Friday, April 8, 2011

My Live Real Choices, Beat-by-Beat, As I Write

In the comments on yesterday's post, A.M. Kuska pointed out that what I said at the end, about what I was writing, was uselessly vague. (Okay, she didn't say that, but it's the truth.)

The problem, when you are trying to talk about something you're currently writing is that you don't want to give spoilers, and the story's in flux, and there's a whole lot of background that you have to explain... so you end up being vague.

However, since this is the beginning of the story, I don't have to worry about spoilers. (There is something I call the "opening spoiler" and maybe I'll talk about that sometime. Or now. We'll see how far I get.) So I only have to worry about boring and confusing you. But that's your problem. Blame A.M. for asking.....

Here's the set up:

The story is called "The Misplaced Hero." The premise is that there is another universe which is much like 1920's adventure fiction and silent movie serials. Part (but by no means all) of this world is Awarshawa which I described a couple of days ago in a post about pictures and inspiration.

The hero of the story (who is indeed misplaced) is Alex, a Michigan State University student who doesn't know his family came from Awarshawa. He's rich, orphaned and aimless, but a good kid. All he knows is that his crazy Aunt Floria (or Flavia, if I really want to get referential) gave him a ring when she died and told him to be sure to wear it when he goes and jumps in a lake. The ring can create a magic passage between worlds out of reflective surfaces, .i.e. water, but Alex doesn't know that. (NOTE ALSO: Alex has heard of Awarshawa -- but he thinks his aunt was writing a fantasy novel and all her stories and maps and things she showed him were "world building.")

So the story begins with Alex bumping into his English professor, a burnt out cynic everybody calls Old Thorny. It's the end of the semester, and Thorny has just flunked him. Thorny is drunk, and the reason he is drunk turns out to be that Alex' paper upset him. Alex, being a smartass, wrote a paper on some modern lit based on his aunt's theories, which were all very swashbucklery and romantic. Thorny couldn't help but LOVE that paper, even if he's really angry because he's too cynical to believe in it. He doesn't believe in anything, even his own lectures, which he considers to be vaudeville performances -- two shows a day, every day for his whole life until he doesn't even know what he's saying any more.

In the course of the conversation, Alex tells him about the aunt and the ring. And he also decides to take the professor home -- and as they cross a bridge, Thorny takes it into his head (inspired by the story about the aunt) that jumping in the muddy river would be a good idea. He dashes drunkenly down to the river's edge, and Alex chases, grabs, and then the professor falls in and takes Alex with him.

And they come up in a very different river in Awarshawa.

What happens next, and how fast it happens is what I'm working on.

Three issues are foremost:

1.) I am not a great fan of excessive world building. I mean, I do like to read the heavy tomes now and then -- either science fiction, or regional or historical fiction -- which spend a lot of time on place and history and atmosphere. And I even like some books which combine styles. Many hard-boiled masters give us exposition and action together, for instance. But it's still just a style, and not the only style of story you can us to tell a story.

And it's not the right style for this. I want this to be like The Saint -- all bump and go, where the emphasis is on character and story, and the exposition focuses on that too, and the world is furnished only as far as it needs to be. (And the audience doesn't have to keep track of a ton of made up stuff. Only that which relates to the story. Which, when you get to the manor house mystery side of this genre, can be more than enough to keep track of.)

2.) The main character is thrown into chaos. How to sort out his immediate sensations and confusion from his expectations? I mean, the audience has the benefit of my external description. Heck, if I wanted to, I could withdraw and describe the scene from outside the river. Two figures erupting out of nowhere. If I had a character on the shore which I wanted to introduce at that moment, that could be a great option, but I need to stick with Alex. I also need to keep away from the "confused character thrown into another world" cliches.

3.) I need to tell the story in the right tone. That is, aside from juggling information and the character's reactions, I need to establish the kind of story it is. And this one will help with the others:

The first key is to realize that exposition can be on a Need-To-Know basis -- both for the character and the audience.

So, first I made use of that first chapter. Before things get confusing, I set it up with the conversation about the Aunt and the paper. And when Alex reaches to stop Thorny from falling into the river, he is mesmerized for a moment by the reflections in the water, and the audience is more prepared for magic. After that, information comes with the story events.

Oh, and there is a fourth problem:

When I first thought about this scene, I had them swim to shore and...oh dear. I knew one thing I did NOT want to do is have them stand around thinking, "Hey, this isn't Michigan. Where am I? What am I doing?" That is boring. A character who is paralyzed with confusion and unable to do anything about his situation is the most boring thing on earth.

So the next rule is; before the character even knows he is confused, give him something urgent to do. Let the Big Scary Issue of him being in a strange world be the secondary issue of the moment. He needs a bigger, scarier, but much more understandable issue to take his mind off he imponderables.

And that's where the need for telling the story in the right tone comes in handy. This needs the feel of an old movie serial.

As a solution I give you Lillian Gish!

Unfortunately, they disabled embedding on this clip from WAY DOWN EAST (1920), in which Lillian Gish nearly killed herself (and did permanent nerve damage to one hand) for the sake of movie history. For those who don't want to pause to watch a one minute silent movie clip -- she is unconscious on an ice floe and Richard Barthelmes hops across the ice just in time to save her from going over a waterfall. (Real waterfall, real ice, real movie legend -- not a stand in or dummy.)

I'm not using an ice floe in my story (although I'm not ruling it out). Icy cold weather would create more complications than I want. But the waterfall? Now that's comedy! ... er, I mean, that's a proper complication for exciting serial melodrama. There's no mistaking the kind of story we're in. (Which was foreshadowed in the first chapter with Alex's term paper -- but now is fully demonstrated, so there is no need to explain.)

Alex knows he's in a river. Current is strong, and even though he is confused about all the wrong signals around him -- clean water, colder, stronger current, rocky shore -- he knows he has to get Thorny out of the water. And furthermore, the sound and the rising mist a little further along is clearly a waterfall. He doesn't have time to ponder what a waterfall is doing on the Red Cedar River -- maybe some idle thoughts, but right now he has to get them BOTH out of that current.

So he has one problem -- getting Thorny out of the river -- which compounds because the river is more treacherous than he expected.

That's about the right number of problems all at one time. They are related and therefore not confusing. One leads to the other. Furthermore, the bigger problem -- the "where the heck are we?" problem -- doesn't go away. It just lurks for later. It is a promise of more to come. When we're ready. When it will be interesting.

Of course, once I get Alex and Thorny out of the river, they still are stuck on the shore scratching their heads. But it is a good time for Alex, as he flops onto the rocky beach, to realize that this has something to do with the ring. He's beyond the blithering with shock stage, and thinking logically.

Which is devoutly to be wished. Unless you are looking at a character from the outside, maybe someone who does a really good Cary Grant impression, blithering with shock isn't very interesting. NOTE: I could have Thorny blithering with shock at this moment, because he's a secondary character, but he's still drunk. Which is also a wonderful buffer between me and dullsville.

So now we have our heroes on the shore, scratching their heads but not blithering, and it's time to start the story. Because at this point, there isn't a story. Yes, we have a character in a setting with a problem, but the only problem, is "okay, how do we get back?" Which is a boring problem, and not a story. Especially since they got there through magic and no real effort of their own.

The actual problem of the story -- the one set up in the first chapter -- is that Alex is a misplaced hero, and Thorny is a discouraged romantic. THAT'S the story that has to begin. At this point, there are a million options. You could even say that in some ways, their problem has been solved by what happened here in the second chapter. Alex is no longer misplaced.

But that story doesn't begin until something happens. And that's where I was last night, dithering (but not blithering) over which thing should happen next, and finding myself with a surplus of complications to pile on Alex and Thorny, and realizing I need to space them out -- but not space them out too much.

Which is what I'll talk about tomorrow, as I consider the Passive Hero vs. the Proactive Hero.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Thanks for sharing this, Camille! Sometimes I get almost overwhelmed by the number of different directions that a story can go in. And I SO agree with you on paralyzed character syndrome--as a reader, I've thrown so many books aside for that very reason.

The Daring Novelist said...

Tell me about it!

And this one is worse, because I really am "pantsing" the story. It's a set up story to a series, but it really can go anywhere.

Which is fun, but oh, my, there are so many options.