First off, I want to tell you that I’ll be talking and signing at the book festival in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from April 4th through April 6th. Details are posted here on my website: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/appears.html. However, the schedule when you click on it needs to be updated, because I’ll be leaving by about 2:30 on Sunday. Anyway, I’d love to meet some of you there. Please come if you can!
On January 16, 2014, Melissa wrote, Does anyone have ideas on how to keep things from getting over-complicated? I feel like I get so far into my story that I get stuck and can never get back out of it to figure out an ending without everything seeming abrupt.
Eliza responded with this: Pace the ending like the plot. If you have a slow, thoughtful kind of book don’t wrap everything up in two pages. But if it’s fast paced don’t drag it out forever. You don’t need to tie up all the loose ends, it’s ok to leave stuff ambiguous, but answer the big questions. Decide what your story’s core conflict is. Make a list of all the subplots and characters and how they relate to it. Is there someone who really doesn’t need to be there? Do your characters wander into Subplot Land for several scenes without discussing the core conflict? If it doesn’t directly tie into your story’s core and you can’t tweak it, it doesn’t need to be there.
Thanks, Eliza! Sounds like good advice for me, too. My tendency is to over-complicate as well. I’ve started a new book, although I haven’t been working on it much lately because of poetry school. Only twelve pages in and I’m already spinning a web that would make a spider blush, because it’s too loose to catch anything.
Here’s an example of how I get into trouble: Suppose I want to expand on “The Princess and the Pea” (never mind that I already did in The Princess Test). In this new story, Perlina, the true princess, is my MC, and I need to know what her backstory is before she shows up soaking wet at the castle doors, so I imagine that her throne was usurped the day after she ascended to it. She was escorted to the border and left there. Her core problem is getting her kingdom back. She wanders, cold, impoverished, often hungry, for a month until she hears in a village about the competition for a true princess, which she figures she can win, and then she’ll have a kingdom and its army to help her fight her way home.
Maybe this would work, but probably I’ve already over-complicated my story, which now has to detour through proving that Perlina is a true princess and dealing with the prince and the future in-laws. It’s possible that I would write two hundred pages before realizing that my real story has nothing to do with “The Princess and the Pea” and I have to remove that part (and save it).
When I wrote Ella Enchanted, I had Ella travel to Gnome Caverns with her father before starting her other adventures. I wrote 180 pages involving gnomes, Sir Peter, and the evil men who worked for him. My critique buddies were lost, and so was I. Eventually I cut the whole thing.
What sets me off is curiosity, imagination, and the fun of following an idea. This is important: If we tangle ourselves up, but we’re enjoying the writing, getting lost isn’t a tragedy. We snip and think and get going again. In this case, I would think about a more direct approach for Perlina. Where can she find allies without having first to marry one of them? Who would rally to her cause? How can she find out what’s been going on in her kingdom in her absence? Is a rebellion brewing?
Or, I might decide“that The Princess and the Pea” part is the most interesting and give Perlina a simpler back story.
My capacity for getting into plot trouble is at its worst if I’m writing in third-person omniscient or from more than one POV. Let’s take the story of Perlina’s ouster. If Perlina weren’t my first-person narrator throughout, I might decide to slip inside the usurper’s character and get involved with his goals. Maybe he forced his way to power just so he could offer a throne to the damsel he loves (not Perlina). She’s just a weaver, but she’s crazy for gold thread. Then I may get interested in this weaver, too, to find out if she’s in love with the young man who’s just hijacked a country for her. And there’s the prince who’s waiting for a true princess. He’s fascinating, too. What does he expect from this royal young lady? Are his ideas unrealistic? So I write a few scenes from his point of view. And my story is just a tad disorganized. But if I’m writing only what Perlina experiences I can’t be led astray into these side alleys, no matter how fascinating they are.
So that’s one strategy for story simplification: Limit your point of view to one. I don’t mean you should never write from more than one or from the POV of an omniscient narrator. This strategy applies only if your story is getting away from you. If you know how all your POVs fit into your story, go for it.
Another strategy is to come up for air occasionally, say every thirty pages. Look around. Ask yourself what’s going on. If your story is throwing out tentacles in every direction, follow them back to the center of the octopus and decide what you need. Clip off the extras before you’ve written 180 pages that don’t tell your story.
Regarding endings: Let’s imagine we have two subplots that have been moving along with the main event and we need to draw them to a satisfying conclusion. They’re fine subplots; we don’t feel they should be cut. One of them, say, involves Perlina’s younger brother who’s been imprisoned to prevent a rebellion from forming around him, but he’s eager to escape and help his sister. We’re going to resolve his problem and the problem of the other subplot, whatever that is, before moving on to the final one. If we decide to go that way, we’ll orchestrate his escape and get him to the border to meet Perlina’s force. His presence will give her the boost to surge on to the capital. Or we can decide to have him (gasp!) executed, and news of his death will galvanize Perlina and remove any remaining doubts in her allies. The point is, if we settle the side plots, our conclusion can ring through with clarity.
Naturally, the prompts come from the post.
• Write the scene in which Perlina loses her kingdom. If you discover that you need backstory, write it. Meanwhile, observe yourself in case you’re letting the story spin wildly. If you’re enjoying the ride, keep going. Otherwise, think about how the backstory might set up Perlina’s quest to get her kingdom back, and shape it along those lines.
• Write Perlina’s wanderings in the kingdom of “The Princess and the Pea” after she’s been expelled from her own land. Focus here on what she might learn that will help or hinder her later on.
• Suppose Perlina was overthrown because the nobility didn’t find her a likely leader. Write the scene in which she meets her future in-laws and the prince and show her struggle to present herself with the dignity she had already been judged to lack.
• Write the usurper’s first day on the throne, including his proposal to his weaver love.
• From the prince’s POV, write the scene in which Perlina shows up at the castle door and comes in.
• Put together whatever elements interest you and write the whole story.
Have fun, and save what you write!