Saturday, April 9, 2011

Blogging My Process: A Character in a Setting with a Plan

So, continuing the series of posts illustrating my creative process (read Part 1 and Part 2 if you want background):

To review: I wrote a set up, like Indiana Jones getting the idol. And now I've got to get on with the story. And we've established that I need my hero, Alex, to be proactive, because this is not a thriller, it's an adventure.

This brings to mind the definition of "story" that I got from Algis Budrys at Clarion so long ago: A story begins with a character in a setting with a problem. The middle consists of repeated attempts to resolve that problem, which fail, though the character learns something from each attempt. With the final failure the character learns the real nature of the problem and is able to resolve it. (Or learn definitively that he/she can't.)

A character in a setting with a problem has always been my mantra since then. It's particularly useful for those writing without an outline because problem drives the action.

However, that leaves too much room for the character to be too reactive rather than proactive. I've come up with a better mantra.

A character in a setting with a PLAN.

When your character has a plan, even if you don't explain what it is, even if its just subtext, the story has something that makes it MOVE. The audience can anticipate movement. Anticipation = good.

When the character doesn't have a plan, the story drags or even comes to a dead stop. You can heave the story forward by throwing problems at your character, but that doesn't give you momentum. When the immediate problem is over the energy is gone.

This is what I meant by complications which are like a string of beads. This is really common in "pantser" storytelling, because it's a natural way to imagine a story. So if your mystery plot is just the characters discover one clue, and then another clue and then another, until they have all the pieces and then they solve the case, that's a one-beat story. They're mystified, they're mystified, they're mystified, and then they know.

If your characters have a theory -- a plan -- then the plot moves forward. They investigate based on the theory developing it more as they learn each new fact, until they learn something that changes the theory radically. That will usually be at the end of an Act. And that info will be dramatic. So then they form a new theory and plan and move forward on that.

The problem Alex seems to have as he stands on that riverbank is also a one-beat problem. He doesn't know how to get home, and if he knew, he could just go. As a matter of fact, he probably will in the next few minutes, or perhaps in a couple of hours, because that's not the problem of the story.

My problem, as the writer, is to get the audience past that as fast as possible. But my instinct, when I'm writing off the cuff, is to see this as the audience does, and I mistake this problem for the main problem. So I get myself stuck trying to prevent him from going home, because going home is easy. All he has to do is jump back in the water.

He doesn't know that, but he has enough information to think it just might work. Sure, he has lots of reasons to fear that it will go wrong, but he's got guts and he's young enough to try foolish things. There is no really GOOD reason to keep him from trying it, except one.

Thorny is passed out, and the river nearly killed them a moment ago, so if jumping back in the water doesn't work, Thorny could drown. And job one is keeping Thorny from drowning. That's how they got in this mess in the first place.

But it's got to occur to Alex that this might work for two reasons. One is that it has probably already occurred to a portion of the audience, and it's aggravating when the character is dumber than the audience. Another is that the best way to move on from something it so settle it.

I was going to have Alex cleverly realize water could be a way to escape bad guys later on -- and be desperate enough to try it in spite of the dangers. But I need him to have a plan, and I need him to have it now. And I came up with two possible solutions. And here's what I mean by compounding problems rather than just beads on a string.

Option 1 -

Alex considers the idea that the ring and the water somehow interacted to transport them between worlds. He goes to the water's edge, looks in, and sees a double scene reflected back at him just as he did back in Michigan. He can see trees and a dorm from the banks of the Red Cedar, as well as the forest and rocks of the place he's in. He gets a hit of vertigo. He falls in.

And he comes up in the Red Cedar River in Michigan. Close to where he had gone in, but not the exact same spot. Wow! Cool! Oh, shit, he left Thorny back in that other world. He dives back in, and does indeed come back up in the river in Awarshawa -- this time exactly where he just dived in. And Thorny is not there....

This is generally what I think the main plot of the story actually is, saving Thorny. That's how it started. It was why Alex jumped into the river in the first place, and it's what heroes do. Especially when they feel semi-responsible for the predicament the other person is in.

Option 2 -

Not as good as the first, but it has some advantages: Alex considers the ring and the water, and also the danger of dragging an unconscious and drunken man into a dangerous river on the off chance it might get them home. He decides to wait until Thorny is awake and maybe sober and has have a chance of swimming to save himself if things go wrong.

Then he hears voices. He is jazzed about this whole deal and wants to know more about this place he has come to. He sneaks over to spy and sees some peasants talking. He recognizes the language he had always thought his Aunt made up. He even understands a few words, and realizes that these people are frightened. Thorny wakes up and joins him, and is too drunk to be freaked out about being in another world.

They may or may not interact with the peasants, but then the bad guys arrive, everyone runs, and Alex and Thorny have to run away from the water... and they also witness someone captured by bad guys, and Alex knows he must go to the rescue.

Okay, I said this was weaker than the first. In particular: until Alex decides to intervene, he still doesn't have a plan which leads him to act. Furthermore, he isn't an idle gentleman on holiday, so the decision to intervene doesn't feel right. This is the serious flaw of this second option.

The advantage of the second option is people. People are the stuff of drama. They ramp up the energy fast. They make things interesting. They provide conflict. The first option just delays the moment when Alex runs into people, and that weakens it.

Also, even tough Alex assumes he is in this country his Aunt told him about, assumptions do not constitute dramatic revelations. Hearing real people talk this language he always assumed was made up is a very dramatic revelation if he hasn't already been thinking about this.

Can I combine the options? Sure, I can even drag in more options. The point here is to make them build one on the other. Don't let them be beads on a string. He's got to get Thorny back home without drowning him. He's working on the plan when he falls in. Then he gets back to Awarshawa and finds that Thorny is gone. Option 2 then becomes something he can use to help him in finding Thorny and getting him back.

I originally wanted to go the other way for reasons of dramatic revelations -- learn something, have the villain enter, interaction with Thorny, some action, and then have things slow down again long enough for Alex to consider the whole water thing, and THEN fall in and come back to find that Thorny has been captured....

And I could work to make those events flow and build in tension, but I would have to do it artificially. If I start with option 1, they flow naturally one from the other.

I may simply have to distract Alex so that he hasn't really thought through where they are yet, so I can still feel like the moment he first hear people speak is dramatic.


So that's all I have to say about that right now. The question is, was this useful to you? Would you like an update on this story as it goes along? Would you like it if I posted the rough draft chapters as I went along, and then talked about the issues I had in writing it?

Doing this as I write is very different from doing it later. I remember things better, for one thing, but it can get long and boring.

In the meantime, tomorrow morning I will post another excerpt from from my other Ruritanian adventure story, The Adventure of Anna the Great. See you in the funny papers....


Unknown said...

Please continue to write the story in your blog. This is very helpful to me. I especially like it when you weigh two or more options and tell how you decide which one to do, or how they can be combined.

The Daring Novelist said...

I'm glad it was useful to someone. It was fun doing it.

I have other stories which are ahead of this one in the queue so I'm not working on it for the moment, but I think I will trot it out and do more with "blogging my progress" on it later.