A couple of months ago I set about creating a slew of character studies in preparation for work on a new novel-length project. I figured that when the well ran dry at the end of a long writing session on my sister’s and my country tour book, I could work on something totally unrelated. Plus, I could use some of the material gathered from our trip, as well.
A reasonable prospect, don’t you think?
Inspiration to Dilemma
That’s where the problem began. I’d accumulated such diverse material that deciding on a series of plot twists and points of interest evolved into a nightmare.
I first had to decide on voice—poignant or dramatic with mystery. There was always a possibility of putting those two directions together and running them parallel. I hadn’t seen that done often, which helped make that bridge an interesting one. I patted myself on the back and continued.
The MC’s character definition was set. I could go on to build her circumstances into a realistic model. No problem there. Background details sprinkled along the way could create clarity.
Lastly, I needed to decide how far I was willing to take this character and her story. I’m an organic writer and most of what I put down in copy in my first draft is as much a surprise to me as to the reader. As a result, I require a point of exit for the story. That stop sign in my mind helps put my rewind brakes on when I get too enthusiastic with the storyline.
You can see the difficulty. I had a great main character and several feisty and intriguing secondary characters. I had so many who were dying to have their stories shown to readers who hadn’t yet met them. What could a writer to do?
Learning a Lesson
Veteran crime writer, Elmore Leonard teaches that using tiny details about a character creates something memorable for the reader as well as for the other characters. He advocates using major bits of dialogue to drive the story and reveal the secrets. He’s used these techniques to create crime novels that continue to fascinate readers since producing “3:10 To Yuma” back in the pulp fiction days.
I used this lesson and learned about my characters’ tiny details. Those can help drive both dialogue and reveal secrets. I know that my MC despises the married life she’s lived for seventeen years. I know that she longs to be free and living on her own terms. I also know that she goes to the library twice a week and spends the day there, which her husband allows because he deems the activity harmless and safe from temptation.
Those and more surround the major points in her life. Smaller details include the fact that she wears different clothes to the library than she does at home or to church. She wears a certain scent when she goes to town. She likes hats. Each of these facts assists in the creation of the overall picture of the character’s reality.
Mystery whispers around the base premise. Her friends and other secondary figures also hold secrets. These help move the reader toward discovery at the plot’s conclusion. Without that sense of mystery, that sense of anticipation, the story would fall flat and remain lifeless.
Many of the MC’s personal details are things that would resonate with folks in a Southern location. Ergo, setting made it known and added another dimension to the tale. With all of that worked out, I could move on to plot and setting.
Mapping the Plot
From first page to last, only one serious question required an answer at each juncture along the plotline.
What if? Those two words are drivers of stories. I listened when my MC told me that she had a secret life and that she really didn’t need her husband for any reason. She had her own life. It simply wasn’t as free as she would like it to be.
What if the MC goes to the library one day and is assaulted or raped? How would these actions play out? Would she hide in shame and refuse to tell her husband—a husband who might blame her for the attack? Would the police be brought in? And if the police were involved, who would they find guilty of the crime? Why would the attack happen that day, to that woman?
With that in mind, logical questions would follow. “What if her husband wasn’t around anymore? Would she prefer that he leave her alone but not have a divorce?
Why did her best friend need to be involved and what could she contribute to the MC’s situation. And on and on…
Discovering a Conclusion
Many of those “what ifs” evolve from the story’s regional setting. People behave differently in each region to the same stimuli. Anyone who has traveled around soon comes to that conclusion.
That fact allows me to work with a bit of logic, a bit of intuition, and a listening ear to discover what might be the only proper end to the story. After I have that piece of the puzzle, I can put the chapter outlines together and ready myself for a true beginning to the writing project.
Because I wanted to use material gathered for a different book project, I came away with much more. I came away with a novel, starring a character that previously had remained hidden somewhere inside my mind. In addition, I found a literary use for some of my travel material, which also gave me walk-on characters.
I titled this novel “Dreamie’s Box.” My writing partner told me to set aside the first two chapters for use as bits of backstory later in the story. Beginning with the death of the MC’s husband in Chapter Three will force a much faster pace to the story. It’s a good thing. Thankfully, I have a scrupulously honest writing partner. I may finish this thing long before NaNoWriMo.
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