Saturday, May 13, 2006

Ask Mr. Writing Person: Fleshing Out a Plot

Welcome back to Ask Mr. Writing Person, where we've been tearing down artless cretinism for nearly a whole week now. Today's question is from Lisa Swetchop from Taiwan, who has found herself with an unusually short novel because she's an unpracticed naïf. We can fix that right up with the right ideas. I'm full of them [Ed: it].

Here's Lisa:

Q. I'm working on a murder mystery, and I've almost finished. I've got a problem--

A. (snicker)

Q. --with the plot. It's just too linear. It feels scripted, like the characters are just going through the motions, things happen, and voilà, it's all wrapped up. How do I fix this? How did it happen?

A. The short answer is that you're still a Philistine.

Q. Yeah, I've heard that before.

A. Anyway, there's a long answer, so let's get to it. Give us a rough outline of your story.

Q. Okay, here it is:
  1. Butler finds dead body, calls police
  2. Police want nothing to do with it because the house is haunted, but the police chief's Aunt Marge finds out about it and investigates
  3. Aunt Marge discovers the reason behind the "haunted" rumor and simultaneously solves the case
So how do I fix it? My novel's only 110 pages, and everything's done.

A. There's a market for those--they're called novellas, which is Latin for lazy Philistine. Plenty of authors write them, but you don't want to be like that. They're the kind of authors that other authors snicker about at parties and slap "Kick Me" signs on, who don't get all the women and fame and glory and millions in advertising revenue that the rest of us get. You want women and fame and glory, right?

Q. I guess so. What do I do?

A. First, you need subplots. I'll bet Aunt Marge is a heroin addict.

Q. She's not!

A. Nothing is sacred, young grasshopper. Nothing! Aunt Marge is a heroin addict, and the police chief is her main supplier.

Q. No, he's good and honest--

A. Sure he is. He puts up an honest veneer, when in reality, he's stealing drugs from the narcotics unit to supply his whole family, because Aunt Marge comes from a whole family of addicts.

Q. Wait, wait...

A. The world isn't full of just good people and murderers, Lisa.

Q. I know that.

A. It's full of good people, murderers, and heroin addicts. You need to add that to your story, or you risk lying to your readers. You don't want to lie to your readers, do you?

Q. No. No, I don't.

A. Good. Now that we've got that settled, we can talk about its effects on the story. Now you can spend at least 50 pages on Aunt Marge's heroin addiction, which brings you into short novel territory. You can even work in a more personal interest for Aunt Marge, because the dead guy was one of the police chief's friendly dealers. Your characters needed motivation, and now at least one of them has it.

Q. Terrific.

A. Okay, next item: does Aunt Marge have a love interest?

Q. The butler.

A. Great. We need what's commonly called an out-of-character moment. These are a principal driving force behind soap opera plots, and they work surprisingly well. Here's a new plot outline, with the moment inserted:
  1. Butler finds dead body, calls police
  2. Police want nothing to do with it because the house is haunted, but the police chief's Aunt Marge finds out about it and investigates
  3. Aunt Marge falls in love with the Butler, strangles his hamster
  4. Aunt Marge discovers the reason behind the "haunted" rumor and simultaneously solves the case
Q. She'd never strangle a hamster!

A. Of course not, and that's the genius behind it! Well, your readers would think she couldn't possibly strangle her lover's hamster, but you would know better.

Q. I thought we weren't supposed to lie--

A. It's not a lie, it's a mystery! A little mystery within your larger mystery, a cipher within a puzzle, like those stupid Russian dolls. You're holding back information on your character in order to spring it on your readers, to keep them on their toes.

Q. Won't they think it's too unbelievable?

A. If your readers are getting so uppity that they presume to know more about your characters than you do, they need something to jar them out of it. An uppity reader is a bad reader. A Philistine.

Q. Okay.

A. So Aunt Marge has anger issues, which only come out later in the book. Now you've got a love interest, a betrayal, and, if the Butler stays mum about the hamster's killer, another murder mystery within your overall mystery. That's worth at least 75 pages, which brings the total to 235. We're arriving, Lisa; we can see the light. Can you see it?

Q. Yeah, I can see it.

A. Go toward the light, Lisa. Your best friend now is puppet stupidity, a mainstay of television sitcom writing, and particularly effective. Am I correct in assuming that your main characters are unusually intelligent?

Q. Most of them, yeah, especially Aunt Marge. Otherwise she'd never be able to solve the case.

A. Great. One superb way of starting a new subplot is to have a main character do something really, really stupid. In this case, after Aunt Marge is discovered to be the hamster's true murderer, she should sell all of her possessions, pack herself off to Hollywood to find an acting job, and wind up scrounging for walk-on parts by day and working nights as a slinky cocktail waitress.

Q. What??

A. It's perfect! There's nothing better than carefully-timed and carefully-orchestrated stupidity to spice up a novel. You know why? Because smart people are boring. Aunt Marge is boring unless she ends up as a cocktail waitress.

Q. She's 56 years old! People won't believe--

A. Yeah, yeah. Your uppity readers again. Look, you're the author. You can make your characters do things. They're puppets, not people. And your characters are too smart to do anything interesting by themselves, so you have to do it for them. If your readers balk--

Q. (sigh) They're Philistines.

A. Exactly. Now, let's see... that's 50 for the heroin addiction, 75 for the hamster strangling, and at least 140 for the slinky cocktail waitress thing, making an additional 265 pages of riveting subplot. Add that to your current total, and you have a whopping 375-page novel!

Q. Truly astounding.

A. Isn't it? And fiendishly clever, too.

Q. Can I ask another question?

A. Sure.

Q. Now I have 265 pages of subplot and 110 pages of plot. Should I be worried about the subplots overshadowing the main story?

A. Not at all. Your main plot is so pedestrian I don't think anybody would really miss it if were subsumed by much more dazzling events. I mean, come on. A butler?

Q. I like butlers.

A. You do have something to worry about, however. I wasn't going to bring this up before to spare your delicate feelings, but "blatant Jessica Fletcher ripoff astounds the bungling police" has been done to death in the murder mystery genre. If I were you, I'd write a story about an old spinster heroin addict who strangles her boyfriend's hamster and runs off to Hollywood. It's a gold mine, and you've already got 265 pages' worth of material.

Q. I'd have to throw away--

A. I knew you'd agree. And make sure you have Aunt Marge, in a fit of angst against the film establishment, set fire to Sigourney Weaver's car. That would be wicked literate.

Do the right thing, my young puppet master.


At 1:06 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Outstanding advice, Mister Writing Person. As a budding novelist myself, my greatest hope is that all the other budding novelists will take your words to heart.

How do you managed to suffer so many Philistines so gladly?

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Mr. Writing Person said...

As well as being blessed with God-like compassion, I am also blessed with God-like patience. That's not to say I've never lost my temper, however. Why, just last week, I was reading Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, and the author's pedestrian plot vexed me so badly that I threw the book across the room!

I do hope people take my words to heart. I can't fathom why a budding novelist wouldn't.

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Clarissa said...

Dear Mr. Writing Person,

OK, so I won't take plot advice from Agatha Christie - thanks for the warning!

Which authors do you recommend that budding novelists such as myself read and study?

It seems to me that there are a lot of lucrative and/or critically-acclaimed authors whose books break all your rules, so I hesitate to study the work of profitable or well-reviewed authors, lest they lead me astray. Please advise!

At 2:54 PM, Blogger Mr. Writing Person said...

There are an awful lot of awesome examples published by Lulu. I'd recommend any book of fiction that they've published.


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