Where to put that plot?

I may add this as an occasional blog feature: short comments on style or other matters. Here’s a craft one I’ve thought about often–I always question the use of the word suddenly. Sometimes it’s perfect, but usually it’s unnecessary, and the word drains the surprise from whatever is about to occur, because it warns the reader. So I’d recommend being aware of it and using it only when nothing else will do.

Admittedly, however, I once told this prejudice to an editor, who laughed and said, “Writers!” So my opinion isn’t universally shared. I leave it to you.

Do you like this addition?

And for those of you who’ll be in the New York City area: I’ll be signing books from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on Saturday, September 29th, at the Chappaqua Book Festival, where there may be many authors you love. I’ll have plenty of time to chat. Here’s a link to the event: http://www.ccbfestival.org/.

On July 18, 2018, Laura R wrote, I have a fanfiction that, while not my current WIP, is on the back burner to be turned into an original story. I agree that we can see what is the essential part of the story. If the essential part relies on something from the original author’s work, can that “something” be changed? For example, my fanfiction is based on a long, ongoing guild roleplay from World of Warcraft. One of game’s villains was the Lich King in the frozen Northlands. I still plan on keeping the undead, but I changed their location to a dessert (once actually a sea bay) and their leader to a dracolich that’s seeking to gain a corporeal, draconic form again. Many of the characters’ “classes” (what their attacks and weapon and armor types are based on) are really basic to fantasy settings, so I can drop the game-based specific attacks (or attack names) and use my own.

And then there’s your actual plot. If you change the setting, does your plot have to change? Does it become shorter because you no longer have to deal with part of the author’s original world? Does it become longer because you have created your own world?

In my reply, I said that I’d address the setting part of Laura R’s question.

Recently, I received a group email from my MFA alums, alerting people to an adjunct job opening at a university in New York City, teaching a class about place in literature, and the exploration was to be conducted through original student writing.

I don’t have time to take on a college-level class so I didn’t apply. From teaching one once, I learned that I spent four hours a week in the classroom and thirty more preparing and going over student work. Even my summer workshop for kids, which lasts only six weeks and is a labor of love, devours a surprising amount of time. Regardless, however, I thought about how I would teach such a class.

And I realized right away that fantasy, because of world-building, focuses more on place (setting) than other genres. I don’t mean setting isn’t always important, and isn’t sometimes essential–think of mystery series that are set in certain cities or parts of the world in which location becomes almost a character.

But for fantasy, consider The Wizard of Oz! Though I’ve read the book, I know the movie better, so that’s what I’m thinking of (and I just refreshed my memory with the plot summary on Wikipedia). What would be left without Oz and, by contrast, the colorless version of Kansas?

Without Oz or Kansas, we could have a girl who doesn’t appreciate her life. We could blow up that life in a way that doesn’t involve a twister, and we could have her travel somewhere and feel surprisingly homesick, so that the rest of the adventure is an attempt, that succeeds in the end, to get home. Of course, there’s also Toto, who sets everything in motion by biting Almira Gulch and being in danger of being euthanized, so we can imagine a different inciting incident involving a pet.

That’s bare bones. There’s much more.

Dorothy is deluded about herself (that she didn’t like her life at home), and so are other characters: the lion, who wrongly thinks he’s cowardly, the tin man, who wrongly thinks he’s unfeeling, and the straw man, who wrongly thinks he’s stupid–in a universe (setting) that accommodates these sorts of creatures. Not to mention the people of Emerald City (setting), who are deceived by their glasses into thinking that everything is green!

So we’d have to include fantastical creatures in our world, although not necessarily the same kinds, and self-delusion, since ridding the characters of them is part of the plot.

There’s the wizard himself, who deludes everyone but isn’t deluded himself. We’d need a revered but remote charismatic figure, whose unmasking figures into the story.

Then we have the good and evil witches and the enslaved flying monkeys, who are all part of this world (setting). For the new plot, they don’t have to be witches, but we need figures who represent good and evil, and we need minions of evil. The villain has to try to do our MC in, and our symbol of virtue has to save her, because, alas, Dorothy doesn’t get her own self out of Oz–or really do much to better her situation, although she is brave when she throws water on the scarecrow and accidentally melts the witch. I would say for that one, we want in our plot a villain with a secret and weird Achilles’ heel.

For all the time I’ve watched The Wizard of Oz, I’ve never noticed that the threat of Toto being put to sleep is never resolved. So if we’re following The Wizard of Oz we have to leave a major plot thread hanging!

I have to conclude, though I went into this exploration unsure, that plot–a detailed, step-by-step plot–at least in the case of The Wizard of Oz–is organically interwoven with setting.

The charm for me in discovering both my plot and my setting, is the way the two, plus character, act on the others. The setting that we create suggests directions for our story, and our plot suggests the setting that will best accommodate it.

Having said that, however, we could take the bare-bones plot that I described near the beginning of the post and create a new setting for it and follow the twists and turns that the new setting takes us to. Fairy tales, fables, and myths, with their simple story lines, can be plunked into lots of settings. Same for any plot archetype.

As for whether our new plot will be shorter or longer than its prototype–could be either one, depending on what we do and the complexity of the setting we create.

One more thing. This is on the subject of converting fanfiction into original work. I’m not an attorney or an expert in copyright, so I’d use a practical rule of thumb. Turn the tables and imagine that we wrote the work that someone else is basing a new story on. If we feel infringed–if we recognize our own creation in the new fiction and feel that our story has been stolen–then the writer hasn’t gone far enough to make the work her own. Naturally, if the story we’re basing our new plot on is already in the public domain, we’re home free. We want to be original because of course we do, but we don’t have to worry about how much of the earlier elements we’re using.

Here are three prompts:

∙ You probably saw this coming: Use as much as you possibly can of the detailed Wizard of Oz plot summary in a setting of your own devising–could be a fairy-tale kingdom, some part of the contemporary world, a dystopian future, an actual period in the past, or anything else.

∙ Use as much as you can of The Wizard of Oz plot in a masked ball.

∙ Pick a traditional story–fairy tale, myth, fable, tall tale–and put it in a high-tech setting. Let the setting influence what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I’ll take any short comments on style that you want to share, any day! I like it.

    I’m sorry, this is a ridiculously long comment, but I need some advice regarding antagonists in my current story. The book I’m working on right now is kind of grand-scale; there are four main characters and lots of supporting characters because it takes place in an academy in a fictional kingdom. The overall villain is an evil lord; but my MCs’ fellow students offer plenty of opportunities for more immediate foes. My question is, how many antagonists do you think is reasonable? How many do you think are too many? The only examples I can think of include one, but I’m wondering if more can work. I have three, of course! I feel like that’s at least one too many, but I can’t decide who to cut, or if I should just keep them all.

    Anyone mind sharing some opinions?
    My academy is comprised half of nobles’ kids, and half of local peasant kids; of my main characters, A and B are lord’s sons and C and D are peasants.
    So far, for main antagonists, I have…
    ~ One thane’s son (politically, thanes are just below lords), who hates lords’ kids because he’s jealous of their higher social standing, especially A’s. A and B also struck a bad cord with him for defending a peasant kid from him on the first day, so they kind of have the classic mutual-hatred-rivalry going on.
    ~ One lord’s daughter who feels superior to everyone and has a more catty, subtle form of bullying; she particularly hates peasants and has a knack for finding people’s insecurities and exploiting them (especially C’s, because he has lots of insecurities, and she is his partner in one class). She is roommate with D and is always trying to be better at everything than her. She doesn’t yet have reason to bother A and B much.
    ~ One peasant kid who is longtime friends with D, but hates the other three. He’s had a bad childhood, so he’s angsty and negative and takes out his anger and loathing on others. He is possessive of D since she is his only friend, so he especially hates A, B, and C.

    (There are also, of course, plenty of other kids and adults that may be supportive or antagonistic on any given day, but that’s different)

    Too many? If so, who should I cut? I’ll take any suggestions, because I really can’t decide.

    • One good thing, your antagonists all sound really unique! If you can tie together the conflicts caused by all three without making them too much alike, which it sounds like you are, then it’s perfect. Sounds like an interesting story!

    • This sounds very interesting, and like something I would enjoy reading. From what you’ve said, I don’t think there’s to much, but I think it would be important to remember to balance everything and try to remember why characters are doing what they’re doing.

    • Look at Harry Potter. You’ve got Voldemort and his adult supporters, but inside school you’ve got Draco Malfoy and his two cronies, plus various other students who are sometimes antagonistic.

      Since you have four main characters, it makes sense to me to have multiple antagonists as well. I like that you have one antagonist at each social level, so there’s not one being vilified more than the others.

      • Okay, thanks, everyone!

        I am loving this story, but it is just so much different than anything I’ve done before that I keep second-guessing myself! Sometimes you just need some opinions to make sure you’re on the right track. 🙂 Have I ever mentioned how much I appreciate this blog?

  2. Zoe/TheSixthHobbit says:

    Reading this blog post was kind of interesting to me because just last night, in my novel writing class, my professor told us, “If you can pick up your story and put it in a whole different setting without having to change it, it’s not a good story.” Just thought I’d share that. Great post, Gail!

  3. Reading this helped me recognize a possible way I can solve the problem I’m having to. I want to write a story based off of a fairy tale, but it’s already been turned into a very popular movie that only came out 4-5 years ago. The movie actually inspired me to use the fairy tale, but I’m not sure how to do it in a way that will make people think it’s the same exact thing, or that it’s so similar watching the movie would be the same experience. However, I don’t want to stray to far away from what inspired me. Any advice on how to write an original story that still has the elements I liked of the movie/original fairy tale?

    • One of the nice things about fairy tales is that they have elements that most people will recognize (glass slipper, poison apple), and if you have those landmarks, you can take the story pretty much anywhere you want.

    • One thing I’ve heard of with this (and it may have been somewhere on this blog but may have been from another one) is that you should figure out what made the movie (or whatever story) so memorable to you and try to work from there. Did you enjoy the movie’s highly defined magic system and want to make your own? Did you enjoy the mystery and can develop your own mystery? I tend to take inspiration from books and movies and want to emulate them, but we don’t want to copy the story (which I’ve been guilty of). So what about the movie version inspired you to use this fairy tale? Did it get you interested in the fairy tale, or was it more specifically this movie version of the fairy tale? Are there elements from the movie that you can apply to a different fairy tale? Or if the interest is the fairy tale itself, can you put it in a different setting or make it a different genre (like mystery versus romance)? Good luck!

    • Almost all of the Discworld characters, but especially Sam Vimes (he starts out fairly young, but by the later books he becomes a middle-aged, hardboiled detective type), Granny Weatherwax, and Death.

    • It’s probably too late, but I liked how one of the main characters of the middle-grade book “Enchanted Glass” by Diana Wynne Jones was a middle-aged man. It’s a book for younger kids, and the other main character is a kid, but it still represented an older character in a relatable way.

  4. It’s a bit lesser known, but how about Kale from `Caught in Crystal’ by Patricia Wrede? Kale is a middle-aged mother whose adventurous past catches up to her at the beginning of the book.

  5. Here’s a question: how do you balance “showing” with being too subtle? I always hear things like “don’t name emotions” and “trust that your readers will figure it out”. But then I get comments on my stories saying that I implied too much. For instance, I have a girl climbing a cliff, and feedback (from experienced writers) was that I only implied that she might fall instead of stating the danger. In another scene, the main character says something like “her sister was gone across the sea.” A beta-reader commented that she doesn’t know how my MC feels about this. I assumed that this was already a sad thought so I didn’t need to say so.
    Anyway, I’m working with their advice, but I was curious what you do to balance showing (especially emotion) with being too subtle/unclear?

    • With the “her sister was gone across the sea.” example, I think it might be helpful to write in what she does when she thinks about it. If she looks down at her hands, readers might realize she’s sad. You could also do something along the lines of “Her sister was gone across the sea. I worried if she would ever come back. What if she didn’t?
      If a character is thinking, they’re likely to think about things they wouldn’t say, which can help with there inner thoughts and how they really feel. She won’t likely won’t think “I’m sad,” but may thing about sad things.

    • I saw an advice post on Pinterest that says “show emotion, tell feeling”, with some more elaboration. (Here’s the post: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/457959855847579484/) While I think that post is a little fuzzy about the difference between feelings and emotions, my interpretation is this: show the emotions/feelings that are significant to your character and unique to them, and tell the “basic” emotions/feelings that either aren’t extremely significant, or are so common that everybody can automatically relate without waxing poetic about it. For example, when it comes to climbing a cliff and potentially falling to their deaths, most people would probably be terrified. You can tell instead of show because given the situation, your reader can probably guess what she feels, and probably feels the same themselves. Correct me if I’m wrong, I’m guessing that her fear and/or the danger of falling doesn’t have lasting consequences on the plot or character development of the overarching story; it’s just there to provide tension for this specific scene. So while it’s always good to let readers know what’s going on with your character, this isn’t particularly “significant”.

      A sister going across the sea, however, is probably an experience/emotion that’s unique to your character, and thus it might be worth it to show a little more of what she’s feeling instead of letting the reader figure it out. Because though I can imagine a variety of emotions she might be feeling, I’ve never actually experienced anything like that, so the emotions I’m imagining might not be correct. Also, this sounds like pretty deep character development that will impact the whole story, so it’s worth it to spend some extra time showing her emotions in detail.

      But in addition to finding the balance between subtlety and clarity, I think you also have to prioritize which one you value in any particular situation. For information that’s integral for the part, I would definitely go with clarity. But if it’s not particularly pertinent information, and the reader won’t be too confused if they don’t get it, you can try to be more subtle and artistic in your descriptions. I disliked Earnest Hemmingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” because I couldn’t figure out what was going on (though my English teacher thought it was a brilliant piece of “iceberg” writing, so to each their own), whereas I absolutely adore Terry Pratchett’s many subtle but brilliant phrases in his books because they’re fairly low-stakes; if I figure it out, I’m delighted by his wit, but if I can’t, I’m not completely confused either, since they’re mainly just jokes or description, not important information.

  6. Happy birthday, Mrs. Levine!

    And for Christie V Powell: showing physical manifestations of emotion, such as shaking hands, clenched teeth, or changes in breathing are great ways to show how a character is feeling, rather than saying “she was angry” or “she felt sad.” Subtlety
    You can ‘show’ in times of danger or intense emotion, but I think it’s okay to mix in some ‘telling’ as well.
    Let’s try this with the girl climbing the cliff:
    “Her palms were slippery with sweat. Fear surged through her as she realized that if they got too sweaty she wouldn’t be able to keep her grip on the rocks. She would fall into the swirling rapids below…’no! Don’t think about that! Keep going… don’t look down… don’t panic…” She urged herself.
    This is just my two cents, but I hope I was able to help!

  7. One of the best ways to learn about showing and telling (figuring out what works and what really doesn’t), is to read books! I am currently reading Little Women alongside Jurassic Park, and I’ve been enjoying studying the different techniques and writing styles. Recommended!

  8. I have a character who is ten years old and his family are abusive and racist. He’s always had a rebellious streak, and I imagine he must have had at least an inkling that his parents were in the wrong. Still, when he ends up at this academy where he has a chance to think for himself, I’m struggling with figuring out how long it should take for his views to change. He makes a friend that will be a good influence, but still, this is what he’s been taught from birth; surely unlearning things will not happen over night, right?

    How long do you suppose it would take to realize that everything your parents ever taught you is wrong? Any ideas about what would help change your mind?

    • Like you said, I don’t think that kind of thing happens all at once- or even completely. And to complicate things, probably not everything his parents ever taught him is COMPLETELY wrong…if he’s only 10, he could be struggling with this for years. Heck, I’m 50, and I STILL struggle with prejudices I picked up years ago, despite having parents who are right about a .lot of things. 🙂

      I suspect a lot will depend on how many “different” people he gets to know.

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