When I was a kid, I had a book called Tootle about a train that wanted to play in the meadow but was told, over and over, to stay on the track no matter what. Tootle resisted this advice but was eventually beaten into conformity. As you might expect, the best parts of the book are when Tootle is frolicking in the buttercups with the butterflies. This is good to keep in mind when thinking about plot. We often focus on driving the story forward down the track, which is good for creating suspense but can also become dull. Sometimes a narrative needs to hop off the tracks.
A good example of how this works can be found in Homer Hickam’s new novel, Carrying Albert Home. You can read a sample here.
How the Novel Works
The novel is based on stories Hickam heard about his parents. In one of them, his mother was given an alligator for a wedding present by her old beau Buddy Epsen. Eventually, strife between the newlyweds leads to an ultimatum, and so the couple decides to return the alligator to Florida by driving from their home in a West Virginia coal mining town. The plan is to return in two weeks. There are adventures, of course, but the journey keeps chugging along toward Florida. And then this happens:
Homer was in a strange place. The quick journey he’d planned to carry his wife’s alligator to Florida had come completely undone. The Captain would have probably called it kismet, but if that’s what it was, it didn’t much matter. It seemed the whole world outside the coalfields was crazy. Homer was embarrassed that he hadn’t been up to the challenges and now found himself stranded. He’d considered wiring the Captain with a plea for enough money to get home but his pride wouldn’t allow it. After the two-week deadline had passed for when he was supposed to return to Coalwood, he thought about wiring the Captain about that, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that, either. The Captain had a calendar and would surely notice the number of days that he had been gone and would take appropriate action. He required no sniveling telegram from his former assistant foreman to do what had to be done. He’d probably even consider it an insult. No, when Homer returned to Coalwood, he’d come up with the one hundred dollars he owed and he prepared to take his medicine. In the meantime, all he could do was try his best to get back on track.
This derailment (the novel even uses the word track) does a couple of key things:
- It provides a philosophy for the derailment—or some possible philosophies: kismet, the craziness of the world. This is important because it hints to the reader that the novel knows what it’s doing, that it hasn’t simply veered onto a wrong path.
- It suggests strategies for mitigating the damage for getting derailed: wiring the Captain for money or an excuse. But the novel makes clear that these strategies aren’t an option, at least not for these characters (“he’d probably even consider it an insult”).
- It promises that the novel will get back on track eventually, but not yet, giving the reader permission to enjoy what comes next and have confidence that the novel hasn’t lost course.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s derail a plot, using Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam as a model:
- Summarize where the track is headed. Hickam does this at the beginning of the chapter, reminding the reader that the plan was to drive to Florida and return two weeks later. If you struggle to summarize where the plot is headed, that could be an indication that you don’t know—and you may not know precisely where it’s going, but you probably ought to have a general sense. Otherwise, the reader may think you’re lost.
- Invent a derailment. What throws the novel off its tracks? It can be something mechanical (running out of gas, a storm), or it can be something within the character (realizing that he doesn’t want to do _____. Try out different possibilities until you find one that feels right.
- Provide a philosophy for the derailment. Is it fate? The result of a character’s fatal flaw? How do the characters understand or reconcile what is happening?
- Suggest strategies for mitigating the damage. Some strategies may actually work. Others might not. Generally, the worse the potential damage, the higher the stakes, so you probably want to render most of the strategies useless or unworkable, though you may want to allow one of them to work to keep the reader engaged.
- Promise the reader that the story will eventually get back on track. Hickam does this by letting his character make an intention to follow through on his plan. This can be enough: the sense that the characters haven’t forgotten where they’re going.
The goal is to create an opportunity for a novel to step out of a pollen and play around in the buttercups, so to speak.