14 September 2014

The Sausage Factory

by Leigh Lundin

Rob Lopresti wrote about the ordering of chronological events that might be revealed in a story, e.g, relating event 2 before telling us about event 1. I find I’m no stranger to unveiling events out of sequence, although I probably lay things out as they happen more often than not.

Like Melodie Campbell, I’m a plotter. I need to know a story complete, how it ends before I start writing, even if characters sometimes push their own agendas.

Part of this comes from my experience as a software architect. I designed very intricate systems software, which John Floyd and Darlene Poier will understand. Fifty- or a hundred-thousand lines of machine code must work perfectly, step-by-step, or disaster strikes. As a manager, one of the most negative signs of talent was a programmer who started writing code the day he received his assignment instead of taking days or even weeks to fully understand and plan the project. Know the ending before beginning was a key to success.

Wurst Notions

Filmmakers often compare making movies to making sausage: you don’t want to know how it’s done. Sometimes I think that’s true of writing fiction.

When I stretch out on the sofa with my eyes closed, I’m working. Don’t be fooled by snoring, I’m still working. Like a video, I run a story through my head, pausing, rewinding, reworking, re-editing to get it right. The movie in my mind has to work before I’m ready to turn it into digital ones and zeros or splatter it on paper.

One advantage to this approach is that just as movie makers often film scenes out of sequence, I occasionally write my scenes out of sequence. Don’t worry– it’s all in my head, but I might choose to jot down particular parts before others.

By the Numbers

In the midst of editing for someone else, a story came to me that I needed to write. As long as I record the essentials, I can do both, much like I used to read more than one book at once. With the plot in mind and, using Rob’s notation, I began writing my scenes in the order of 3, 1, 4, 2.

This particularly story has an unusual feature, a semi-dénouement or false ending (scene 3 designated above). A character reveals how he outfoxed the bad guy, but then the tables turn in a red herring feeding frenzy (scene 4).

I thought I knew where I wanted my reader to begin– as near the end as possible, so goes the good advice. And thus I started with an opening scene that pulled all the characters together at once and went well. But then the real dénouement…

The grand plot was revealed in dialogue as mystery stories have done for the past century and a half. But my characters telling it sounded like blah-blah-blah. It was wooden. I was pretending to show, not tell. What would prevent a character, let alone the reader, from taking a commercial break and heading to the kitchen? The retelling was, well, telling.

Reading in the Dark

I’m the kind of guy who keeps readers in the dark. Why? Because that’s how I like to read, given the chance to use my brain to assemble clues and figure out what’s going on. I can’t simply watch a movie– my brain races ahead, parsing possible plot outcomes. Usually it’s a win either way: I feel satisfaction if I figure it out and, if a screenwriter fairly fools me, then kudos to them. So yeah, I think readers like their intelligence respected and challenged. Dale Andrews and I have discussed this and whether you like to solve the puzzle or if you simply like to relax and read at the end of a long day, we'd love to hear your opinion.

Other than scene setting, almost every sentence in this story attempts one of two contrary things: It either darkens the plot while secretly providing a clue, or a line seemingly enlightens while actually misleading the reader.

But here in the grand dénouement, I hit a dead spot. The script turned grey and lifeless.

To bring immediacy to the writing, I briefly considered a flashback, but I realized scene 4 was a wrapper for an embedded scene 0, which takes place three years before the rest of the tale. A novelist might call it a prologue, but I don’t see it that way. It has action: things exploding, fires burning, tension bubbling, lots of trouble. What better way to open a story?

Surprisingly, after all this sausage grinding, the final product would read in chronological sequence.

Although my story isn’t honed at this hour (scene 2 still needs work), my sequence of laying down pieces has occurred in this order: 3, 1, 4, 2, 0, where the scenes are:
3. pseudo dénouement
1. story opening
4. true dénouement
2. main body
0. precipitating events

That sounds far more convoluted than what the reader will see:
0. precipitating events
1. story opening
2. main body
3. pseudo dénouement
4. true dénouement

The end.


Fran Rizer said...

Leigh, I understand that a man stretched out on a couch with his eyes closed is working though it certainly seems more believable that he's plotting out a story than that he's doing his "honey-do" list.

I look forward to reading the story you wrote about here.

Melodie Campbell said...

Leigh, that is *exactly* how my process works too! You state it so well. And thanks for reminding me about the sausage quote. So true.

Leigh Lundin said...

Thank you, Melodie. It makes sense to us anyway!

Fran, I've tried to pretend I can handle the honey-do list that way, but I've never succeeded in convincing anyone. I hope to have that story ready soon!

Pages Of Stories said...

Excellent article Leigh, but I have a question. Not being a writer - only a purveyor of the written word - I've had other authors tell me that the best way they write is to NOT know where the characters and story goes ahead of time. The story unfolds as it will, kind of on its own. What are your thoughts on that?

Leigh Lundin said...

I’ve heard that before and both seem to work for their individual practitioners. James Ritchie comes to mind; he said he’d sit and begin writing as the muses directed him. I think this approach works for capers and other subgenres, go-with-the-flow tales. I believe whodunits and howdunits (at least mine) require a more structured approach. It’s engaging when characters insist upon filling in the gaps, but I need a framework, a skeleton with which to flesh out my story. A large proportion of the classical mysteries appear constructed that way.

Robin Cook and Scott Turow seem to sometimes use one approach and other times the other. Turow’s Presumed Innocent is intricately plotted but others seem less so.

But like Melodie, I have to know the story in my head before I begin writing.

John Floyd said...

The outliner vs. free-wheeler discussion is one that will go on as long as there are writers to discuss it. I always "outline" my short stories, at least in my head, before I start writing, simply because I wouldn't know how to do it any other way. If I tried writing just to see what would develop, and to see where it would take me, I'd probably wind up wasting a great deal of time. And I dearly love the plotting phase of the story--that's where the fun is, for me.

Dixon Hill said...

Fran, I wish you could convince my wife that I'm not ducking honey-do lists when lying with my eyes shut. LOL

I can’t simply watch a movie– my brain races ahead, parsing possible plot outcomes. Usually it’s a win either way: I feel satisfaction if I figure it out and, if a screenwriter fairly fools me, then kudos to them.

Couldn't agree more, Leigh!

A Broad Abroad said...

Not sure about the state of my brain, but the only time I ever see videos of situations in my head they are in cartoon.

Snoring on the couch = work. Hmmm, we believe you, millions wouldn't.

Leigh Lundin said...

John, I think I read on your publisher's site that you've written more than a thousand stories and articles thus far? Did I get that right? That's amazing.

Dixon, we need a men-at-work sign. And judging from the thrust of ABA's sharp wit, I'm afraid we're doomed to disbelief.

A Broad Abroad said...

Apropos nothing in particular, found this and thought SS-ers would enjoy.

There are two kinds of people…

John Floyd said...

That's true, Leigh. A lot of time spent with my eyes closed, or staring blankly out the window, working . . .

Leigh Lundin said...

John, that's true and it's clearly working!

ABA, I laughed. That's very good!

Stephen Ross said...

Fascinating, Leigh!