Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Story Notes: Misplaced Hero 23 - My Big Mistake

Just when I said I was getting into the "vision" of the serial and no longer wanted to do the book version much differently, I finally slammed face first against a scene that actually does require a longer version.

From the reader's perspective, you might say yesterday's ep was a weak episode.  It might be confusing, or it might be fine.  It might even be funny and you are eager for more.

But from a writer's perspective, it's a fail.  It's recoverable, but it's still a mistake. And the mistake didn't actually happen in that episode.   It happened several episodes earlier, when I let the imaginary readers in my head dictate the pace.

Imaginary readers are, as P. G. Wodehouse put it: "...an impatient race. They chafe at scenic rhapsodies and want to get on to the rough stuff."

So I put off this investigation scene, until I got to a point where I had to put it in, and then squeeze it in as small as possible: I scribbled and worked and I polished the hell out of that episode to try to make it both interesting and comprehensible in the given length requirements.  And I'm not sure I succeeded at anything more than a dancing bear.  (That is, it doesn't dance well, but we're amazed it dances at all.)

And if I were to work on it steadily for, oh, another month or so, I might even get all the stuff into it that I need.  Then it could be like poetry -- perfectly timed and distilled.

But it wouldn't be better than it would if it were simply longer.  Maybe broken into several episodes. However, now the momentum toward action in the kitchen has started and there isn't room for a long digression.

Investigation scenes do two things: They give information and they fill in character.  Both of these things are time consuming.  They need elbow room.  In a mystery novel, such a scene could take many chapters, and they would be good and interesting chapters.

And I screwed up by squeezing out the very things that made this scene important.

This is the perennial problem of "live" writing: 20-20 hindsight doesn't do you much good.  Other than as, you know, a learning experience.

So let's take a closer look at what I learned.  (If you haven't been following the story, this will probably be clear enough.  Or you could just look at Episode 23 -- it would probably be no more confusing than it is for those following the story.)

What's Missing?

...From the scene itself? Subtext and motivation, mainly.

For instance, why does Rozinshura trust Lady Featherdale?  Is it even clear that he does trust her and doesn't trust relevant others? Or does it just seem like one of those conveniences of fast-paced fiction that he decides to let her have a look at Thorny, when he's hiding the guy from everybody else?

I think I did manage at least the subtext for that; she is a fellow pragmatist.  She thinks like he does.  And so he is confident that if she betrays him -- if she turns out to be the master spy of all -- she will at least do it for a reason he can respect.

To really lay the groundwork, though, I would need more time for interaction with her and with others.  The bit where he calls her on substituting cheap brandy for the good stuff could have been fleshed out a bit more -- a little more banter, a little more sparking of connections.

The place I failed completely was setting up the other reason he trusts her: he has to trust somebody.  He has come to a dead end in terms of figuring out who Thorny is. I suppose an attentive reader might come to the same conclusion, just via intuition, but I did not set it up.

The reason I didn't set it up is because the scenes in which we see him come to a dead end don't go anywhere in and of themselves.  As he observes at the beginning of the episode: Those who know the least say the most.

In a book, I could use those "nothing" scenes to introduce the main scene -- because in a book the reader is not stuck waiting at the end of those scenes.  They get to move on to the climax of the sequence.  The scenes could still be fun, and reveal character and context, but they don't have to have their own point.  Unlike chapters, episodes in a serial must have a point.

But what's really missing is time for Rozinshura to think.  With investigations, you have to have space for thinking -- thinking is trajectory.  It's where things are going within the scene.  You can replace internal thought with banter -- which can be a fun way to reveal what's going on under the surface of the characters -- but that takes even more space than thoughts do.

When you're squeezed for space, you end up doing what the Hollywood folk call "On the nose" dialog and prose.  Characters can't make natural, and informative, digressions -- they have to give up the information at once.  There is no room for characters to feel each other out.  They have to read each other's minds.  And not in a fun way. (I could have had more fun with how Lady Featherdale sees through Rozinshura's questions, but there wasn't room to do more than a hint.)

And even though Rozinshura might ask a particular question for reasons of his own, it comes off sounding like he's just asking the questions the story needs him to ask. I had to leave out his agenda.

I think this episode would have been better broken into two.

The first episode would have more banter, and the characters getting comfortable together, and telling the colorul story of their escape and saving the ambassador, and the heroic Miss Vilthrop. And all the while Rozinshura gains their trust.  That episode would end with him zeroing in on what he really wants to know about: Winslow Argoss.

Then next episode could concentrate on the ins and outs of why Argoss could be Thorny, and we could see where Rozinshura is headed with this, and the stakes. And I could make something of the ironic little moment when Alex delivers the blootchkes while Rozinshura is pondering whether this Emmett could be the mysterious invisible Alex.

Because I have a good pay off for that later.  The pay off still works without it, but it would work better with it.

This is one of the reasons some writers are afraid of writing a serial.  They're afraid of making a mistake that will keep them from writing the story it's supposed to be.

But it's not an unrecoverable error.  It's a weak episode, but that's the nature of pulp.

Recoverable Errors

I have another scene coming up -- when Rozinshura finally feels ready to question Pookiterin -- which I'll think long and hard before editing it too tightly.  I will consider splitting it into two episodes, or just writing longer than the set limit.

I'll also consider pulling out some aspects of the scene to develop into their own scenes. This is what I was talking about in the "Joys of Imperfection" post -- turning a mistake into an opportunity, either in a new story, or within the existing one.  For instance, there is an excellent opportunity coming up for Rozinshura to pause and think, and maybe even conspire with Lady Featherdale and/or Evans.

(I may not include Evans with the conspiring, though -- Niko really needs more help in the kitchen, and Evans is the obvious choice there.)

But as I learned here, a mistake can cause you to betray the story as well as provide you with more opportunities to go deeper.

Which brings us to the other thing that's missing:

The Voice of the Story

I can fix the voice in the book version:  The whole sequence inside the inn could easily become something more elaborate, like a French Comedy of Errors ... because there are so many different characters with so many different needs and problems here.  And I don't need to change the story to do that.  I just have to let some pruned stems blossom.

But that Comedy of Errors aspect is partly why I wanted to do this as a serial in the first place.  I don't want to leave it for the book version. I want to get it into the serial itself.  When I tried to rush the straight-line plot through, I cut off some options to spend more time on the trivia that make this story worth writing, and I'm sorry about that.

I know it's counter-intuitive, but I think it is a mistake in a serial to sacrifice the "now" for the "later."  We're so focused on cliff-hangers that I think we forget:

The biggest cliffhanger of all is for the reader to have such a good time that they want to do it again.

That's the concept of a comic strip.  That's the concept of a blog.  It's the concept of every other serialized form out there. It's fine for a book to tease the reader through to the ending, because that ending is right there for the reader to get to.

A serial needs to be about the journey.  About the "now."

And that's a different skill, which I am learning.  I may not be able to do everything I want yet, but I do promise not to sacrifice character opportunities purely to move the story along in future.

(But for those who are waiting for the swashing of bucklers, you'll get a little of that on Thursday....)

I have another post half-written about what "voice" is in a story, and how I'm developing it here. I was saving it for fall, when I get back to regular blogging.   However, given that the issue has pushed itself to the forefront, I may talk about it sooner.

In the meantime, I'll be talking about rewriting an old book blurb tomorrow -- something I hope to turn into a series, as I look at specific problems with specific oddball books.

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This post made me smile because yesterday I wrote a scene and put a note to the side--divide scene into two parts. It's a scene where a suspect gives info about another suspect...and this revelation really just needs to be put off.

I'm with you....my imaginary readers always need information immediately! My inner editor fixes it later on. :)

The Daring Novelist said...

And that's the great thing about writing a regular book: you can fix it!

A live serial means you have to learn for next time, and figure out how to adapt the rest of the story to match.