Loose Threads

As the main story draws to a close, the writer faces the unenviable task of gathering up the loose ends of the plot and character arcs and tieing them neatly together. As your novel draws to a close, the reader wants to feel a sense of completion, like he’s not missing any parts of the story. The writer needs to identify plot hoots and character points, making sure that each of them is resolved. In a perfect novel, the two will work together to form a single inevitable conclusion.

When the reader looks for the hallmarks of a completed novel, he’s not worried so much about having every single detail of every single event. The reader’s imagination will fill in many of the points left out by the writer, creating a sense of involvement and investiture in the story. The reader is concerned about picking up dropped plot and character hooks; the writer should be concerned with identifying those dropped hooks and carefully extracting them.

Identification of loose hooks is really the key. Character hooks remain unresolved when the reader recognizes an aspect of the character that is deficient, that aspect is provided with the means and motivation to change within the story, but the character never revisits this aspect to determine if it will change or remain the same. Either resolution is acceptable, as long as it makes sense within the context of the character and the decision is firmly enacted. Character hooks also remain unresolved when a key aspect of the character is mentioned but never demonstrated. When a character is strongly identified by himself or others with a certain trait, that trait needs to be demonstrated in action.

Plot hooks remain unresolved when an action that was begun earlier in the story fails to reach its logical conclusion. The aphorism “Chekhov’s gun” embodies his (Anton Chekhov’s) advice that one should not should show a loaded gun in act one, unless one intends to fire it later in the play. The aphorism was perhaps meant to address the correct use of foreshadowing, but has since come to represent any kind of plot hole. The writer faces the task of firing every gun that has been shown earlier in the story. Loose plot hooks may be identified by noting any singular instance of action or mention of an object. If that action or object is significant to the plot, it must be revisited at least once in order to demonstrate how the action is played out or the object is used.

Tieing up loose ends, firing all of your guns, is a key component of circular storytelling. Written stories are necessarily about resolution, as the writer has a finite amount of space in which to tell a story, and the reader a finite amount of time in which to consume it. Not every story needs to come to a final, unalterable ending; the phrase “To be continued…” is a key element of serial fiction. The reader needs to feel like the writer has treated him fairly, done right by the characters, and cleaned up his loose plot threads. Stories and characters live on the mind of the reader long after the last page of the novel has been turned; he just needs enough closure to the current story to imagine the rest.

Nanowrimo Checkpoint 2

The end is in sight; don’t quit now! Writing a novel inside of a month is a challenging task. Maybe you’ve had some false starts. Maybe you’ve missed a few days worth of word count. (I’ve missed a few on the blog, and I’m not trying for novel-length word count.) The holidays make things more complicated. Work schedules increase without regard to what I’d actually rather be doing. Chances are, if it’s happened to me then you’ve had some of the same challenges.

The good news? The end of your novel is fast approaching. Those words are mounting up faster than you thought possible. You may be cruising to a climactic resolution like a warm summer breeze. The words might be leaking with increased difficulty. Nanowrimo is a marathon, and you’re an endurance athelete.

This is no time to second-guess your choices. This is not the time to start over and redo questionable section. Now is the time to press forward and realize that anything you need to fix can be done in post-production. This is what the editing bay is for. It lets you digitally paint whole characters out of your manuscript if need be.

Suck wind and press for the finish line. You’re going to be a novelist!

Changing Shoes

The writer of a novel must be able to effectively portray a broad range of characters, differentiating between how they speak, how they act, and how they think. Some of these, perhaps most of these, will necessarily be of a type utterly foreign to the natural mindset of the writer. The writer has many tools with which to portray characters; one of the most common and effective involves assuming the role of a central POV character during a scene.

Assuming a POV role allows the writer to get personal with not only the character portrayal and reaction, but also the perception of the scene. Getting into a character’s shoes affords the writer access to his thoughts and the ability to share those thoughts and motivations with the reader. The reader gets to be up close and personal with the character, understanding how the character perceives the world around him and empathizing with the character’s reactions. The writer gets to explore the character’s motivations and discover how those motivations interact with the larger world of the story. This technique both advances the growth of the character during the story and increases the emotional investment of the reader.

The most important challenge for the writer is “changing their character shoes” in such a way that each character is handled in a unique way. This kind of differentiation begins with the vocabulary used when assuming a POV, matching it to not only the perception of the characer but to their frame of reference and method of expression. In the Hunger Games stories, the stylist Cinna perceives even their political situation through the lens of fashion, and expresses himself with clothing choices and fashion references. In the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits relate their adventures to Shire life, and most especially to food.

Writers handling multiple POV changes within a novel must deal with knowledge bleed-through, avoiding the tendency to have all characters react as if they had perfect knowledge of the situation. Much of characterization results from mistakes that seemed at the time to be the best choice possible. On the extreme opposite of this tendency, weakly portrayed characters blithely ignore relevant information when making their life choices. The writer must be able to decide how much information a given characer possesses, and then use that information in the most accurate way possible.

When a writer has trouble distinguishing character voices in the story, an intense POV scene may not be the best choice for narrative. This difficulty often manifests in uniform dialog or undifferentiated behavior patterns. The dialog in Joss Whedon’s series “Firefly” is clever and snappy, but characters all tend to speak in the same meter and with the same vocabulary. Teleplays have a visual characterization advantage over printed stories; the same exchanges on the printed page would be difficult for the reader to follow, as speakers would tend to blur together. In this case, a more nuetral narrator benefits the clarity of the story.

When changing character shoes, the writer must not only assume a new vocabulary, a new frame of reference, and a new perception of the world, the writer must also assume new physical behaviors. Incidental actions and habitual motions form an important part of a character, and can help differentiate between characters who possess otherwise similar outlooks and educations. Value systems form a link in this chain as well, not only ethically but with regards to the physical handling of objects in the scene.

Written characters can be unique or common, memorable or forgettable. The most important aspect of handling any character is consistency; as long as a character behaves the same way from scene to scene, the reader will forgive a multitude of both story and character errors.

Chasing the Plot Wagon

Storytelling games such as computer and pen-and-paper role playing games (RPGs) rely on a story structure that funnels the characters along a single line of action. The characters must go to this inn, must speak to this barkeep, and must slay this dragon before the action can progress any farther. This tendency is occasionally disparagingly known as the “plot wagon”, or a means to get the characters from one plot point to another without diverging or chasing rabbit trails along the way. It makes for streamlined storytelling, but can seem very contrived if not handled correctly.

Every plot twist leading to the conclusion of the story must be seen as inevitable by the reader. Only when the reader is convinced that this story could not have possibly happened any other way may a plot be truly effective. This means systematcally erasing rabbit trails and divergent plot branches from the character’s list of options. Often, this means allowing the character to play out these departures from the main plot in order to emphasize the necessity of following the central story. This divergence is acceptable as long as it doesn’t damage the pacing of the story.

There are a few ways in which this plays out in popular genre fiction. In many action novels, the must be a reason the hero can’t just shoot the bad guy and call it a day. In romance, the must be a reason the heroine doesn’t simply embrace her leading man from the very beginning. In a mystery, there must be a reason that the police don’t see the same evidence as the detective and make an immediate arrest. Most important of all, these reasons must be compelling. The reader must side with the action hero in not shooting the bad guy. He must empathize with the heroine in her suffering for unattainable love. He must be as baffled as the police as to the identity of the criminal. If the reader grows frustrated with the behavior of the characters and sees a simpler solution to their dilemma, he will quickly lose interest in the story.

The plot wagon is all about the journey. The story will eventually end. The reader must have enjoyed the trip for the story to have been successful. At every crossroads, the reader is asking the character, “Is there any other choice you can make that would be better?” The writer had better be asking that same question, and if he can come up with a good answer, chase it. The plot wagon will trundle on with or without the characters. The reader won’t mind diverging every now and then if it means an interesting plot point or character moment, but each of those rabbit trails needs to feed back to the main road, or the reader will feel cheated out of the story that has occurred along the way.

Pep Talk

Nanowrimo is more than half-way gone! Your novel has more than half of its total word count on the page. By now, the burst of energy that carried you through the sprint from the starting line has faded into a long, grueling marathon. Fear not, the second wind is coming. Soldier on! Write as if you mean it! Before you realize what’s happening, you’ll be in love with your story again and your characters will be springing from your fingertips onto the printed page. Pep talk’s over. It’s been a long weekend here, and it’s not over yet!nano

Cashing the Reality Check

By now some sharp-eyed reader has checked in on the blog and noticed a day is missing. “Hey,” this reader is saying, “Where’s my daily dose of writing insights? Where’s my daily encouragement during Nanowrimo? Where’s my cheese sandwich?” Through the magic of blogging I could engage in time manipulation, go back to yesterday and insert the post into the matrix as if nothing happened. But that’s not reality. Reality is that things don’t always go as planned, and no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

Time is my enemy. If you’re a Nanowrimo author, or any kind of author at all, time is your enemy as well. How we deal with our time determines what kind of writing we produce. As with anything, writing improves with practice, and practice takes time.

The best-case scenario includes deliberately making time in your day to do some writing. This kind of budgeting is easier for some than others, but you can find it in even the most crowded schedule if you look for it. In a perfect world, you would be able to spend the same amount of time at the same time of day writing your story. You would do it at your moment of peak energy and creativity. No matter when you can make time to write, you should make sure that you can do so without interruption or distraction.

Planning your day around your writing has a number of advantages, the first of which is simply ensuring that the writing gets done. You can build anticipation of the opportunity to write, thinking about your story during the day and planning your prose before it hits paper. When the deed is done, you get a sense of accomplishment. Most importantly, planning to write shows discipline, which leads to consistency and technical improvement.

Not every day can be planned. Not every plan goes to schedule. And not every writer is comfortable with a highly regimented structure to his day. In this case, simply writing when you get the opportunity still gets the job done. If that happens at different times each day or if it occurs in fits and starts as the occassion demands it still gets done. It makes tracking word count a little more difficult and tends to break up the coherency of passages, but it has the advantage of flexibility, and the supreme virtue of accomplishment. Making a habit of writing exclusively this way doesn’t promote good discipline, but does log valuable practice time.

Finally, realize that not every word from every session is going to flow perfectly from the pen. That’s okay. Many of the errors and rabbit trails that creep into writing get fixed in the editing bay. The discipline of daily exercise and the experience of logged practice time count for more than the initial quality of the writing. That will come with time.

Most importantly, realize ahead of time that you will likely miss a session. The editing process will delete whole passages that you’ve worked on over multiple sessions. Beloved characters will dwindle into insignificance. Essential plot points will fall by the wayside. All of this is okay as long as you soldier on and continue to write. Don’t get discouraged by any one thing, and don’t expect every description and every line of dialog to be literary gold.

There’s your advice: don’t get discouraged. Here’s your encouragement: mistakes are okay, and can be fixed. And as for the cheese sandwich: as the Italian chef said, “It’s a gouda thing to have.”

The Slave of Duty

Internal conflict within the plot comes from diametrically opposing forces influencing a character’s choices. These forces are: what the character desires to do, what others desire the character to do, what is morally right to do, and the action ultimately taken. In a perfect, conflict-free world all of these choices would be identical and characters would make the right choices every time. This might lead to a harmonious world, but it makes for pretty poor drama. Drama results from the effort to bring these forces into alignment.

In “The Pirates of Penzance”, Frederic describes himself as “the slave of duty”. The story results from Frederic’s choice to act according to the wishes of others (the dictates of duty) even when those actions run contrary to both his own desires and his conscience (the moral right). Frederic acts according to the moral right, which is already in line with his desires. Conflict enters when the dictates of duty pressure him to act differently from both his conscience and his own desires. Frederic’s quest to resolve his internal conflict forms the basis for one of the most successful comedies of all time.

At the beginning of a story, these four things are out of line. Good conflict happens when the character’s choice increases the imbalance between them. As one or another of these forces becomes more important to the character, he will base his choices more strongly on that motivation. These choices form a character’s journey and chart his growth through the story. “The Pirates of Penzance” exmplifies this journey is three different types.

The Pirate King acts according to his own desires. He is essentially a selfish and prideful character who pressures others into conforming to his will. He experiences internal conflict because he knows that he acts against both his duty to the Queen and the moral right. He attempts to reconcile these differences by being a tender-hearted pirate who never attacks those weaker than himself and shows mercy to orphans. In his character journey, the Pirate King learns to act according to his duty as a nobleman and to do the right thing for its own sake, which ultimately leads to his confession and reform.

Frederic subjects his own desires in favor of performing his duty as an apprentice pirate, even though he knows it’s morally wrong to do so. Because Frederic allows others to define his duty and acts according to their direction, he constantly experiences a state of emotional turmoil. Only when Frederic’s duty is clarified as being to the Queen and to the moral right is he able to resolve the conflict within himself and earn the love of Mabel.

Major-General Stanley is in complete possession of his faculties. He knows right from wrong. He is clear on his duty to the Queen and to his daughters, and his responsibilities as a Major-General. He desires to perform each of these roles to the best of his abilities. Stanley experiences internal conflict when he claims to be an orphan-boy in order to escape the pirates. This deception causes him a great deal of distress until it is uncovered at the end of the play and Stanley is able to make things right.

Being a comic opera, “The Pirates of Penzance” takes these character archetypes and journeys to an extreme expression of their execution. It is useful as a study in the basic types of internal conflict. One might even say it is the very model of the modern character-general.