Update on My Novel: Month 3

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Wow these months sure go by fast! For July I shifted my commitment to be time-based, specifically I wanted to be working on my novel for a half hour each day. This time around I diligently tracked by progress, and in the end I met my goal 15 out of 31 days. There’s definitely room for improvement, but at least by having the metrics I’ll know whether my consistency is trending up or down now. For August I’m going to maintain a goal of 30 minutes every day, and at the very least I hope to hit 20 days.

So what did I accomplish with July? Well, I wrote at the end of June about a problem I had found in my plot. In the middle of the story I suddenly introduce a dozen new characters whom I never develop in the least. They were meant to only be background characters to the main cast, but I felt their arrival would create an expectation in the reader that they were important. So I decided to remove those characters, but that meant certain other developments had to be changed as well. Those new characters had been going to help the main characters build a large mill and divert a river, monumental tasks that no longer seemed feasible with their absence.

So I took those parts out of the story, and everything else related to them…which turned out to be a lot! I won’t go into all the details, but just one example was that the entire layout of the island where the story takes place had to be reshaped. One change rippled into another, and several scenes and side-plots were chopped off entirely. This, of course, left the story considerably lopsided, and so then I had to go over my entire outline and balance it all out again.

That’s what I spent all of July on. I’ve got about two-thirds of the new outline complete, and I’ll do the rest in August. And honestly? I’m liking this re-crafted story a whole lot better! Turns out that the novel needed far more pruning than I realized, and the whole thing seems a lot tighter and better focused now. I can hardly wait to give you my update in another month!

Distracting Goodness

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Do you like to watch the deleted scenes from movies? It’s always been by my favorite sort of Special Feature to check for with a new film. It’s a fun way to extend the story beyond the end credits, and allows me to enjoy the characters and settings a little more deeply.

But while I enjoy them in this removed format, I most often find myself appreciating the good sense that was shown in removing these moments from the finished product. Even when the scene is a “good one,” it is very rare that I wish it would have been left in the story.

In fact often when I watch a film for the second or third time I’ll start to realize that it could have benefited from being pared down even more. Sometimes the scenes that I think need to be excised are even the ones with the best lines or slickest action. Why? Because as awesome as those parts may be individually, they just aren’t contributing to the whole. It’s like a symphony where a world-class soloist that is trying to play a different song from the rest of the orchestra. Maybe they’re impressive, but they’re out of sync and so they lessen the overall experience.

I’ve previously discussed that when it comes time to cut out a beloved scene, you might be able to transplant it somewhere else to grow into something new. But today let’s take a step back and look at how you can even recognize that a scene isn’t fitting in the first place.

 

It’s Too Much)

The most difficult scene to cut is the one that does something better than any other part of the story. Perhaps it is the most exciting, the most funny, or the most sentimental. The temptation is to assume that a story is merely the sum of its parts, that if it is comprised of nothing but high points then the whole will be greater as a result. This simply isn’t true, though. In the end a story might be more than the sum of its parts…or it might be less.

Sometimes less is more. Allowing a single scene to be a little dimmer may allow your overall story to shine all the brighter. There have been times where a story has blown me away just by how satisfying the complete package was, even if no single scene stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

An example of a story that handled its rises and falls with careful precision in this way was The Incredibles. To me that film was endlessly rewatchable and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. I liked all the scenes, but I couldn’t point to a one that took my breath away by itself. Only later did I recognize it was due to how effortlessly the story flowed from one scene to the next, how each of its scenes directly derived from what had come before, how it maintained a steady flow from start to finish. And of course it still had some high points, its climaxes of action and drama, but each of these still felt grounded to the rest of the tale.

Which brings up an important question: what about the climax? Isn’t there always going to be a scene that is more something-or-other than any of the others? The entire work can’t be a monotone after all! Yes of course, but the issue is where these moments feel unnatural. Think of how two waves in the ocean might run into one another to produce a spike taller than either of the previous. So, too, a story should naturally have moments where separate arcs combine into a high point of tension. But if two little ripples are combining into a fifty-foot tidal wave, it is going to feel very off!

 

It Throws but Never Catches)

Another issue that stands out is a story that creates a moment of intrigue which is either never paid off, or never paid off in a satisfying manner. I don’t like to give specific negative examples, but I’m sure you can readily call to mind any number of stories that began with an incredible premise that they then never deliver on.

Obviously if a story has this problem the ideal solution would be for the writer to improve the lackluster resolutions so that they deliver on the promise, rather than just removing the promise so that the beginning becomes as mundane as all the rest. That being said, it’s important to understand that some checks can’t be cashed…by anyone. Every story and every writer has their limitations, and its alright to play within your own.

Sometimes the promise also needs to be removed because the fulfilling of it actually hurts the story. I recently excised a sizable chunk of the novel I’m working on because of how it was distracting from the greater whole. Specifically I intended for my main characters to recruit a dozen workers to come help them work a season in their fields. This seemed like a nice way to evolve the story into a wider circle, but introducing new characters creates an expectation in the reader that they will become a meaningful part of the story. The fact was that I never intended to engage with or develop these new characters because they just weren’t that important to the core story.

I was faced with either lifting the whole story to catch the expectation of the new characters becoming important, or else change the plot so that no new hires would come to join the family. I decided to go with the latter, which meant cutting out significant parts of the plot that I’m still smoothing out. I really do feel it was the right decision, though.

 

It Dramatically Changes the Tone)

The final consideration is perhaps the simplest. One has to consider the times where a single scene interrupts the emotional flow that exists on either side of it. This is different from an inflection point where the entire tale takes a turn into the new act, such as a moment of tragedy that signals the ramping up of conflict. An inflection point represents a permanent change in all of the tone that follows, whereas an interruption is an erratic blip, an outlier in the middle of a sequence of events that are otherwise homogeneous in tone. Though the tone that is established in this errant scene might be moving, it is distracting from the cadence of the whole. As such it should be removed so that the whole may feel more consistent…with one exception.

Sometimes a scene is intentionally made to stick out when its purpose to is foreshadow events that are yet to come. The writer is throwing out a new plot hook which will only be caught sometime later. I am using this particular technique extensively in the novel I am currently working on.

In that story the plot follows the simple day-to-day actions of a family cultivating their future. They have minor setbacks and struggles, but overall the story is very lighthearted and cheerful throughout…except for when the narrator finishes certain segments by detailing his horrifying nightmares. These sequences are drastically different in tone from everything on either side of them, and that is intentional. I know that the reader won’t forget these sequences, and when eventually things turn dangerous on the island, they will feel properly forewarned.

 

In conclusion, just because a scene is “good” does not mean that it is “good for your story.” If it is possible to take the essence that you enjoyed from that scene and transplant it elsewhere in your tale then go for it! But if not, then maybe that idea is best filed away until you can find it a new home. Never forget, just because a scene doesn’t belong in this one story does not mean it belongs in the trash.

On Thursday I will share the conclusion of Harold and Caroline, and in that half there was a piece of sentimentality I very much liked, but ultimately felt didn’t belong in the work as a whole. I’ll explain what that scene was and why I made the decision to cut it. Come back then, and in the meanwhile have a wonderful day!

It Follows

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This last Thursday I made mention of a core question that drives a reader through to the end of a story. This question is universal across all mediums of story-telling, across all cultures, and across all eras. Stop anyone in the middle of reading a new book or watching a movie or listening to a song, and ask them why they are continuing to give their time to this activity instead of looking for something else. Their answer is almost guaranteed to be some variation of “I want to see what happens next.”

How strongly the question “what happens next?” burns in your reader will ultimately determine whether your next novel is a great success or a dismal failure. The moment someone stops asking that question is the moment they become apathetic and put the book away unfinished. Conversely, the “hook” that everyone is told their story needs to open with is really nothing more than the first time the reader starts to wonder “what is going to happen next?”

Now I did mention on Thursday that there are a few variations to this question. Self-help books, educational textbooks, and passages of scripture, for example, are usually driven instead by the question “what can I learn from this?” But these really are the exceptions to the rule. By and large “what happens next?” is the singular question that has proved so powerful as to support multiple multi-billion dollar industries for millennia.

But the question of “what comes next” is actually useful long before your story even ends up in the hands of the reader. Every author is also driven by that question in order to even finish their work. Similar to their readers, once an author stops caring to create that “next,” then the manuscript is sure to end up on the shelf collecting dust. Let’s take a look at the different ways this question might manifest in our writing process, and how it directly influences the work we create.

 

Phisherman and Back to the Future)

When I sat down to write Phisherman I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go with the piece. I knew I wanted it to be about a hacker who “consumed” his targets by accessing all of their private secrets. I completed part one and really could have finished the whole thing right there as a brief character study. But I was still interested in this individual and I found myself curious as to what he might do next.

So I figured the natural evolution would be for him to progress from digital breaking-and-entering to physical. I wrote up a plot about how he obtained keys to a stranger’s home. Well that was definitely interesting, but then of course there had to be a part three where he actually broke into the home. The story demanded that I explore what would happen next.

That entire story came together naturally just by pulling on the thread of “what’s next?” You simply return to that well over and over until you come to the end. It makes me think of the first time I saw Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. Here I witnessed a time traveling car that brought a boy into the past to learn from his own parents’ experience. It was fascinating, but naturally gave rise to a question of what would happen if he traveled into his own future now. Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly where the series went with its very next sequel!

 

The Sweet Bay Tree and A Separation)

In my next story I tried to approach this question of “what’s next?” in a different manner. Throughout the plot of The Sweet Bay Tree we follow as a tree slowly comes to the realization that it has already reached the end of its arc. It is going to spend the rest of its life in the confines of a single room, and will only ever leave it after being chopped into little bits.

Before getting to that realization, though, we see the tree constantly looking for all manner of possible “nexts.” At first it assumes that it will some day be brought back to the field where it originally came from. Then it learns that field was paved over and it thinks it might become part of a new field. Or maybe a grove. Perhaps a retaining wall…something. Anything! But no, one-by-one all of its anticipations are pried loose until it at last accepts that there is no “next” at all. And now that there is no next, the story promptly ends.

This sort of teasing many possible outcomes and then systematically closing them was illustrated very well in an Iranian film called A Separation. Here we meet a husband and wife whose relationship has become quite strained. Despite the tension in their marriage, each seems to be constantly on the brink of setting aside their differences for a joyful reunion. The problem is that they are never brought to these moments of near-reconciliation at the same time. The wife is about to apologize but then the husband greets her gruffly. The husband is about to admit he might have been wrong, but then the wife ruffles his pride. Although their marriage should have a “next,” they are too stubborn to find their way to it. The film ends when they divorce.

 

Three Variations on a Theme and Oedipus)

Finally with Three Variations on a Theme I tried to illustrate the classic “hook” that I mentioned up above. In each of the three short pieces things are progressing along a certain track when a new entity introduces itself to tease a new path to follow. It was the cave calling to the pioneer, the muddy shortcut inviting the laborer, and the sinister exchange offered to the starving man. The introduction of each of these elements made for a divide in the road, a moment where the character could stay on their original road or else explore the other.

Of course in each case the character took the new route. Any time a story suggests a different road you can be sure it will be taken, because what would be the point of introducing it if not to then explore it? In each of these cases it proved to be the road to ruin, each allegory providing a caution against letting curiosity distract you from a path you already know to be right.

You see this same pattern in Oedipus’ journey as well. At the beginning he commits himself to a cause, but is then repeatedly warned to abandon it. Prophets, family members, and even his own intuition constantly warn him that he does not want to follow the thread he pulling on, but he stubbornly refuses to heed any of these voices.

Of course if he did desist then we, the audience, would be furious! The story has promised us epic tragedy and we won’t be satisfied until we get it. And so the path must be pursued, and the final revelations come fully into the light. When they do, Oedipus, and us as well, probably wish we had left well enough alone!

 

World Building)

There is one other way that an author can utilize this question of “what’s next?” in crafting their stories. This method is particularly related to world building and it begins by simply inventing one new thing in your world. Then, you repeatedly ask yourself how that one change would ripple out into others.

Take the world of Harry Potter for example. It’s basically our own world, but with one twist: the witches and wizards of antiquity are real, as is their magic.

But if they are real, then how about wands? Yes.

And potions? Yes.

Oh, what about flying broomsticks? Yes, sure.

Oh, but if broomsticks are real what are they used for? Well, obviously they’re used for transportation.

What about for recreation? Sure, why not. In fact let’s say that they have sports based around them!

Well what would those look like?

You get the picture.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this particular conversation is at all representative of how J. K. Rowling actually came up with the idea of Quidditch, my point is merely to give an example of how a train of thought like this could be used to come up with all manner of interesting of details. The author merely introduce one thing that is new and then follows each of the threads that follow. Those threads will undoubtedly begin to branch in multiple directions as well, sprawling out until you’ve created an entire web of new experiences for the reader to enjoy.

It is this tool of using “what’s next?” in world building that I wish to explore with my next story. The world of that story is going to begin with one simple idea: I want for all of the currency and deeds to be maintained purely by digital ledgers, there won’t be any cash, checks, credit cards, contracts, or paper documentation of any sort. It’s a fairly simple change, but one that can certainly have numerous side-effects that follow it. Come back on Thursday to see how it all plays out.