Showing posts with label plotting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plotting. Show all posts

03 September 2014

Two Plots, No Waiting

by Robert Lopresti

I recently came across a novel and a short story which used the same plot structure, one that I have seen once before.  I am wondering if anyone can point out more examples of this scheme.

The current samples are the novel Parlor Games, by Maryka Biaggio, and the story "Jaguar" by Joesph Wallace, which appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  I recommend them both.  The novel is the life story of a female con artist as she travels the world at the turn of the century.  "Jaguar" tells of a forest guide in Belize who joins up with an American tourist to escape a violent home life.  But a traveling female main character is not the similarity that interests me.

You may have heard Lawrence Block's comment that every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end -- but not necessarily in that order.  The structure of these two tales is such that they begin and end in the middle.  How does that work?

Well, let's say that a story had six parts.  The traditional way to present them is in chronological order : 1 2 3 4 5 6.  (I have put the second half in bold to make what follows clearer.)

Now maybe you want to follow Larry Block's suggestion of not beginning at the beginning.  You might rearrange the story: 2 1 3 4 5 6.   That is, you start with the action under way and then go back to "catch up" with what you missed.  After that chronological order takes over.

But the tales I am discussing use a more radical approach: 4 1 5 2 6 3.  In other words, you start halfway through the story, go back to the beginning, and then alternate.  In effect you have two plots taking turns, one that will end where the other one  begins. 

Am I making any sense?  Let's try another example.  The first time I came across this structure was in The Dispossessed, a great science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Le Guin wanted (I assume) to show us two contrasting societies.  One  is an anarchist organization that was given their planet's inhabitable moon as a way of preventing their revolution from taking over  the  home planet.

The book begins with Shevek, a scientist from the anarchist moon, getting ready to return to the home planet, the first person ever to do so.  The next chapter begins with his childhood.  And so the pieces alternate, showing Shevek's visit in contrast with his upbringing on the moon.  The latter ends with his decision to visit the other world, bringing us back to the beginning of the book.

Parlor Games starts with the con woman on trial.  Then we see her childhood in the Upper Peninsula.  Back to the trial.  On to her early adventures in Chicago... And so on.

"Jaguar" alternates between Ana's first day in America, and her meeting with the tourist who winds up taking her there.  This structure allows the author to cleverly conceal some plot points until he wants you to see them.

I planned to ask you if you knew any more examples of this plot structure when I realized that I had a contributed a modest sample.  My story "Why," (AHMM, May 2011) has the structure  3 1 4 2.  Here is part of  what I said about the story when it was published:

I wrote a story with two endings. In one finale, a character had an ah-ha moment, an epiphany if you will. In the second ending we see him reacting to that realization. Originally I went with chronological order, but I decided to end with the bigger bang, even though it meant losing an exit line I really liked.

At the time I didn't make the connection to LeGuin's novel.

Can anyone name more examples?

08 December 2011

Smart Writers and Stupid Writers

All Gaul may have been divided into three parts, as any beginning Latin student knows, but as far as I am concerned, all writers are divided into two groups - smart writers and stupid writers. Alas, I am firmly, and I might add unrepentantly, in the latter group at least when writing fiction. Even mystery fiction.

We all know the smart writers. They plan ahead. They have file cards of characters' personality features, elaborate back stories, and flow charts. Although it may be apocryphal, I rather like the story about Agatha Christie lying in her long British bathtub eating apples, until, the top of the tub lined with cores, she had worked out another of her fiendishly complex plots. That's my idea of a smart writer, one who leaves nothing to chance and has a clear map of where the story is going and who's going to do what to whom.

I find this sort of planning impossible, even though I happen to live with a smart writer. My sportswriter husband was capable, in the old days when dictation was necessary, of dictating a sports story, complete with all punctuation, from a few notes in his reporter's book. I found this astonishing, given my own troubles even with pen, paper, and typewriter. His was a hard act to follow, and perhaps you can understand why I didn't start writing until I was in my thirties.

And then, despite his good example, I turned out to be a thoroughly stupid writer. I get an idea, and because at least the beginnings of beginnings are easy, I plunge in. A character whispers in my ear, and I write down what he or she says. They tend to be obsessives with homicide in mind, although I get a few nice folk who are shocked at evil and want to set the world to rights.

The first few pages go swimmingly. There is really nothing better than starting a story (or a novel) with a flourish. How clever one feels, how creative. But then comes a difficulty, The Plot. While a smart writer would have looked into this little detail early on, the stupid writer trusts to the beneficence of the Muse, who, like all divas and goddesses, has her off days. Story comes to a halt. Writer goes for a walk in winter, a swim in summer, a sleep in the evening. And hopes.

But the Providence, as the Scots used to say, that looks after bairns and drunkards, has a soft spot for stupid writers. Gradually the story unfolds. And this is good, this is interesting. Every morning the stupid writer gets up with a little more material and she has to write if she is going to discover how the story comes out.

Forget all the writerly delays, the websites to check out, the email to answer - how modern technology has expanded the pencil sharpening and paper straightening of yesteryear. But if I want the end of the story, I have to get to work.
I find this salutary, though it may not be the case with every stupid writer. But I really aspired to be a reader, not a writer, and I must confess that if I knew the whole plot, the victim, the murderer, the exact placement of the crucial chase, the romantic moment, etc, etc, I would never sit down at the computer.

I find such smart certainty boring in the nth degree, while discovery is interesting and gets the juices going. I like to be surprised by everything from a character's sexual orientation to the identity of the killer, though I must admit that I left the latter very long in The Lost Diaries of Iris Weed. I reached 260 pages and was still dithering between two plausible candidates, but at least my work day wasn't boring.

Of course, there are disadvantages to being a stupid writer. Certain classic forms of the mystery are a closed book as far as I am concerned. Even thinking about a locked room puzzle gives me a headache and anything involving railroad or train schedules or precise timing is out of the question. Who can think that far ahead?

Plots can take a long time to resolve, too. I started a story called The Great Choreographer years ago and it only fell into shape earlier this spring. I have a suitcase full of money (strictly literary, of course) that offers all sorts of possibilities but has not yet found a good home. A story that I just finished considered two different victims and a couple of different murderous operandi before it reached its final form. This is not efficient.

Still, stupid writing has its advantages. Characters that develop as they go along are, I think, less liable to be easy stereotypes, and if plots take a while to develop, they sometimes provide nice surprises along the lines of 'I didn't think he'd ever do that!'

In any case, I suspect one writes as one must. And if one writes to know what one is thinking, then one always has a good strong motive to get back to the writing desk.