Mutually Assured Destruction Avoidance

Another pre-post thingy, though this isn’t about craft. Instead, it’s a charming discovery I made in my research for my historical novel on the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Some of the fleeing Jews boarded boats for Italy, and when they got there, the city-states in the north wouldn’t let them in. The first place to reject them was Genoa, so I looked up the history of Genoa on Wikipedia, because I wanted to glimpse the harbor and the old buildings and get an idea of what was going on. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Genoa was a mercantile powerhouse, and during this period–you can look it up yourself!–the citizens invented a fabric called blue jean, which they marketed far and wide. Who knew? So then I looked jeans up in the Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that the word, which means “a twilled cotton fabric,” comes from the name of the city-state–jean derives phonetically from Genoa. The Chinese may have invented spaghetti, but the Italians can claim denim!

What application might this have for fiction, specifically fantasy? Well, if we have an object, magical or otherwise, that’s significant for our plot, we can invent a history for it that may contribute to its mystery or its allure.

Now, a reminder that I’ll be at the Chappaqua Book Festival in, unsurprisingly, Chappaqua, New York, all day this Saturday, along with other kids’ book writers you may admire. Pre-release copies of Ogre Enchanted will be on sale there and only there. I would love to see you. Here’s a link to the event:

And the real release date is October 16th, when I’ll be at Byrd’s Books in Bethel, Connecticut, for a launch talk and signing. Very exciting! Here’s a link:

On July 26, 2018, Christie V Powell wrote, I am trying to iron out the ending of my WIP, and I keep thinking of Gail’s line from “Writing Magic”– I just want to drop a bomb on all of them! If it turns out half as perfect as Ella’s ending, I’ll be happy.

I guess I’ll make a question out of that: How do you make a finale that wraps up all your different plot lines and minor characters without being too jumbled?

Melissa Mead welcomed the question: I’ll second that! Endings are my weak point, especially in novels.

Maggie R. responded with, Oh boy. I haven’t gotten to that point yet myself, so I can’t offer much advice. But I’ll try to put down some observations. In Ella Enchanted, Ella has a bunch of different problems, such as a stepfamily who hates her, and a person whom she loves but she can’t marry. All of this is solved by getting to the root of the problems: her curse. So, if you can find the root of all of the different plot lines and resolve that, it should mostly resolve the plot lines. Of course, the extras that don’t fit in with the root problem, those can be fixed real quick before the book is over, like the issue of Ella’s father is resolved in the epilogue. (Not saying that you have to have a epilogue. Just using one as an example.)

Thank you, Christie V Powell, for the compliment! And I’m with you and my earlier self that a bomb is tempting. Boom! Everything is taken care of.

Readers may be a tad annoyed.

I’m with Maggie R. in terms of the main story conflict, that resolving the underlying problem will provide the ending. And an epilogue is handy for mopping up any pesky loose ends.

An epilogue is mostly telling, so we can run through everything almost like bullet points. If the writing is smooth, the reader won’t mind that the information is being delivered economically. At that point, he’ll be satisfied; the story has delivered everything he hoped for; all that’s left is mild curiosity about the little stuff. He wants to know, but he’s fine with getting unembellished answers.

But I don’t think every plot thread has to be sewn up. Leaving some of them dangling feels like life. Whatever happened to my high school friend who was so popular and so dramatic about all her romances? I can entertain myself by wondering if she’s on her sixth spouse or never married or stuck with one for, by now, forty years or more. I loved her confidences, because my life wasn’t half as interesting as hers, about which she was uncurious. Has she found another attentive listener?

Also, if we leave a few threads hanging, we can return to them in future books. I’ve more than once regretted tying up all my loose ends so neatly. Although readers may cheer when Mandy teaches Lucinda a lesson and the crazy fairy starts curtailing her terrible gifts, I’ve been prevented from using her to create havoc in books that take place in the future of Kyrria–although recently I’ve thought of a possible way to get her back into action. We’ll see.

If we can think of a way to entwine our minor plot threads with the major one, then several can be resolved together. For example, in The Two Princesses of Bamarre one of the threads is that Bamarre is ruled by a fearful, indecisive king. When Addie comes into her own, the reader can stop worrying about the fate of the kingdom, assured that she’ll take charge. Just saying, lists can help us find the connections.

So we have three strategies:
∙ an epilogue;
∙ leaving some subplots unresolved;
∙ and uniting minor elements with major ones.

Let’s consider my darling Pride and Prejudice and its final chapter, which functions as an epilogue, and what it leaves unresolved. In the chapter we discover, for instance, that Lady Catherine de Bourgh forgives Darcy and Elizabeth, but not if her daughter ever marries. We don’t find out what happens to Darcy’s sister or Bingley’s unmarried sister. We learn that Elizabeth’s two other younger sisters become more sensible, but not about their marriages or their wealth or poverty, which are very important in Austen’s world. When I looked at the last chapter, I found myself wondering if Lydia and Wickham have children. Austen leaves a lot open for sequels, and, since she didn’t write sequels, for future authors to develop. Hmm…

Going back to Maggie R.’s advice, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what the root problem is. As I may have mentioned before, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “Rumpelstiltskin,” which is complicated for a short fairy tale. The miller’s daughter is the MC, and the thrust (not the root problem) of the tale is her survival and the safety of her child, but there are important side issues. There’s her father. Why does he claim a magical power for his daughter that she doesn’t have? And what’s up with the king? It seems to be all one to him whether he kills the damsel or marries her, since, once he marries her he stops making her change straw to gold. Why does Rumpelstiltskin want the baby? And, if he wants it, why does he give the miller’s daughter a chance to keep it? The fairy tale ignores all these questions, but if we’re taking the story seriously, we can’t.

Here’s a list of four quests as possible root problems or goals for the miller’s daughter, but I’m sure there are more:

∙ to stop being exploited by her father, the king, and Rumpelstiltskin, and to become independent and powerful enough to solve her own problems;

∙ to wrest herself and the kingdom from the grip of greed, since everyone seems out for what they can get;

∙ to care for other people, like her own baby–and possibly her father, the king, and Rumpelstiltskin;

∙ to end child abduction by gnomes.

When we pick one of the ones on my list or any others you may come up with, we start to envision an ending–or that’s how I do it. Let’s take the greed one, and let’s imagine that the kingdom is poor. Famines occur regularly. The greed is the result of deprivation. Rumpelstiltskin wants the baby so he can raise her to work in the gold mines, along with other human slaves, because food is so expensive. The king wants the miller’s daughter to make gold so he can buy luxuries from a neighboring kingdom, which isn’t afflicted by famine. The miller wants to get rid of his daughter one way or another because she’s just another mouth to feed.

The miller’s daughter, who is a smart cookie, recognizes the problem and thinks about how she might create abundance. At this point I’d know that my ending will be either her success or final failure. I’d start making lists about how to move into my story. What’s this world like, aside from the famines? What caused the latest one? How might she go about resolving it? What are the attributes that will make the job easier? Harder? My lists will be guided by the ending I’m working toward.

So the ending is baked into my thoughts from the very earliest stages.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Pick one of the unresolved threads in P&P and write a scene from the sequel.

∙ Pick one of the unresolved threads in P&P and go through the process I used above for “Rumpelstiltskin.” Describe possible quests. Pick one and envision the inevitable ending. Write lists to move into the story. Write the first scene.

∙ Pick one of the other quests I listed for “Rumpelstiltskin.” Go through the process and write the first scene.

∙ Jump ahead in “Rumpelstiltskin” or your P&P sequel and write the final scene. Then, if you like, write the rest of the story from the beginning, aiming for the ending (which can change along the way).

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Speaking of Rumplestiltskin and the many plot holes in it, one of my favorite retellings of it is
    The Rumplestiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde.
    She takes it and examines it from all points of view in a very humorous way in six different short stories. Highly recommended.

      • I seem to get a lot of rejection slips that say “I liked this, but the ending just didn’t work for me,” and I’m not sure why. Maybe I lose momentum, or something. I do find it easier to start stories than to finish them.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I don’t know if this will be helpful: I had a lot of trouble with the ending of ELLA ENCHANTED. Then a friend advised me to way over-write it, to go far too far. I did that, and the far-too-far ending was exactly right. You might try that. Write it to death, beyond overcooked. Put in everything you can think of, and then see what you’ve got.

  2. How does one have good subtext without adding drama to the conversation? You know, one character asks a deep question of another character, and the other character responds, “When I was a kid… [insert tale here]” You know, that kind of thing. How do you add subtext in a way that’s not blatantly obvious and clunky? I’ll honestly take any tips because I’m better at telling than showing.

    • I just read an article about using setting as subtext, but I’m not sure that would work for your example, so maybe give your character some strange habits. Then someone can ask why they do that, and then the question that has to do with their childhood isn’t so obviously subtext. Especially if it’s a character your MC is just getting to know.

    • If this is a main character, you can use internal thought.
      Here’s an example from my WIP:
      The Sprite hesitated. “You’re the Earthmarked princess,” he muttered.

      “It doesn’t look like an Earthmark anymore,” another man said.

      Keita winced. She had hated how much attention the scar gave her, but it sometimes proved handy. The mark meant that Earth approved of her. The scar had been blotchy, resembling the three ovals that were Earth’s symbol, but it had thinned down to a branching white line down the right side of her face. Sprites had respected her all through their journey down the river. She’d hated standing still while they bowed.
      No one was bowing now.

      Another thing that I find helps is to leave hints in previous conversations, so that when you get to the main conversation about the topic, you’ll already have some of that background.
      This is a snippet in chapter 1:
      He took a deep breath, then added, “Honestly, I’d rather be unconscious. I’ve been held prisoner too many times.”

      Keita flinched at the pain in his face. ‘I’m sorry,’ she sent him.

      ‘You shouldn’t be. You always come back for us.’

      And then later, in chapter 7, he talks more in depth about how she’s helped him when he’d been captured and how much it meant to him.

      A third tip: just knowing everything that’s going on. I have two characters who are keeping secrets right now. So I know that some of their dialogue means more than they let on, even though the MC doesn’t. On second readings, readers will get that, but in the meantime it’s just subtext that hopefully gives hints without
      being too obvious. Example:

      “You’re not scared of bears?” A asked.
      “No, of course not!” B snapped, but she didn’t come nearer.

      B shouldn’t be afraid of animals, but she’s pretending to be someone she’s not.

      • If examples help, maybe this is the kind of thing you’re looking for? It’s from my WIP. Neri’s a little “angel” girl whose parents were killed by serpent-demons. Malak’s mother was a serpent-demon, and he looks partly like her. Both of them are orphans. Up to this point, they’ve both been uncertain about whether he might kill Neri or not:

        (Neri) held up a crystal vial. “This was my mama’s. It’s good for cuts and things. I’ll bet it’ll help.”
        “Is that holy water? If it is I’ll kill you, oath or no oath.”
        “No. I think it’s some kind of oil.” She poured it into the tub, where it made a rainbow slick on the dirtied water. Malak’s nostrils flared. He exploded out of the tub.
        “It stinks like flowers! You made me smell like miserable stinking flowers!”
        “It’s lily of the valley.” Neri watched, affronted, as he rolled on the carpet, trying to rub off the scent. “I think it’s pretty.”
        “I’m not supposed to smell pretty, you treacherous little beast!”
        Neri flew over him, dropping Auren Jotham’s second-best wooly bathrobe on his head. “But I’ll bet you feel better.”
        The half-demon stopped raging. “Yes.”

  3. This isn’t writing related, but it’s affecting my ability to post here, so I’m hoping someone might have a suggestion. Something’s making my computer scroll too the right/down, and shrinks the screen when I paste anything. It makes dropdowns almost impossible to use, both here and elsewhere. It happened a few weeks ago and I thought I’d fixed it, but it’s back and i do’t remember what I did that helped. (I tried rebooting, replacing the mouse, cleaning the keyboard, updating the mouse and keyboard drivers…)

    My ex-husband was great at this stuff, but he’s long gone. Any suggestions?

    • Does it maybe have something to do with your browser (Google Chrome does weird stuff to me sometimes)? Try a different browser, and if that doesn’t work, I have no idea.

  4. I don’t know about the humor, I’m middle grade and almost none of that rang true to me.

    On a completely different topic, I’m trying to write a screenplay (I enjoy switching formats a lot) and there’s one character who has a personality very different from my own. He’s shy and indecisive, and it frustrates me that he’s not doing anything due to his tenacy to get overbeared by others. I’m trying to write a solo/I want song for him right now, and it’s not going anywhere. Any advice? He’s not the main character, (my main character is closer to my personality) but he’s a large character in a subplot. His struggle is also related to the themes of pressure and being scared to act against it.

  5. Is it too cliche to have your MC hear important information through a door? Information that they aren’t supposed to know? I can’t think of any other way to get my MC to know this stuff.

    • I don’t think it’s too cliche. The way you handle it is all that matters, so just make sure whoever’s giving your MC that information isn’t talking in a way that makes the information totally obvious. If it’s secret stuff, the people talking will probably be secretive too. Your MC could even misunderstand whatever it is. Hope this helped!

    • It is a common trope, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In addition to learning the information, the MC will also have some emotional reactions that will tell you a lot about his or her character. Does she feel guilty for doing this, or is she pleased at her cleverness? The Better Novel Project website compares popular books looking for what to do right, and had an article on eavesdropping:

      One thing to watch out for: do the people she’s eavesdropping on have a good reason for talking about whatever it is? I enjoyed reading this article from TVtropes on “Exact Eavesdropping”:

    • I’m not sure if my first answer posted. Maybe because it had links in it? Anyway, I think that’s a common trope, but not necessarily cliche. Showing how the character reacts to the eavesdropping itself could be a great way to show character. Is she guilty, or is she pleased at her cleverness? One thing to watch out for would be making sure that the people she is listening to have a good reason for saying what they do. If she knows that they’re going to be having a secret meeting, and so listens in on purpose, that makes sense. If she just happens to be in the right place and time to hear two people explaining things they already know that happens to be exactly what the MC needs to know… that can be a problem.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Yes, it’s because of the links. Spammers often include them to lead people to commercial sites. I always moderate them as soon as I see them, if I’m online.If you want to put the word out quickly, and I don’t respond, break the links into one per comment.

  6. It is a common trope, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In addition to learning the information, the MC will also have some emotional reactions that will tell you a lot about his or her character. Does she feel guilty for doing this, or is she pleased at her cleverness? The Better Novel Project website compares popular books looking for what to do right, and had an article on eavesdropping:

    One thing to watch out for: do the people she’s eavesdropping on have a good reason for talking about whatever it is? I enjoyed reading this article from TVtropes on “Exact Eavesdropping”:

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