Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Changing a Location Can Mean Everything

Old Paint: Dead or Alive, the second Mick and Casey mystery, is moving along well now. I had two problems, though. One was a secondary character who is a little too colorful to play a minor role -- so either I have to cut back on the color, or I have to make more use of this character. When I'm in a situation like this, I always play with the second option first. For one thing, it's not good to dull down a story. For another, a character without enough to do is always an opportunity.

The other problem was more subtle. As a matter of fact I didn't even know it was a problem, until the solution presented itself.

When I develop a novel, especially a mystery, I sometimes end up with events which are just too dense. I do it because I believe mystery stories should have a lot of layers and complications, AND I also tend to move forward pretty quickly. So a lot of the time, I have to pause and loosen everything up. I go in and put in breathing room and put in some layers of characterization and foreshadowing and atmosphere. Let it play out a little more.

But that's not what I have a problem with right now. This story is loose. I have several major movements of plot, a number if scenes in mind, but there is too much space at the moment. And yes, I can help that by playing out layers of chacaterization and such -- it not only fills space, but the details of life give you hooks on which to build more story. You can start thinking, okay, so if that character is cranky, maybe the reason is something other than I thought, and the crankiness can become a clue....

But that's just providing opportunities. You need major stuff to really pull a story together. You know, like the finding of a second body. That changes everything in a mystery, usually. But in this story there's an apparent suicide which is not investigated, and Mick and Casey only hear about it. It is an important event, because it drives them to start on a new journey. Except it's off-screen and doesn't really drive anything.

In the meantime I had another scene which I have sketched in, and I like it a lot, but it's just a clue discovery scene. It doesn't really take the story in a new direction.... Then I realized that it was a great scene for finding a body.

Moving the body-discovery makes a huge difference, for both good and bad. When someone hears about a death, it's easy to let them take it all at face value. It's also easy to control how much the audience and characters know. The audience may say "Ha! That's suspicious," but because it's not vivid and on screen, it's easy to distract the audience with shinier and more immediate clues. Especially if the characters are going to investigate things that are related to the death.

So the down side of a full-blown body-discovery scene, is that the death won't fly under the radar -- it becomes front story. It's like opening a can of worms. This will be the second body they found in suspicious circumstances, and the sheriff already doesn't like them. It's going to raise a lot of questions that I had the luxury of putting off.

But it's also going to give me a chance to explore a lot of questions I didn't want to put off, but didn't have a hook to draw Mick in. It gives more info for Mick to hang some theories on. It gives me a chance to mislead the audience too. It puts a kink in the road of the story.

And it's dramatic. Finding a body, the stress, the confusion, the need to do something. No matter if you're a cool-headed young gunslinger -- it's a dramatic moment.

The biggest difference, though, comes from the location itself. Originally I had the death take place in a very expected and logical place. I could have brought Mick and Casey to that place, and had them discover the body there. That would have brought in the drama just fine.

But by changing that location I can do so many things. For one thing, it's a twist. The audience can be busy anticipating something completely different. Furthermore, if this isn't where the body belongs, then it has to be explained. Why is this body here, rather than there? And that goes back to all those lovely questions, and red herrings...and truths. In this case there are all sorts of things about the location that hook back into the story. (Sorry I can't explain more - don't want to give spoilers. Maybe I'll talk about it in detail on the spoilers blog after publication.)

So if you've got something doesn't move as well as you hoped, or seems too loose, or draggy, consider changing the location of a key element. What if your hero has that fight with his girlfriend at his mother's house? What if the final duel takes place on the hero's home territory, rather than the villain's? (Or in the villain's mother's house?)

Sometimes ramping up the story this way is too much. You have to think of the creative consequences first. Sometimes it doesn't work in a story I've already packed full of complications. However, if you don't have enough complications, consider changing a location to ramp the story up a little.

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