Wednesday, August 22, 2012
On March 8, 2012, Lynn Weide wrote, In my novel, the same tropes/situations seem to come up all the time. For example, I have at least two instances of each of these: where the MC is listening in on someone else's conversation to learn something crucial, or where she is chased by a "bad" guy, or where a character uses incriminating language to get someone else to confess something...You get my drift. These scenes feel so important and are good ways of advancing the plot, but I was wondering how much repetition of *basic* plot elements a reader is willing to accept and/or notice. Sometimes it feels almost impossible to make every situation unique in every way. Do you have any thoughts about this?
I’m guessing, but I imagine Lynn Weide's repetitions happen in suspense stories with a mystery element. I’ve been grappling with the same problem in my mysteries, and I used the overhearing device in Beloved Elodie. In Elodie’s case she drinks a potion that enhances her senses of sight, hearing, and smell.
It’s hard to keep coming up with new ideas! For example, our hero, Mack, is in trouble. We may know Carmella is the villain and exactly what she’s plotting, but we can’t lay her plan bare or the fun will be over. Or we may not know, and we’re discovering along with Mack, and we have only the same means of investigation that he has, and they seem pitifully few. This is generally my plight; I’m in the dark along with my characters.
I’ve been watching the television series The Wire, definitely high school and above, excellent for the writing, the character development, the exploration of the effects of poverty. Anyway, the police unit the viewer cares about relies a lot on the use of wiretaps, hence the title of the series. When the detectives don’t have a wire they have to scramble for other ways to get information, and it isn't easy. The poor writer is in the same bind as the police.
In fantasy although we can’t wiretap a phone, since there probably are no phones and no wires either, we can invent an equivalent. Terry Pratchett in his Discworld series (upper elementary, I’d guess, but check with a librarian) is a genius at coming up with nontechnological equivalents of our high-tech gizmos. So that’s one approach. For instance, Mack doesn’t have to overhear a conversation. He can find out from his pal, Prunella, the telepath. If you’re not writing fantasy, you can consider other ways of getting information; for example, your main can do an online search in newspaper archives.
Whenever you are on the verge of repeating a technique you’ve used before, try what I do: switch over to notes and list ten other ways your main can find out what he needs to know. For example, you might consider who else is likely to be privy to the info or where physically the answer might be discovered. Your ideas, of course, will be shaped by the conditions established in your story. In A Tale of Two Castles Elodie has to find out who poisoned the king. To help her I used story elements I’d already set up: she grew up on a farm and she loves to act and knows all the major plays in her world. The farm acquaints her with the common poisons and the tragedies with the exotic, expensive ones. She’s familiar with the symptoms of each and how quickly the poisons take effect.
I don’t feel like a master of the mystery, having written only two, but here are some devices I’ve either used or can think of to unravel a mystery. Please feel free to post your own suggestions on the blog.
∙ We can switch points of view. One character knows a little piece of the puzzle; another knows something else. Or Carmela can do some of the talking from her POV, and we can tantalize the reader with tidbits from her.
∙ The nature of the crime itself can lead to the criminal. If it involved great physical strength or, going the other way, tinyness, some suspects will be eliminated. (Or clever Carmela may use these limits sneakily to direct the investigation away from her.)
∙ We can give Mack particular abilities that help him figure things out, tailored to the situation of the story. And we can also handicap him in some ways to heighten tension.
∙ The nature of the victim can also lead to the perp. This is the obvious question asked by detectives: Who benefits? But there are more questions. Who hates this character? What made her be a victim? In A Tale of Two Castles the king is odious, but he’s most awful for one character in particular.
∙ Physical evidence of course, which we, in our wisdom, can plant. But we don’t want to make Mack’s job too easy.
As for readers, if we do recycle our methods, some may notice the repetition, some may not. But if we notice, we’ll probably feel more confident if we can expand our repertoire.
Regardless, we can comfort ourselves that there are other virtues beyond ingenuity. If the reader cares about our characters, if the writing is well-crafted, if the action zips along, if her emotions are captured, then she is likely to forgive a little repetition.
Lynn Weide’s instances of repetition seem significant. Overhearing is in a way what we do when we get lost in a story. We overhear events we’re not party to. And overhearing’s brother is self-incrimination. People reveal themselves without meaning to and without wanting to be found out, and we overhear their inadvertent admissions.
And the chase! The stuff of a zillion nightmares, possibly rising right out of the primordial soup, when we were chased by mastodons and saber-tooth tigers, oh, my! Naturally there’s power there and plenty of force to advance a plot.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Mack’s poodle has been kidnapped while Mack was at school and his parents were at work. The house has an alarm system which was not set off. A ransom note was left on the kitchen table. Write the investigation.
∙ I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but let’s invent our own take-off on Jane Austen’s masterpiece. Elizabeth’s sister Mary (the studious, pompous one) is found murdered. This is during Mr. Collins’s visit, so you have an additional character. The killer is one of Austen’s characters, and the detective is, naturally, Elizabeth. Write the scene in which Mary is discovered and plant a clue. If you like, keep writing.
∙ Veering wildly from Little Women, Beth, home alone, hears noises. Mack, now an escaped slave on the underground railroad has taken refuge in the house, and his slave owner, improbably named Carmela, of course, is on the way. Write what happens, and if a chase ensues, write it.
Have fun, and save what you write!