The Plot Thickens
Law of Plot: Let situations and characters expand to explain their behavior and the events of the story. The character needs some specialized knowledge suddenly, in Chapter 10? Now you know what he studied in grad school. And that he went to grad school in the first place! The plot and its requirements build the characters; they evolve together.
The opposite plot strategy also works: when you hit a hole, a spot where the people are behaving in ways that sabotage your intentions … go with it. Follow their actions. See where they lead. It’s your unconscious telling you something. And there is often good story material in following the natural impulses of your characters.
The fatal nemesis of any plot is coincidence. Any gesture of intention – no matter how far fetched – is preferable to coincidence. Your job is to make the preposterous intentional gesture believable, using physical detail and emotional history, quirks of character and every other tool you possess. Because however hard it may be, making a coincidence function as part of the narrative engine is impossible. Unless it hurts or stymies the hero. We all believe in those coincidences
Plotting as you write – trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle when you don’t have the box. You don’t know what the picture is supposed to look like and you’re cutting the pieces yourself.
Why a plotted externally driven book is of an intrinsically lesser quality than a character driven story: the withholding of information closes you out of various characters’ minds. In fact wherever you are closed out of a character’s thought processes in a plot driven novel, a red flag should go up. A good reason why many detective novels are written in the first person … you can’t get into anyone’s head, by definition. A book where you are artificially removed from certain characters … because to hear their thoughts would wreck the plot … its based on a kind of narrative dishonesty. But the lie is embraced by the reader for his own pleasure. It reminds me of my Dad’s analogy between writers and prostitutes. They do their work first for their own pleasure … then for the amusement of their friends – and then for money. It seems that a john embraces the false intimacy of mercenary sex in the same way that the reader accepts the false presentation of situation in a detective yarn. For diversion, for fun, to while away an idle hour. This is hardly Kafka’s view of real literature – “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.”But you don’t always want that. Sometimes you just want to ice-skate.
The necessity of non-plot related stuff: the details that breathe life into the plot. Stray comments, weather, ruminations, observations, minor characters.
Tip of the Iceberg theory –
Knowing the right detail to deliver sideways, with an attitude, convinces more than reams of exposition, and allows you to venture, briefly at least, into areas where you know nothing and have no direct experience. You are not putting a particular tool, or location or skill-set into the book … all you are putting there are words. Choose the right ones, give them the correct casual, opinionated delivery (familiarity breeds contempt … describe the most gorgeous city in the world in terms of the ever worsening dirt and traffic and you will be more convincing that the most detailed guidebook) … and it will be plausible.
The smart detective conundrum. You solve the case in the story, the detective had to be far smarter than cops around him, far smarter than the reader and in fact far smarter than it is possible for anyone to be. This is the central implausibility in most detective fiction, and it gets worse and the plot becomes more preposterous. If the hero solves the crime and then explains his thought processes, the reader will notice the wild leaps of intuition and the superhuman deductive powers at work and say “Wait a minute! How did he figure that out? No one could notice all that stuff and put it together that way!” etc, etc. So how do you seduce the reader into believing in your protagonist’s mental skills? Let them get ahead of him. Tip your hand to the reader and let the detective follow. The audience rarely notices the fact they’ve been TOLD something the hero has to FIGURE OUT. A good analogy would be a physical search. If the hero notices … what? The extra filament in a light bulb that holds the micro dot (or whatever) before the reader does, then your stalwart mystery fan will rebel and say, “He would never have found that! How did he even know to turn the light out so he could see the stupid filaments in the first place?! Don’t you usually need LIGHT to search a room?” However … if you let the reader know where the microdot has been placed, totally different dynamic occurs. Now, as your hero searches the room and the clocks ticks and the villains approach while he’s haplessly looking for cut-out pieces of books and hollow chair legs, the reader is saying “OMG, are you blind??! It’s in the light bulb! Just turn out the light. They’ll see someone’s in the apartment if you have the light on! TURN IT OFF! Use your flashlight. USE YOUR EYES, IT’S RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. Jesus Christ, what is this guy’s problem?” When the hero finally finds the microdot, all your fans will feel is a giant shudder of relief. The fact that they would never have found the microdot on their own, that the detective would porobably never found it on his own … and the further fact, THAT NO ONE COULD HAVE FOUND IT, will never cross their minds.
Cheating? Perhaps. But as the cunning cracker I used to sand floors with liked to say, while burnishing the edge of a sanding disk with a cold chisel to keep the edger from gouging the baseboards – no trick no trade.
Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. His work has been featured on various websites, including the literary e-zine Numéro Cinq, where he is on the masthead. His work has also appeared at Salon.com and The GoodMen Project, as well as the magazines PulpModern and BigPulp. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.