Building Plot

Kind of a sequel to the last post I made, I figured I’d talk a bit about building from basic ideas.

So, last week, we talked about getting the plot from basic idea to something you can build a story around. And my opinion is that you need to get to the point where you have a basic conflict to work with. Non-conflict-based narratives are a topic for another post; I’m going to need to do a bit more research on them before I make any bold statements on the Internet.

Let’s just imagine that you have the barest bones of a plot idea that you can build on. So, for example, this one: “A loyal butler for a government official is kidnapped and recruited into a rebellion.”

This is a good start, but it’s probably not enough for a whole novel. So, where would I go from there?

Well, let’s look at what I have. I have a main conflict – the rebellion wants the butler to help them, but the butler wants to do what’s best for his employer. They’re going to have to come up with some really good reasons for him to follow them. A good part of the story is likely going to have to do with them gaining his trust (and probably him gaining theirs, too).

I’d have preliminary questions here: First, what does the rebellion want? They’ve got to have a legitimate grievance.
Second, why is the butler so loyal? Or, probably more pertinent, how loyal is the butler? Is he loyal ideologically, so that if the rebellion can prove to him that his employer is causing serious harm, he’ll agree to work against him? Personally loyal or in debt? Or does he actually agree ideologically with his employer, and unlikely to agree in the end with the rebels?
Third, will the butler double-cross them? Will he pretend to agree to and use their trust to help his employer?
Fourth, why the butler? What can the butler do that either someone outside the household can’t, or they can’t take to the employer himself?

Those questions are all going to make sure that the main conflict is as interesting as possible, and that I don’t have too many plot holes. They’re not going to be the only questions I need to answer, but they’ll be good to get me started, thinking about how these characters relate to the conflict.

But let’s move away from that. I’m not going to develop the whole story here.

In something the length of a novel, you need more than one plotline. B-plots are good, as are subplots (for clarity, I call a B-plot a plot as large or complex as the main plot, which takes up roughly the same amount of time in the novel. A subplot is a plot that’s either shorter or simpler than the main plot, which takes up less time and reader brainspace in the novel).

But where does that come from?
First, I’d be looking at putting some people in my rebellion, getting some character dynamics in there. Maybe there’s some infighting about what exactly they want to get out of this whole process. Maybe there’s a few “I agree with you and I need you to make this work, but dammit, I just really want to punch you” things going on. On the opposite side, there’s probably some inseparable friendships in there.
Second, fun with sects and factions! They’re probably not the only group out there looking to make some changes to the way things work. Who are they working with? Who are they working against? Who can they and can they not compromise with? Adding a PR element is going to put a damper on any really bold plans, and force some interesting workarounds.
Third, what happens to the rest of the household when the butler is gone? Who has he left behind? Anybody who’s likely to stir up trouble looking for him, particularly the kind of trouble that’s going to upset the butler’s carefully-laid plans.

And if you can’t find a few interesting B- and sub-plots in there, there’s something horribly wrong.
From there, it’s just a matter of picking the best ones – the ones that are logical, fit in with the characters you have, and complement the main plot.

More on that later. This ramble has gone on quite long enough.

Raising the Stakes

Yeah, this one is really soon after the last one.  What can I say, sometimes I just do things.

This one’s going to be one about the craft of writing … which I try not to talk too much about, because otherwise I’d never shut up.  Also, I told myself I wouldn’t try and act like I’m an authority on the subject until I’m published.
This post I’ll give a pass, though, because it’s about how monumentally I deserve a slap upside the head, so I figure: Onward!

Yesterday, I arrived at one of those convergences of events that just snap something in the brain into place, usually something that should have done so months (sometimes years) ago.
The first of these events is the imminence of a truly daunting editing cycle.  I’m about halfway, or maybe just over halfway, through my current WIP.  I aim to have it finished by the end of the year, latest.
That’s the easy part.
When I’m done, I’m putting all the WIPs I want to polish through a cycle of editing.  Now, originally, there were going to be just two; one that’s just back from my alphas, and this one that I’m just finishing.  But there was a WIP I put aside in September-ish due to an authorial dummy-spit, a character who refused to be interesting, and several scenes that never failed to make me want to stab a pen through the darned thing.  I’m picking it back up and having another go, however, because I just couldn’t leave the other characters languishing in my drawer.  They’re just too fun to toy with.  So now there are three.
ANYWAY.  Tangent over.  One of the things my alphas said I need to concentrate on is the tension.  A lot of the time, things just come easily to my characters, and the book suffers for it.

I was rather surprised to hear this.  I’d always put myself in the ‘sadistic author’ category.  I usually start my books with an excellent idea for how to make my characters cry.  Some of my favourite scenes are the ones that involve mental breakdowns.  At least one of my WIPs, the point has been “how can we make this character hate the world now?”
But then I reread the sections they were talking about, and they were totally right, because I choose good alphas.
Some of the solutions were quite easy.  One of them involved fixing the bits where I’d messed up the economics stuff (shush, I’m a language enthusiast and a uni student.  I know not of your monies and spending), which will add some nice tension.  But the really difficult stuff is the nagging feeling that just not much is happening.  Sure, there are complications, but the plot just seems to be dragging for some reason.
I’ve started to pick this one up in the current WIP.  And for a long time it was stumping me.  But there’s like, five things happening! I thought.  There’s a flipping war making things difficult for the main characters!  Am I overreacting because I’m too close to the story?

This brings us to the second event in this convergence.
Dear readers, I have failed as a nerd.  I had not, until just last night, watched The Dark Knight Rises.
Yes.  I know.  I have remedied this situation, don’t worry.  Moderate spoilers to follow, in case someone is in the same boat as me after all this time…

During this movie, Batman loses just about everything.  Being Batman has taken its toll.  He has no cartilage in his knees and brain tissue damage from being punched in the head so much.  During the course of the movie, he loses Alfred, his fortune, his status, his company, then Bane takes his armoury and damn near kills him into the bargain.

OK, spoilers over.  We’re all good.

Here’s the thing, though.  This revelation should not have been a revelation.  Nearly everywhere you go for writing advice, you see people decrying books where the characters breezed through things.  Most writers will give the advice that you should make it as difficult as possible for the characters.  Myself included.  I’ve frequently told people I believe in making characters suffer for their happy ending.

Apparently, I’d just heard this enough that it had become background noise.  I had known it, and just kind of assumed I had applied it.

The first thing I did after this was to grab a notebook and write down the worst things that could possibly happen in each of the plots I’ll be editing soon, and the one I’m currently writing.  Not just the worst escapable things – the worst possible things.  Hopefully incorporating some of those will make the next round of edits much better.

And thank you to The Dark Knight Rises for the swift kick in the pants.

Time Travel Plots are Usually Disappointing

Doctor Who fans, you can stop beating on my door now.

Time travel is a pretty tricky ball of wax at the best of times, even in shows and books that don’t take themselves seriously.  Most people with even a passing knowledge of science will give you a thousand and one reasons why they usually fall into plot holes, sometimes without even touching the Grandfather paradox.  Basically, the only way to deal with time travel is to make it internally consistent and hope.  I’m no scientist, and I’m fully prepared to accept “this is how time travel works in this universe”, provided a show stays within its own rules.

But then there’s a whole other side of it.  Maybe your plot involves time travelling a short way back, maybe only a day or a week or even a month, to stop yourself from doing something stupid, or to stop a friend from being killed.  It’s probably a Deus Ex Machina unless it’s the point of the whole story, but hey, if it works, it works.

What happens if you go back further?  This is the part that gets really difficult.  Let’s pick some common historial eras that seem to show up pretty often.

Victorian era London sounds easy – let’s start there.  That’s 200 years ago, beginning around 1840, after the Industrial Revolution.  Well, first off, you’re probably looking at enforced vegetarianism.  The Industrial Revolution pretty much killed off agriculture around London as everyone moved in for the factories, so meat took a pretty long trip to get there. With no effective refrigeration.  So good, fresh meat was not exactly a common thing.  Everyone seems to harp on sanitation and medicine, too, which is fair enough.  Not to mention that most clothes worn today would probably get you arrested for vagrancy.

Go back further, and the problems multiply.  Our lives are so disinfected today that go back a couple hundred years, and you’re unable to eat food without being violently ill from several orifices.

But hey, time travel books aren’t about being historically accurate or true to life.  These things can be glossed over, and people who complain too much about them may well just be nitpicking.  What’s the one thing that kills time travel plots?

Linguistics.  Shakespeare (or Shakespear, or whatever the fashionable spelling is now) didn’t speak Old English, and he didn’t write it.  He spoke Early Modern English, at best.  Even Chaucer didn’t actually write Old English – he was Middle English.

Beowulf is Old English.

To put that in perspective, you can reliably understand what someone is saying to about 400 years ago – that’s around Shakespeare and John Donne, and yeah, you’re not going to communicate instantly.  Chaucer times (700 years ago-ish), English sounded like a combination of French and Scottish (which is kind of hilarious, taken in historical context), and before that, it was pretty much German.

But, OK, linguistic differences going back that far are pretty much the sanitation thing all over again.  It’s just nitpicking about facts, after all.  The problem is, unless you’re travelling only a few decades back, it’s going to be just about impossible to write dialogue and not sound completely clumsy.

You don’t really have any good options with this one: either everyone sounds the same, which just seems really odd, or you go with a more ‘old-fashioned’ speech for the appropriate characters, in which case they generally sound ultra-formal and stilted.  Slang will be much the same, because no matter how hard you try, “Zounds!” will never sound like a strong expletive.  It takes an incredibly deft touch to walk the line between anachronism and stilted dialogue, and it’s always a bit painful to watch an author fail.

Or, you know, just time travel to the future and make the whole thing up.  That’s cool, too.