Sh! Intrigue…

On May 20, 2019, Katie W. wrote, Any tips on writing a political conspiracy? In (one of) my WIPs, the queen is a commoner from the poorest part of the country, and the nobles want to get rid of her so the king will remarry. They try enlisting a dragon to steal the crown princess (creating a Rumpelstiltskin retelling), and eventually they poison the king and drive out the king and princess, but I have no idea what goes in the middle. 

Christie V Powell had questions and suggestions: Hmm… what’s the POV? Is it the queen? Your explanation here focuses more on the nobles, so is the main character(s) a noble? If so, you can list out the steps that they will have to take to reach the queen (step 1: find dragon. Step 2: convince dragon to help… etc.). If it’s the queen, you can use the same list, but then brainstorm how she finds out about it, how much she finds out about it, and how this impacts her character. What does she want? Is she happy being queen, or does she find herself missing a simpler life? That will impact how she reacts to the conspiracy.

Here’s an example of how you might plot it out using a list: Step 1: find dragon. What queen knows: some people don’t like her, but not what they plan to do about it. How that affects queen: frustrated because she’s doing her best to be a good ruler. Step 2: convince dragon to help. What queen knows: glimpses a dragon in the distance but assumes it is wild. How that affects queen: annoyed that yet another (apparently separate) problem has emerged…

Katie W. answered, Actually, it’s from Rumpelstiltskin’s perspective. I wrote a short story of the kidnapping attempt alternating between his perspective and the dragon’s. So I have a pretty good idea how that part is going to play out. What I’m stuck on is what happens after the attempt fails. The nobles don’t give up, but what do they try next? Something happens during the fifteen years between the kidnapping attempt and the king’s death, but I have no idea what it should be.

I agree with Christie V Powell that POV is important here and whenever we’re dealing with a conspiracy, because conspiracy means secrets, and how does the POV character find out what’s going on? (Of course, POV is important in every story.)

Conspiracy is wonderful, because it brings in an obstacle for our MC and the characters the reader is rooting for. So we don’t want to make the secrets easy for Rumpelstiltskin or the royals to penetrate, and we don’t want to make them impossible. We need to start thinking about Rumpelstiltskin’s powers and also the kinds of access to information that the royals have, like their spy network, and who’s loyal and who isn’t. We’ll have to work out a lot about the royals, too. How vulnerable is the king? The queen? The princess? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

In my opinion, it’s nice to give our villains, in this case the conspiring nobles, complexity. What’s their side of the story? Is there one particular noble who leads the pack, someone we can focus on? Is there anything in the king’s rule that’s genuinely problematic? Does the queen have a role in the kingdom’s woes? And what’s good about their rule? What positive contributions have they made? How is the queen a good monarch? How can we reveal all this? Is there a council? A parliament? Does the king have advisers? Does he hear from his subjects? Is Rumpelstiltskin himself at court, so it’s easy for him to observe?

Obviously, I’ve learned a lot about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain lately. My sympathies, of course, are with the Jews, but I’ve made discoveries about the monarchs, too, and the reasons they believed the expulsion was right. For example, the Jews, by their presence and because of popular opinion against them (made worse by some clerics), caused unrest among the majority Christian population. Another example: the monarchs thought that almost all the Jews would convert (roughly half actually did), and they believed their souls would be saved.

Political upheavals don’t come out of nowhere. Maybe the nobles believe that commoners are inferior by nature and unfit to rule. If the queen wears a gown that to them seems unsuitable, for instance, they regard her fashion choice as emblematic of the wrongness of a commoner in such an elevated position. If the king issues a decree they disagree with, they regard it as an example of her bad influence. We want to show all this.

So what else will fill in Katie W.’s middle? Here are two strategies, and both can be used in the same story.

The first is along the lines suggested by Christie V Powell: What’s the desired outcome, and what are the steps to achieving it and the obstacles along the way?

The second concerns the characters. Who is Rumpelstiltskin? Why does he care about the kingdom, the monarchs, the nobility? Does he have another story that dovetails with this one? His story will fill in the middle and carry the story to the end.

Fifteen years are a lot. Maybe Rumpelstiltskin is a young gnome at the beginning and he has to grow up a bit before he can take on this challenge. Some of the middle can go to his growth: the challenges he faces, the conclusions he draws, and how both make him the right–or wrong–gnome for this job.

Let’s assume that he’s an outcast, as the fairy tale suggests, but he craves acceptance and understanding. In his eagerness to help, he makes mistakes, which reinforce the reasons that he’s ostracized. Also, his attempts to help, even when he does nothing wrong, are misinterpreted. If the reader cares about him, his progress toward acceptance will be the most important thread, and his success or failure will determine whether the ending is happy or sad.

Say he makes the safety of the king and queen his top priority. Then he’s spending a lot of the fifteen years infiltrating the nobles, finding out what they’re up to, foiling their attempts. Might he find himself at one point sympathizing with them? And then shifting back. Does he want the dragon to succeed, or does he want to save the family himself, unaided? How does he feel about dragons?

Say he meets the princess and she’s kind to him. What are the consequences of that? Or she might be cruel, and he’s still trying to save her miserable life.

Or the king is cruel.

Or just by watching these humans, he forms opinions of all of them, from the royal family to the nobles to the people in the queen’s hometown to the dragon. How does all that influence his actions?

The same goes for the other characters. What do they want? How do their goals intersect with Rumpelstiltskin’s?

Going back to what I said before, that fifteen years is a big chunk of time to cover–it’s hard to make so much time tight. If we can’t shorten the time span, we can use telling to get the reader through. In a paragraph or a page or two, we can summarize the years, stopping now and then to show the most important moments. When we’re up to date, we return to showing and start the play-by-play action again.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Rumpelstiltskin, held in contempt by everyone, knows he’s a good gnome. His goal is to be one of the king’s councilors in the Kingdom of the Peaceful Valley, where there are more disputes than there are water droplets in the River of Harmony, which runs through the kingdom. Write his first attempt to interest the king in his qualifications and his virtues. If you like, keep going to write the whole story.

∙ The dragon, who happens to be a genius at playing parties against one another, attends a castle ball and mingles (he’s quite a dancer!), sowing resentment and mistrust among the nobility. Write the scene.

∙ The princess, who cares most about her mom and who recently heard about the circumstances of mom’s marriage to daddy, the king ( the whole turn-straw-into-gold-or-be-executed thing). The princess loves her father, too, but thinks he needs a lesson in empathy. Write how she delivers the lesson and how it goes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Mid-book crisis

Before I start, I want to let you know that a poem of mine, “Snow Fight,” was just published in the fall/winter 2012 edition of the poetry journal Sugar House Review. The poem won’t hurt you if you’re below high school age, but it was written for adults. I haven’t read the whole issue yet, so I can’t speak for the rest. I’d say high school and above is safest. If you’re interested in getting a copy, here’s the link:

On October 3, 2012, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, I wonder about middles. I always have some sort of ending in mind when I start writing and beginnings are usually easy for me, but it’s the middle that’s the hardest. Getting from point A to point C is always rough for me, and I can’t just skip point B. Some people have told me to take a while and outline everything, but I’m not a fan of outlines, and they don’t seem to work for me. Does anyone have any tips for getting through sagging middles?

In my opinion, there are two secrets to middle for writers who don’t outline. One lies in our characters, our main character and our secondaries. We’ll start there, and I’ll get to the second later.

Let’s look at it in terms of fairy tales, stories with the simplest of structures. Here are the beginnings and the ends of a few.

Beginning: Evil queen discovers that Snow White has surpassed her in beauty and is overcome with jealous rage.

End: Evil queen dances to death in red hot shoes at the wedding of Snow White and the prince.

Beginning: Cinderella’s father marries a horrible woman with two equally horrible daughters, and she’s made the servant of this terrible troika.

End: Cinderella marries the prince and forgives her stepfamily.

Beginning: Sleeping Beauty’s parents fail to invite an unforgiving fairy to the christening of their daughter.

End: Sleeping Beauty wakes up to a kiss by her prince.

In each of these we could drive a herd of cattle, a circus, and a marching band between the beginning and the end, meaning that anything could happen. Neither the middle nor the end is made necessary by the beginning. Let’s take the most complex of the three, “Snow White.” To get to the end and to fill up the middle, the inventor of the tale in the mists of history hauled in a magic mirror, a kind-hearted hunter, seven dwarves, and a prince – and gave the queen a few witchy powers.

Seeds for the middle and the end lurk within the character of the queen. She’s furious, but she doesn’t slip into Snow White’s bedroom at midnight and bludgeon her to death. Maybe she’s afraid of being caught, or maybe even she shies away from that degree of violence. She wants the awful deed done, but she doesn’t want to do it herself – at first. Her unwillingness moves the story along.

The next seed is that she’s a bad judge of character. She doesn’t notice the hunter’s kindness or the admiring glances he bestows on Snow White.

Snow White herself isn’t much help. She’s more of a pretty chess piece who moves from place to place merely because she’s pushed. When she’s abandoned in the forest she walks, I’ll give her that. And she stumbles on the dwarves’ cottage. You know the rest. The dwarves warn Snow White of her danger, but she’s too stupid or foolish to listen. The queen overcomes her squeamishness about violence, decides to do the job herself, and finally seems to succeed. Then the dwarves’ love for Snow White causes the next plot turn when they, weirdly, put her in a glass coffin. Finally we have a prince who, weirdly again, falls for a seemingly dead maiden.

The point is, the story moves forward through the middle because of the characters.

Let’s look at my version, Fairest, which also progresses because of the characters. Behind the scenes are the parents who abandon Aza and set her story in motion. And there are the innkeepers who take her in and mold her into a character who, although insecure,  knows she’s loved and has solid values. We also have: the duchess, who can’t go to a wedding without a servant; a prince who has an eye for the exotic (Aza); a king who loves his wife; a queen who is phenomenally insecure and jealous; an evil magic mirror; and, way behind the scenes, a crazy fairy. They all, directly or indirectly, rub against Aza and, because of their complexity, create the scenes that make the plot seem to rattle along but actually slow the story’s progression with interesting moments and surprises – a satisfying middle.

Here’s the second secret, which has to do with endings. What we need to do when we enter our middle is to forget about the end with ninety percent of our brains. Only ten percent of our mind can have its eye on the finish line. And the finish line shouldn’t be worked out in detail if we haven’t outlined. If the ending is too distinct, we may force our characters to behave a certain way and they may never come to life.

Let’s try it. In our beginning, Beryl’s village has been destroyed by war. Her parents were killed, and her brother and sister were taken by the army. Let’s say she’s fifteen, old enough to have been taken too, but she was missed because she was visiting someone on the village outskirts. She’s left behind with the elderly, the sick, and the very young. Rebels prey on skeletal villages like hers. The survivors have to get to safety. We know that in the end Beryl and some of the others will make it to some haven or other, although we don’t know exactly what that will be.

We’ve written the beginning in which Beryl returns to the center of the village and discovers how bad matters are. We look around with her and consider what characters we might have. Well, we’ll probably want one or two who can help her and a few who will make her task much tougher. For the ones who can help her, there could be a child who has a hidden strength and there could be an elder who has past experience with the methods of the rebels. For the ones who get in the way, one could be too sick to move. Another could disagree with all Beryl’s ideas and could divide the villagers. We might want to figure out a way to include a rebel or two in our cast. Maybe Beryl goes spying or a lone rebel is caught by a sentry.

We’ve got quite a bit of middle going already. The very ill character gets a scene or two, likewise the one who pits characters against one another. Beryl may be slow to realize that the child with the special strength (whatever it is) has it. The one with experience may be reluctant for some reason to share. Beryl’s spy mission could run a dozen pages. The rebel who’s caught becomes part of the action.

There can be natural crises, too – a hurricane, a blizzard, earth tremors, whatever. Food can run short. More food can be discovered. In each of these, the characters will respond characteristically. There won’t merely be a hurricane, there will also be characters behaving foolishly or bravely or brilliantly in the face of it.

And it isn’t enough to grasp what the characters’ roles will be in our plot, we also have to develop the characters themselves. For example, the character who has had dealings before with the rebels may be long-winded. Beryl will need qualities that help her and others that get in her way. Maybe in the past she’s always given up too easily and she’s distracted by grief for her family but she’s a good listener and she has hunches that usually pan out.

As we’re fooling around with all this middle stuff, we have an eye out for the passage that will lead us to safety, but we also have in mind that some element of the safety should be surprising. Safety, yes, but not exactly in the form the reader expects.

Here are three prompts:

• Tell Beryl’s story, changing any elements or characters you like. Go for at least five scenes in the middle.

• Expand “Sleeping Beauty” and keep the fairies who come to the christening on the scene. Have them and other castle characters get involved in creating a middle. Remember, in the fairy tale there’s an ongoing effort to keep Sleeping Beauty from pricking herself. Decide in a vague way how you’d like the tale to end. You aren’t locked into the long sleep and the big hedge and the prince.

• Retell one of my fairy tale examples or any other fairy tale you like, but make it modern and have it take place in an acting troupe or a circus or a dance school or any other situation that will bring in a bunch of characters. Again, keep your plans for the ending indistinct.

Have fun and save what you write!