Before the post, this news: On Saturday, February 21st at 1:00 PM, there will be a virtual launch party for Writer to Writer, which will run for an hour on Woozworld. HarperCollins has set this up and I’ve never done it before, but I’ll be there answering questions. I’m a newbie, so I don’t know what it will be like. There’s an avatar who sort of looks like me in a funhouse mirror kind of way (minus the wrinkles). It may be a bit young for many of you, but if you’re interested in ways that publishers promote books these days, this will be an example. I’m hoping that we can interact a bit and meet in this strange way. I’ll post details about how you can participate if you’re interested as soon as I get them, which may be between this post and the next, so stay tuned.
On August 19, 2014, Kenzi Anne wrote, Does anybody else have issues where their writing doesn’t flow–it comes out choppy and episodic? I want my stories’ events to lead into each other, like a domino effect where each event affects the next (like real life), which is much more fun to read and makes the story have a flow to it (in my opinion), but I just have THE HARDEST TIME IN THE WORLD with it! How do you all work with that?
The trouble may come from related problems with plot and character, which have to mesh. If they don’t, the reader has a bumpy ride. Suppose our MC, Vincia, has run away from her menial job in the laundry room of the king’s castle, where the chief laundress is a bully and where the lye that Vincia has to use to make the soap causes her hands to crack and bleed. And suppose we have in mind a series of plot points:
• Vincia overhears the king’s evil minister planning to assassinate the queen.
• Vincia’s brother has been captured by a brigand. She knows he’s in danger because her magic marble has turned a muddy brown.
• An injured troll lies along the road that leads from the castle, the road Vincia travels.
• Enemy forces allied with the evil minister are mustering at the border.
• In the battle that comes, Vincia discovers in herself unexpected sword-wielding skills.
We have an ending in mind: Vincia replaces the evil minister and becomes the closest adviser to the king and queen. Her brother becomes the emperor’s adviser in the neighboring kingdom. Peace reigns.
The trouble is that we don’t know Vincia’s character and what she wants, besides quitting the laundry. And if we don’t know, she’s just a chess piece that we move from event to event, and of course the action feels episodic, so we have to craft a personality for her in order to create continuity.
We cast our eyes over our plot points and look for a possible person to go with them. If we make a Mary Sue out of Vincia, then her overall goal will be to save the kingdom. She’ll naturally want to thwart the evil minister, save her brother, defeat the enemy, and her amazing fencing will come as no surprise to us or our readers. The story will still feel episodic because Vincia won’t be real.
But there are other possibilities. Here are a few:
• Vincia can be so downtrodden by her laundry experience that she doesn’t think she can help the queen. She hears the plotting, feels bad, but continues with her escape.
• Vincia and her brother don’t get along. She thinks he’s an obnoxious know-it-all and a stint in captivity will do him good. Besides, the very word brigand tingles with romance for her. She’s intrigued rather than outraged.
• Vincia shares the common revulsion for trolls. She doesn’t even look closely enough at this one to realize he’s wounded. Instead, she detours as far as she can from him and keeps going.
• Vincia isn’t sure which side in the upcoming battle has her sympathy. After all, the chief laundress is a loyal subject of the king and queen.
• Vincia hates violence. When her sword arm seems to act on its own, she exerts her will to put down the weapon.
We probably don’t want all of these. Each one makes our ending harder to achieve. But one or two will create tension, will make our readers turn pages breathlessly, and will help our story feel seamless. They’ll also bring Vincia to life.
As for what Vincia wants, there are lots of possibilities. Here are a few:
• A plot of land far from any castles, where she can herd goats in peace.
• To clear her family name. She’s a laundry wench because her mother was accused and convicted of stealing a historic and enormous diamond from the treasury. Otherwise, Vincia would be the daughter of a duchess.
• To become a skilled musician; to learn to play the lyre well enough to make her listeners feel whatever she decides they need to feel.
• She may not be aware of her deepest desire, which is to become someone who can deal with a bully (and not by becoming a bully, too).
If the reader knows what she wants or needs, he’ll measure everything that happens in terms of how it moves her closer or farther from her goal, which will give our story a sense of flow.
Continuity is most easily achieved from a single POV, whether in first person or third, but it can be done from multiple POVs or from an omniscient narrator, who jumps around from one group of characters to another. At the moment, I’m reading Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett (love it!), which is told in third-person omniscient. It’s held together by an overarching problem: One of the characters is building a glass clock, which will stop time, end history, and destroy life. The story moves here and there–scenes with the clockmaker, the monks of time, DEATH and DEATH OF RATS, the granddaughter of DEATH, the “auditor” who hired the clockmaker–but it coheres because of the overarching problem. We can do that too. If the trouble is significant enough and the events move the story back and forth from danger to relief, the reader won’t feel that anything is choppy.
I noticed a couple of mechanical things Terry Pratchett does to sustain the continuity. Scene switches are separated by the italicized word Tick, which reminds the reader what’s at stake. And Pratchett ends one particular scene with the question: Who is this boy? The next scene begins with Who is this girl? And I shake my head in admiration.
Here are four prompts based on Vincia and her story:
• List three more possible over-arching goals for Vincia.
• Write a beginning scene between Vincia and the bullying laundress. Next, write a scene involving the brother and the brigands, and find a way to link the two, which can be subtle (as little as a hint) or obvious.
• Continue, and bring the evil prime minister into the story, as well as the king and queen.
• Keep going, and don’t forget the troll.
Have fun, and save what you write!