book reviewer for the Huffington Post, and chief editor for the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose blog. She helps develop medical humanities curriculum for the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College and teaches for Case Western Reserve University’s SAGES program. Her non-fiction book, Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying can Tell us about Life and Living, will be released in 2015 with Elliott and Thompson.
Blog’s “about” page: http://fictionreboot-dailydose.com/
Goodreads book page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20927933-high-stakes