Showing posts with label plot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plot. Show all posts

15 February 2017

Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing


by Robert Lopresti

I'm not sure this title fits the subject matter, but it's a pretty song.

As you are probably sick of being told, I review a short story every week.  I try to be a fair judge, treating every candidate equally but I admit that sometimes I will find myself rooting for a story to succeed because of a wonderful opening line, beautiful writing, or a great concept.  It's yours to lose.  Don't blow it!

And sometimes they succeed. But sometimes they blow it.

Recently I read a story with a great premise, one I loved so much I read a few key lines out loud to my wife.  I kept rolling along, having a great time, for the first three quarters of the narrative.  Then all four tires slowly deflated.

I'm not going to get specific because I don't say bad things about individual stories.  (There's a reason I review the best story each week.)  But vaguely, here's the plot:

The author establishes the great premise and deals with it, apparently resolving it.  Then a character is murdered.  The hero, call him Sam Sleuth, starts to investigate.  The character closest to him, call him X, is the Most Likely Suspect.

All of which is great.  Still rolling merrily.  But we are at the three-quarter point.

Sleuth begins to suspect that X really is  the killer.  He digs more, and finds evidence pointing in that direction.  He confronts X who more or less admits his guilt, but not in a way that would hold up in court.  And Sleuth vows to find a way to prove it.  The end.

That's no ending, says me.  Not a good  ending, anyway.  Our hero has been treading water for the last quarter.

So here are some suggestions as to how the author might have created a better conclusion, one which might have made my Best of the Week, if I liked the writing, and was in the right mood, and Saturn was on the cusp of Capricorn.

Good for the Soul.  Sleuth could have tricked/guilted X into a confession that would have held up in court.

In the Pudding.  Sleuth discovers proof that X did the killing.

Had it coming. X reveals (this requires a ton of foreshadowing) that the victim was such a horrible person that he deserved what he got.  Sleuth is convinced and tells him to go and sin no more.

Surprise Party.  It wasn't X at all!  Turns out it was Y, that dirty devil!

Reverse Surprise.  If our author really wants to end with Sleuth vowing to catch X, then Sleuth needs to think it is Y until - Boom - the Big Reveal.

Immune to Murder.  Sleuth is sure that X is guilty but he can never be convicted because he is the nephew of the President/Mafia Chief/Billionaire, or is the Ambassador from Barataria.  Much noirish brooding in bourbon follows.

Any of those had a chance to be better than what I got. But on the bright side, I got a blog out of it didn't I?  Now, back to a hunt for the Best.



13 February 2016

Downton Abbey--Story, Plot, Mystery

by B.K. Stevens

I love Downton Abbey. I've watched every episode, and I'll keep watching till the end. I own the DVD sets for two seasons. I also own The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook, and I use it often. I've made one dish so many times, in fact, that I decided to include a version of it in my next story, which will appear in the April Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook calls the dish Noisette Potatoes. My story calls it Spudballs.)

Downton Abbey season 1.jpg
So I think I qualify as a loyal fan. When I criticize the show, I do so in a spirit of love, as a regretful witness to the elegant decline of something that was once more than elegant. I don't think Downton Abbey is very good this season, and I don't think it was very good last season, either. Judging from comments I see on Facebook, a lot of other loyal fans feel the same way. As I was watching the show last Sunday, some comments E.M. Forster makes in Aspects of the Novel came to mind. They helped me focus more sharply on some crucial elements Downton Abbey now lacks--elements that are crucial to mysteries, too.

Forster's distinction between story and plot is justly famous. A story, Forster says, is "a narrative of events in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. `The king died and then the queen died" is a story. `The king died, and then the queen died of grief' is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it." A story appeals to our curiosity, Forster says. Like cave-dwellers sitting around the fire or the sultan listening to Scheherazade's tales, we want to know what happens next. But curiosity, according to Forster, "is one of the lowest of the human faculties." And ultimately, a story that appeals only to our curiosity doesn't satisfy us.


I think that's the problem with Downton Abbey. During the last two seasons, it's become a story. It no longer has a plot. Things keep happening--there are plenty of incidents, some of them dramatic. A child goes missing. A beloved character has a frightening medical crisis at the dinner table. Romantic attractions flare up, little conflicts erupt, secrets nudge toward the surface. Meanwhile, there are many amusing verbal sparring matches and many tender exchanges, and of course there are always beautiful things to look at--rooms, dresses, pastoral landscapes. And since Downton Abbey has wonderfully rich characters we've come to know well and care about deeply, we want to know what will happen to them next, how things will turn out. So we keep watching.

But it's not enough to keep us satisfied, because there's no real plot. We seldom get a sense that one incident has caused another, or that it's likely to have significant consequences. Daisy says imprudent things, Tom comes back from America, Baxter won't have to testify after all--the incidents may be more or less interesting, but they often don't even seem related to each other. And they don't give us much of a basis for trying to figure out what's likely to happen next.
 Image result for downton abbey
A plot does give us such a basis. A plot, Forster says, appeals not only to curiosity but also to "intelligence and memory"--and it does this by introducing the element of "mystery." He offers a further extension of his basic example: "The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is "a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development." It engages our minds far more fully than a mere story could, because now we're using our memories to keep track of what's happening--we know that's important, because we have to remember incidents in order to understand how one might cause another. We're also using our intelligence to grasp each incident's significance and try to figure out what might happen next. "To appreciate a mystery," Forster maintains, "part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on."

I find that last sentence an important key to understanding what's wrong with the current season of Downton Abbey, and an illuminating description of what a satisfying mystery does.If a mystery has a suspenseful, fast-paced plot, our curiosity keeps us turning pages. At the same time, memory and intelligence linger behind, "brooding" about evidence and making predictions. No wonder we love good mysteries so much. They force us to read actively, and we enjoy the workout. Really good mysteries also reward us for our hard work by giving us endings that bring everything together seamlessly. We can see how all the incidents related to each other, how each built on what had happened before, how one incident caused another until the mystery reached a conclusion that feels inevitable. Even if we fail to predict what that conclusion is, we feel satisfied--we blame our own memory and intelligence for our failure, not the author.

So one way of describing the problems with the final seasons of Downton Abbey might be to say they needed more mystery. Not mystery in any narrow, generic sense--heaven knows, nobody wanted to see Bates or Anna accused of murder again. But these last seasons might have been far more satisfying if they had included fewer entertaining little incidents and instead developed two or three plotlines more fully. I wish those plotlines had engaged our memories and intelligence. I wish they'd challenged us to think about what caused an incident and what its effects might be, to debate ethical dilemmas the characters faced, to analyze relationships and feel we have a rational basis for thinking they will or won't succeed.


But none of that happened--at least, not in my opinion. So I'll watch the final episodes, but I don't expect them to give me the sort of satisfaction the ending of a really good mystery does. I imagine the final episodes will give us at least one incident featuring each of our favorite characters. I imagine some characters' stories will end happily, and some will end less happily. And I'd guess decisions about which characters get happy endings and which don't will be based primarily on the producers' guesses about what viewers want, not by any internal necessities created during these last two seasons. ("Will viewers think it's a bit much if both Mary and Edith find true love at last? If neither does, it might seem too bleak. Shall we have things work out for only one of them? Which one? Who has a sixpence we can toss?") We'll get some final witty exchanges between Violet and Isobel, some stunning final interior and exterior shots, and then Downton Abbey will join the assembly of once-great shows that kept going a season or two too long.

Oh, well. I'll still have those two earlier seasons on DVD. And at least getting frustrated with Downton reminded me of what a fascinating little book Aspects of the Novel is. The passages I quoted are from the fifth chapter, "The Plot." Forster has other interesting things to say about mysteries, too. If you're not already familiar with the book, you might want to check it out.


I can't resist the temptation to end with a personal note. When the Agatha nominations were announced not long ago, I was thrilled to see that both a story and a book of mine had made the list. "A Joy Forever" was nominated for Best Short Story, and Fighting Chance was nominated for Best Children's/Young Adult. Since it's unlikely that anything like this will ever happen again for the rest of my life, I decided to go ahead and brag about it. If you'd like to read "A Joy Forever," you can find it at the Malice Domestic website--http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Stevens_Joy.pdf. You can read the first chapter of Fighting Chance on my website, at http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/book/fighting-chance-a-martial-arts-mystery-for-young-adults/. I'm stunned, delighted, and very grateful.


Image result for b k stevens a joy foreverImage result for b k stevens a joy forever

10 January 2016

Shout at the Devil

© DreamsTime
© DreamsTime
by Leigh Lundin

I’ve been wrestling with a story. I know the plot, I know where I want it to go. But the characters are fighting back and they’re dirty combatants.

The first draft– too funny. Humor is difficult to craft, tricky to get right. Here I’m striving to craft a serious mystery, one with a dark twist ending, and it comes out… amusing, comical. Funny doesn’t work with dark, deathly endings.

If you don’t believe me, check out Shout at the Devil, Wilbur Smith’s novel or Peter Hunt’s movie. Setting: German East Africa. British aristocrat Roger Moore falls in love with Barbara Parkins, daughter of hard-drinking, hard-fighting poacher Lee Marvin. Those two bear a daughter. They enjoy tweaking the noses of the humorless and relentless Germans colonizing Tanganyika. Fun and games. Very droll, slapstick. Then World War I breaks out and the wicked German commander sinks their dhow, burns their house, and his nasty Schutztruppen kills Moore’s and Parkins’ daughter– Lee Marvin’s granddaughter.

Within a page, the story jettisons its humor and turns 270°. The light comedy: gone. In its place: death, destruction, misery, heartbreak, revenge.

No! No! It’s like digging into a lovely dessert and there, under the chantilly lies sauerkraut. Give me cabbage or give me cake, but not both at once, please.

Back to the writing board. Literally from scratch, I start again. The characters behave seriously at first. A woman wronged is designated my protagonist, kind of an anti-heroine. But then a guy steps in and, if you know men, they can’t resist heroically saving a damsel in distress– it’s coded in their DNA. But now it’s interfering with the plot where my anti-heroine is supposed to find her own resolution. Just like a guy, huh?

And then two characters decide to fall in love. That’s a tribulation because guys with their defective DNA can’t get hints. Despite her best efforts at subtlety and suggestions, the lad can’t decide if she’s interested in him or it’s strictly business. He’s petrified she might think sexual harassment, ruining a friendship and career.

While I haven’t started from zero again, I’m negotiating with my characters, wanting my anti-heroine to get through the plot. I’m willing to put the aforementioned relationship on the table and let the oversexed pair have their way with one another, but so far the greedy sods want everything their own way. They’re pretty certain they’ll win.

© Booker Prize

11 August 2015

No Plot. Mo' Problem.

by Melissa Yi

Do you like to plot your story, point by point?

Fantasy writer Tim Powers advocated this method at my Writers of the Future winners’ workshop. He outlines his novel meticulously, sells it on proposal, and then never gets writers’ block because he just follows the outline he already wrote.

Sounds perfect, right? Except I like to just run to the computer and type madly, before my kids wake up and/or I have to run to work. Sometimes, I have almost no idea what came out of my fingers, except it was up to 1000 words and I’m done for the day.
My kids need supervision.

It means I’m a pantser (as in “flying by the seat of”). I let my characters shoot off their mouths, and possibly other body parts. They run into and out of danger. It’s a lot of fun. My characters really do surprise me, and my subconscious brain comes up with a lot of bizarre plot twists.

So the good news is that I’m 66,000 words into my latest Hope Sze novel, Human Remains.

The bad news is that I haven’t decided on a plot.

For me, if I don’t have a good plot, I don’t have the backbone of my mystery. Even though Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith teach that character and setting are the keys of mystery, especially important in a series character, I just can’t get a handle on a book when I’m constantly spinning new plot points and antagonists. It’s CRAZY.

Usually, I end up punching a bunch of words out, throwing half of them in the garbage, then stitching the survivors into a slamming good story, but it takes me so much time and energy that I spend a year or longer writing each mystery and I’m wrung out by the end of it.

So I probably should plot more.

What about you? Do you like to write into the darkness, or craft each scene in advance?A lil’ bit o’ both? Or just check out some illustrious suggestions from Jan Grape, which I discovered after I’d already written this column….

20 June 2015

Killing People is what I Do


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)
 

“Why would you ever want to write about murder?” said the horrified relative.  “Why not write a nice little romance?”

Why indeed?

As I quickly added another relative to kill in my next book (you would be shocked how often that happens….) it occurred to me that there were many reasons to write about murder.

1.. It’s the challenge of creating the clever puzzle.  Plotting a mystery is like playing a chess game.  You always have to think several moves ahead.  Your reader is begging you to challenge them, and is working to beat you – meaning to guess the killer before your detective does - to the end.

2.  Plot is paramount.  Murder mysteries start with action – usually a murder.  Yes, characterization is important, and particularly motivation.  But murder is by nature an action, and thus something happens in the book you are writing.  And quite often, it happens again and again.

3.  It’s important.  This is murder, after all.  We’re not talking about a simple threat or theft.  A lot is at stake.  Murder is the final act.  The worst that can happen.  The end of it all.
 
4.  It’s a place to put all your darkest fantasies.  There are a few people I’ve wanted to kill in my life.  They did me wrong.  And while I do have a bit of a reputation for recklessness, I value my freedom more.  So what I can’t do in reality, I relish doing in fiction.

5.  Finally – it’s fun. This is the part I don’t say in mixed company (meaning non-writers and relatives.)  I can’t explain exactly why it’s fun – you’ll have to trust me on this part.  But plotting to do away with characters in highly original ways is a real power trip.  I’m smiling just thinking about it.

Of course, I can understand where some of the relative angst comes from.  In A PURSE TO DIE FOR, a gathering of relatives for a funeral results in the death of one or two. 

In THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE, a cousin of Gina’s does her wrong.  So she does him back, in a particularly crafty and oh-so-satisfying way.

It was entirely accidental, that use of relatives.  Honest.  I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular.

 Not much I wasn’t.

(You can follow Melodie at www.melodiecampbell.com.  Better still, buy her Goddaughter books.  It's an offer you can't refuse. Especially since her maiden name was 'Offer' - not kidding.)



Available at all the usual retail locations, including Amazon