Thursday, January 27, 2011

Plot Regurgitation: Some Notes On Pacing

First I'd like to apologize for such a late post. Currently Comcast has been dragging their feet in fixing our apartment's internet connection, so I've started writing this at work.

That aside, a recent conversation with a coworker about his book brought up an issue I've noticed before in workshops I've attended. Heck, I openly admit that I have been guilty of doing this, myself.

So you've created this great character with a complex and intriguing background, or this well thought out history or mythology to the world you've made up. Basically, in other words, you've done your pre-writing homework. Now you actually need to write the story. You may think: "Oh, well I need to immerse my reader into the world by detailing the political or religious history so they will understand the feelings and context this world is in!" or: "I need to detail everything that has happened up to this point in the plot in exposition and then I can start the current story!" or even: "I've introduced this character, now I must tell his entire back story for the reader to fully understand him!".


I remember the time when my previous boyfriend and I had borrowed a friend's copy of M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water. We didn't get past the first two minutes of it because we felt the prologue alone told us the entire rest of the movie, and there was no point in watching the remaining 118 minutes.

See what I mean? Sometimes introducing the world's mythology at the beginning of the story can be effective, but notice how I use the world "introduce" in this statement. What most often happens when you announce every detail of background for a plot point or a character, whatever you write will more than likely read like the following:
A. A book synopsis
B. A role-playing game character profile
C. A text book

Are any of those stories or novels? Only partially, and I will tell you why. A book should not be a departure and an arrival, it is a journey.

No! Not that kind of journey!
 The reader does not want to know everything up front because it deprives him or her the joy of discovering it on the way. You will actually find that by regurgitating the why and what of a person, place, or thing before the reader has even had a chance to digest the fact that a story has begun at all, you will be limited in writing beyond it and in reaching out to your readers because like in Lady in the Water, learning the "how" is no longer as interesting.

So what about the brilliant ideas you came up with? Should you just hide them in a drawer for only the code-breaking metaphor hounds to find out? Not quite. While you don't want to give away the mystery as quickly as a drunk cheerleader on prom night, you probably won't want it as cryptic and impenetrable as a Virginia Woolf novel. Relax, take a deep breath, and take a look at some of these strategies you can use to make your plot flow a little more naturally:

-Find opportunities to provoke conversation or memories in the characters involved. These memories, comments, or asides can be revealed by anything from an off-hand comment another character makes, to the appearance of a painting of some historical event.

-Dreams are a powerful thing, they don't necessarily have to be a reliving of an event, but could also be a symbolic reflection of previous choices.

-Different characters often have differing opinions on everything. Create arguments, actions, and reactions to whatever is in question. Does this character have a reputation of being a liar and a theif? How do the people around him react to his presence? Was there a war five years ago between bordering countries? Build your environment around the situation with consideration to how your history shaped the place and people.

- Does your short story sound like a plot synopsis before the final scene? Either break it up throughout the scene, or turn it into the novel it wants to be by making each notable past event a scene in the book.

-Put yourself in the mind of whoever has the point of view. Do they know every detail of what preceded this moment? Probably not. Have them discover it along the way.

-Still want to introduce the past at the beginning? You still can, but like I said, introduce it. Give the bare bones, or even tell the commonly known version and use the following story to either reveal how there is either much more to it, or how it may be covering up what really happened.

There are certainly more ways to reveal a background, and you will probably discover them by slowing down and telling the story as it happens. I have said this before, and I will continue to say this in pretty much every post: pay attention to your story. If you become a reader of your writing, you will find yourself enjoying the journey as much as they are.

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