Brandy Schillace: The Plot Doesn’t Thicken; It Grows Up.


Brandy SchillaceI spent my afternoon between a clock and a hard-case.

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.

Conflict Driven:

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.

high-stakes-frontcoverFrom 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.

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11 comments to Brandy Schillace: The Plot Doesn’t Thicken; It Grows Up.

  • That moment when one of my characters first surprises me, taking my story to places I didn’t anticipate, is what I call “the quickening,” which is an old midwifery term. It’s when the people we’re creating first move within us on their own, when they show signs of life. And as you say, it is one of the most exciting moments I have as a writer. Without it, this job wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. Great post, Brandy.

  • sagablessed

    Brandy, a most excellent post. I often work out details at work. Outloud. My fellow employees think I need to be medicated, even though I have told them I am a writer and the nervous hospitals have me on the “banned-for-life” list. 😉
    I am currently arguing with a few characters who want to go one way yet my plotline says another, and am ready to give up. The story must flow, and fighting it only bogs down manifesting the work to a readable thing others would enjoy.
    I call it the “Fine, have it your way” moment.
    David, I have not read that term in ages -no pun intended. I had forgotten about it. It is good to be reminded of these things. and appropriate to character. I need to bring more of them to the fore.

  • bschillace

    Oh David, that’s brilliant! At the museum I work on the history of birth and midwifery, but never thought of the term in that way. I love it. Sagablessed, I named this condition “writersteria.” 😉

  • I love the title of this post! Also, I think I have one of those “roof murder scene on the 4th of July” issues with the work I’m revising. There’s a scene I love, but I’m close to admitting that it just doesn’t fit in with the plot. Part of the reason I’m so reluctant to let it go is that this particular scene really gets to the emotional heart of the story and I’m worried about being able to convey that emotion with a different scene. I’ll figure it out (I hope), but getting there is hard!

  • I’m pretty sure the quickening means something completely different in Highlander. 😉

    I don’t yell at my characters, but I do pace in the dining room and talk out loud to myself (and answer myself, which is probably disconcerting to watch) to get something hammered out. I’ve mentioned on here before that I even had to write a bit about one of the characters in something I was writing, just to understand the character more, since he wasn’t very forthcoming with his past. When I’d written the story, one of the secondary characters was one of those who kept his past a secret. Even to the merc captain MC. Even to me. And then he does something all noble and one of my betas called me out on it, wanting to know more about his past that led him to that choice.

    So I had to actually start thinking more about why he would do what he did, and a story emerged that I may actually make a short story one day after the book’s pubbed. It’s a pretty cool little tale on its own, something he finally talks about a little in the book–one of the scenes I had to add to flesh him out more–but the backstory would make for a good added extra in the future.

    And I try not to write to formula—at least not intentionally. It just gets in my way. 😉

  • Razziecat

    Hmmm, I don’t know, I kind of like the food metaphors…simmering, bubbling, boiling over 😉 I like to say I let things, like not-quite-formed characters and their backstories, simmer on the back burner. Now and then I add a few spices and other ingredients, stir well and let it cook a while longer. 😀

    I’ve had that experience of characters pulling every which way instead of going where I want them to go. I’ve put aside one story for a while because the backstory of a major character began to seem more intriguing than the “current” storyline. I’ll have to decide whether to pursue that (it could be a novel in itself), and whether the hints of a completely different relationship than I had intended with another MC should be written into the mix. But it’s these unexpected twists and turns that make writing so much fun 😀

  • bschillace

    Sisi, I completely get where you are coming from. I actually have a seed novel where I put all kinds of scenes and extras that don’t work… But I find they often creep back in new ways. For instance, I had imagined this rather traumatic scene between a sick old king and his ward, who he had horribly mistreated. The king was losing his mind and the ward watched his decline with a mix of horror and justice. But I ended up scrapping both characters. Six years later, while writing a different book with different characters, I ended up working on a scene between the mortally wounded villain and his adopted son…and suddenly all of these earlier scenes came alive. The pain of seeing someone you love but also hate struggle for breath altered the entire feel of the scene and left room, suddenly, for redemption. Hang on to those scenes! They may return to you unexpectedly.

  • bschillace

    Daniel, that’s the best–I love when a character surprises me and then turns out to have a much more interesting past. It adds such a wonderful dimension and can be a seed bed for future work. Do you think the short story will be available online? Maybe a kind of prequel? I have really enjoyed that aspect of the more digital world–the immediacy with which readers can access new material.

  • bschillace

    “simmering, bubbling, boiling over”–You are right Razziecat, those actually do work well, I’ll admit! So perhaps the plot does thicken, with more stirring/prepping/cooking. It’s funny, I tend to use food metaphors for reading more than writing; I describe books by food group. Lady Audley’s Secret, for instance, is an over-ripe peach to me… Certain triple-decker Victorian novels like a hearty loaf of bread. I suppose I use food for the writing I consume, and gardening for the writing I produce. Makes sense in a way, garden-to-table style! 😀

  • quillet

    Heh heh, I’ve had characters refuse to do things I planned for them. I don’t win those arguments, though. They. Do. Not. Budge. Until I give up on what I thought I wanted and let them do what they want. And of course they turn out to be right. Plays merry hell with my outlines, but ah well. Adapting starts out painful, but it usually ends up fun!

  • bschillace

    The best part, I think, is that my characters are usually right. It’s sometimes the best part about the process–and little wonder I start thinking of them as separate beings from myself. 😉