Tag Archives: how to write plot

How to Make and Thwart Plans

11 Jul
Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark's story, "The Disappearance of Things" appeared in The Chattahoochee review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things” appeared in The Chattahoochee Review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

In his poem, “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the line—now famous as the source of the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men—”The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry.” As a piece of advice for story writers, the line is as helpful today as it was in 1785. We often create a draft of a story or novel that has The Big Thing That Will Happen and The Way The Character Feels About It, but we don’t have any middle. In other words, we have no plot. To solve that problem, we can create plans and then let them go awry.

This is exactly what the writer Mathilde Walter Clark does in her story, “The Disappearance of Things.” Clark is Danish, and the story appeared in translation (by Martin Aitken) in The Chattahoochee Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man whose possessions have begun to disappear: “a screw lid, a left sock.” It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a case of absent-mindedness. His shoes vanish, and the man realizes that his entire worldview is threatened.

That was not the way matter behaved. It could be obstructive, but it was an obstructiveness that came of existing, of having substance and shape. Of possessing hardness and inthewayness. He was under no illusion that he was a knowledgeable man, but the few things he did know were things to which he attached great importance. He knew, for example, that orderly surroundings make an orderly mind. And he knew that shoes don’t just disappear.

And so the premise is set, and we know how the man feels about it. We also know with some certainty that the disappearances will continue and that this will affect the man’s mental state. The question is now one of plot. The story can’t keep moving in the same way as it began: things disappearing, the man feeling confused. Resistance is needed. The man needs to push back. Something needs to happen. But how?

Here is Clark’s solution:

Following the disappearance of the rissole, he had drawn up a detailed list of all his possessions in order to help him navigate in what were habitually new and chaotic surroundings. The list ran initially to one hundred and forty-eight pages of yellow, lineated A4 paper.

The man creates a plan. He’s going to keep his things in a single room and consult his list to make sure all is accounted for. The temptation, now, would be to immediately thwart the plan. But that’s not what Clark does. Instead, she explains the logic behind the plan (“His possessions were ordered according to the following taxonomy”).

Okay, so now it’s time to thwart the plan, right?

Wrong. Instead, Clark adds to the plan:

He had yet to experience things disappearing in front of his eyes, so if he stayed awake long enough he thought he might be able to reduce his losses. He also took a chamber pot into the living room with him, since a number of his things seemed to be taking the opportunity to disappear during his visits to the bathroom.

This is how plot works. The character encounters a problem and comes up with a plan for dealing with it. The plan has a rationale. It’s personal to the character, and as the character thinks about it, she realizes holes in the plan. Perhaps those holes cause small problems, and so she adapts and closes the holes. Things are under control.

And that’s when you make the plan go awry:

It worked fine for a day or two until the lists disappeared.

Not only does the plan get thwarted, but that act—the disappearance of the list—feels personal:

[T]he leaves of yellow A4 were gone, with the exception of the one itemizing
temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region. On the other hand,
the pile containing temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region
was also gone, exactly as if matter had decided to play a very serious practical
joke on him.

The story has created a situation in which the character cannot defeat the problem. But the character himself isn’t defeated. And so the story continues. When all hope is lost, what comes next? That’s where plot must go.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and thwart plans to create plot, using the “The Disappearance of Things” by Mathilde Walter Clark as a model:

  1. Create a problem to be solved. The type of problem will depend on the type of story. Clark is writing (generally speaking) in the style of Fabulism (think of the writers Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, or the filmmaker Michael Gondry), and so her problem isn’t realistic so much as a supernatural manifestation of some internal problem. The point is this: all genres create problems. Vampires must be killed, bills must be paid, cancer must be faced, and intergalactic nemeses must be defeated. The important thing is to create problems that can be addressed head on. In other words, the character must possess the power to solve the problem (serfs can’t defeat intergalactic villains, at least not on their own).
  2. Create a solution. Simple solutions tend to be better than complex solutions. In Star Wars, the good guys blow up the Death Star—pretty simple. It’s the complications to enacting the simple solution that make it interesting. In “The Disappearance of Things,” Clark has her character make a list of his possessions so that he can track the ones that go missing—again, a simple solution. The solution also fits his character because he’s detail-oriented. So, identify a trait of your character and ask yourself, “What kind of plan would that kind of person invent?”
  3. Give the solution a rationale. In part, this means to explain how it will work (the way a heist movie has its thieves rehearse the heist before actually enacting it). But it also means giving details about why the character knows the plan will work. The reader of the story or novel (or viewer of the heist movie) has suspicions that they’re being set up, but those suspicions need to be balanced out by the solidity of the plan. Readers need to believe that even if one or two things go wrong, the plan as a whole is solid. This is why Clark explains the taxonomy of the man’s possessions. She’s convincing us that the man is mentally fit and together. Even if one or two of his possessions goes missing, he’s still with it. He’ll be fine. Without this paragraph (this rationale for why his solution of creating a list is a good one), the readers will simply believe they’ve been given another plot point to be easily knocked over.
  4. Tweak the planShow your character in a state of reflection. There’s a scene at the end of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise when the novel’s main character, Jack Gladney, is driving to confront a man. As he drives, he repeats his plan to himself. But also, as he drives, he thinks about the plan and adds details to it. Any character, if they bear any semblance to real-life people, will try to anticipate the future and the things that might occur in it. So, let your character anticipate the ways the plan might go wrong or the obstacles it might encounter. Then, give the character room to adapt the plan to these potential problems. In so doing, the plan becomes more solid, more believable.
  5. Thwart the plan. The plan must go wrong. If something goes according to plan, readers will be disappointed. At the very least, the results must be different than expected (the old “Be careful what you wish for” thing). There are two ways that a plan can go wrong: the expected way (that the writer and character have anticipated) and the unexpected way. I don’t mean that a meteor appears from space. I mean that you can use any of the characters or things or trends that you’ve already established and reintroduce them in unexpected ways. Clark does this by returning to the disappearances that set the story in motion. The expected move would be to make things on the list disappear. The unexpected move is to make the list itself disappear. It’s also a move that renders the plan totally unworkable. As a plot point, this is useful because it forces the character into terrain that he could not (or refused to) anticipate. Once the character is in that situation, that’s when the story really takes off and the reader leans in. That’s when we see something we did not expect to see.

Good luck!

How to Write Ideas into Fiction

16 Aug
Aliette de Bodard's story, "Immersion" appeared in Issue 69 of Clarksworld Magazine.

Aliette de Bodard’s story, “Immersion” appeared in Issue 69 of Clarkesworld and won the Nebula and Locus prizes for Best Short Story.

When I was in an undergraduate fiction workshop, my teacher told us not to worry about what our stories were about. Focus on the characters and plot, he said, and the rest will sort itself out. This is often good advice—but not always. Some stories are about ideas, and the issue becomes not how to momentarily forget those ideas but, instead, how to attach them to the characters and plot so that they read as story rather than apart from it.

One genre that consistently tackles big ideas is science fiction. And one of the most interesting new science fiction writers is Aliette de Bodard, whose story, “Immersion,” appeared in Clarkesworld and won or was nominated for pretty much every award possible: Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for Best Short Story. You can read “Immersion” at Clarkesworld‘s website.

How the Story Works

The story states its ideas outright. It’s about a piece of technology that allows its user to drop into a world and culture that isn’t their own and still communicate. In the story, de Bodard writes that certain people “believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” She also writes that the technology takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”

These are strong statements about culture and cultural appropriation, and it’s impossible to not read them as sharp critiques of very real technology in our very real world. The risk that any story runs when stating its ideas in this way is that can begin to feel more like an essay than a narrative. Essays are great, of course, but when readers begin a piece of fiction, they often have little patience for tangents that do not advance the forward momentum of plot and character. So how does de Bodard successfully include these statements in her story?

  1. She applies them directly to a single character. Here’s the story’s first sentence: “In the morning, you’re no longer quite sure who you are.” And why is the character not sure? Because she wears a device that produces an avatar that not only produces an external image but also delivers cultural and linguistic cues directly into the character’s brain. Imagine a Fodor’s guidebook mixed with Siri and the information delivery system in The Matrix. In short, de Bodard has created a machine that turns her ideas into tangible objects with consequences for the characters who encounter with them.
  2. She makes the plot hinge on the character’s decision. The story begins by asking the character who she is, and the plot follows an attempt to answer that question. Three of the characters (her husband, Quy, and Quy’s sister) are actively pushing or, at least, tangentially giving her space to answer that question, but the technology (the immerser) is pushing back. It wants to supply its own answer. In a way, the plot is similar to any story about powerful external influence (addiction, cults, relationships with manipulative partners). Because the technology is a character with (almost) a will that it exerts, it makes perfect sense for de Bodard to write that the immerser takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write ideas into a story using Aliette de Bodard’s story, “Immersion,” as a model:

  1. State your ideas. What is your theory about _____? de Bodard is writing about cultural appropriation, and you can write about something equally large. Or, you can focus on something smaller. To get you started, how would you finish this sentence? The thing about (pick your group of people) is ______. For instance, you’ll sometimes hear people claim that certain men suffer from small-man syndrome; i.e. the guy is short and making up for it. Congressman Paul Ryan recently blamed poverty on inner-city people who don’t know how to work. President (at the time, candidate) Obama once said about Midwesterners that “”it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Interestingly, when my Midwestern, religious, gun-owning father heard this, he thought it seemed about right.) All of these statements are basically ideas or theories about human behavior. de Bodard’s ideas are more rigorously academic, but they are still about human behavior. So, what’s your theory about 1) why people act the way they do or 2) the systematic consequences of that behavior?
  2. Create a machine that turns those ideas into things. This can mean a literal machine like the one de Bodard has created. The point of the machine is to put your character into an existential dilemma that is tied to the theory you have developed. So, if you believe in short-man syndrome, you might create a machine that makes tall people short. If you’re a Paul Ryan acolyte, your machine would make people unwilling to work (a city full of unwilling scriveners). Or, if you agree with the president, your machine might make people bitter in order to see what they cling to. But your machine doesn’t need to be an actual machine. I’ve already mentioned that addiction or cult personalities can fulfill many of the same functions. But so can the circumstances you create: if you want to make a character bitter enough to hate foreigners and brandish guns, there are realistic ways to do that. Melville found a way to make Bartleby avoid work. Many stories are filled with characters who suffer illnesses or accidents that change their physical appearance. In short, you can use the world of your story to drive your character into a situation that forces them to act.
  3. Make the plot hinge on the character’s action. How will the physically altered character react, and how will that reaction the ones she loves? If the character refuses to work, even in the face of extreme poverty, will someone eventually step in to help or not? Will the bitter character use the gun you’ve given him against the people he blames for his misfortunes? Turn the plot into a question of the path your character will take? The story can end once the decision has been made. Or, it can proceed from there to show the effects. Either way, you’re turning your initial ideas into a story that may have room for the statement of those ideas.

Good luck!

How to Create a Window of Opportunity

22 Mar
Karen Ranney's novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman who sails through the Union blockade of Charleston in order to pursue a sale and romance in Scotland.

Karen Ranney’s novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman with a secret who sails through a Union blockade during the Civil War in order to pursue business and romance in Scotland.

When I was a kid, my dad liked to joke that the devil came out after midnight, which is actually good advice for writers. Crucial moments (positive and negative) in life and in writing often require a window of opportunity. Under normal circumstances, we simply go about our lives; drama occurs only when our routine has been upended. After midnight, in other words, we have the opportunity to make decisions that aren’t open to us at other times.

In stories, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, we need to find those windows of opportunity when the devil can show his face, when characters can act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t. A great place to study such moments is in romance novels, and there’s no better place to look than in Karen Ranney’s latest novel An American in Scotland. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

An American in Scotland is a romance novel, and like most genre novels, it has a fairly predictable plot when boiled down to basics: two people will fall in love, and that love will eventually be consummated. Before the consummation, though, the characters must overcome obstacles, and it is this overcoming that gives the novel its appeal. (It’s the same with detective and espionage novels and certain kinds of monster novels: the reader knows the basic plot arc before reading a single page, and so it’s the particular obstacles that provide pleasure.) In this case, there are a variety of obstacles that would normally prevent Duncan and Rose from falling into each other’s arms. Or, as the back cover puts it: “Rose MacIain is a beautiful woman with a secret. Desperate and at her wits’ end, she crafts  a fake identity for herself, one that Duncan MacIain will be unable to resist…Duncan is determined to resist the tempting Rose, no matter how much he admires her arresting beauty and headstrong spirit.”

So, it’s clear that, first, Duncan will resist, but then he’ll give in. Then, the secret identity will be revealed and that will drive them apart—until they find a way to be together again. With each major obstacle (resisting, revelation of secret), the characters are set onto tracks that do not converge. Duncan can resist Rose’s charms forever unless something happens to knock him off his routine. In short, he needs a moment when the devil comes out, a window of opportunity to act in ways that he normally would resist.

One of those moments comes aboard a ship. Duncan and Rose are sailing to the Bahamas for a business deal. There’s tension between them, but Duncan tells himself, “She was simply his relative who was accompanying him to Nassau.”  But then the merchant ship gets caught in a storm off the coast of Ireland:

He clamped his hands on the end of the chair arms and stared at the door leading to the stateroom. He hadn’t heard anything from Rose since they separated after dinner. He sincerely hoped he hadn’t agreed to take her to Nassau only to have her drown on the voyage there. Perhaps she would have been safer on a commercial vessel, something designed to handle passengers. No doubt they would have stewards running throughout the ship, reassuring passengers that all was well, they weren’t in danger of plunging to the bottom of the ocean.

He couldn’t reassure anyone right at the moment.

That final line highlights the window of opportunity: He’s been determined to resist her, but now he fears for her safety and fears that he is the one who’s put her in danger. His self-confidence has been shaken. It’s not so different from the half hour before closing time at a bar; people’s usual logic has been diminished, and so they make decisions they normally wouldn’t. Duncan’s logic (I’m in charge, my will is strong) has been diminished.

As a result, he begins thinking dangerous thoughts:

What a pity he hadn’t taken advantage of the moment in the garden when she’d been reading Burns. He could have gently put the book aside, leaned over and kissed her.

As most readers will guess, the kissing isn’t long to come. The window of opportunity has opened, and he’s going to jump through it.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s open a window of opportunity, using An American in Scotland by Karen Ranney as a model:

  1. Create the temptation. In a romance novel like An American in Scotland, the temptation is clear: love and sex. But there are many other temptations available to characters: money, power, attention, security, or any object that offers or symbolizes those things. What drives your character? What occupies your character’s mind while doing other things?
  2. Put the character on a track that leads away from it. The track can simply be a character’s intention, like when I tell myself that I’m not going to eat jelly beans this year. Life is full of such intentions: we’re not going to call that person, go to that place, consume that substance. The track can also be anything that keeps a character otherwise occupied: work, friends, family. Or it can be some convention (sense of propriety, rules) that doesn’t allow certain activities. You can also use geography (the temptation is kept physically distant).
  3. Find the character’s weakness. In An American in Scotland, part of Duncan’s weakness is his sense of his own power and will. Many famous characters contain such weaknesses: Achilles in The Iliad, Sampson in the Old Testament. The weakness doesn’t need to be a fatal flaw, as with Achilles. It only needs to make the character susceptible to the temptation, the way that going outside on a winter day without a hat (according to some) makes you susceptible to catching cold. What weakens your character, even a little?
  4. Create the window of opportunity. Find a set of circumstances that does two things: weakens the character and brings the temptation close. In An American in Scotland, the ship/storm confines the characters together in a limited space and also frightens Duncan, weakening him. Very often, the window of opportunity is a literal disruption: a storm, a power outage, a natural disaster, a flat tire, a missed connection. So, figure out your character’s routine. What would disrupt it? What unexpected delay or interruption would knock the character off his or her track? The disruption can be catastrophic, but it can also be something subtle that doesn’t at first even seem like a problem.
  5. Let your character act. Once the character is weakened and the temptation has been brought near, let the character think about the temptation. And, of course, once the thought enters the character’s head, action is soon to follow.

The goal is to create drama by giving a character the opportunity to do something he or she normally wouldn’t.

Good luck.

How to Begin and End Chapters

21 Oct
Shannon S. Thompson's YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, features a clairvoyant drug and an uprising against the oppressive State.

Shannon A. Thompson’s YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, features a clairvoyant drug and an uprising against the oppressive State.

Most writers have a sense for how a novel is structured. But what about chapters? We tend to make a few common mistakes, like beginning a chapter with a character waking up and ending it with the character going to bed (or getting knocked unconscious). In other words, the chapter doesn’t know where to begin and when to end, and so as long as the character is awake, the chapter keeps going.

Different kinds of novels handle chapters differently, but it’s usually the case that genre novels contain short chapters. A great example of this kind of chapter—and a great example for how these short chapters are structured—can be found in Shannon A. Thompson’s new Young Adult Dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow. You can read the opening chapters here at Smashwords.

How the Novel Works

Let’s look at the first two chapters of the novel, which are quite different in terms of setting and content but which use a similar structure. In the first chapter, the narrator, a teenager named Sophia, meets an unexpected person. The chapter begins with Sophia running through the woods with her dog. She’s checking on her father’s land while he’s away and clearly feeling at home:

Spring was the best season − when everything smelled of moss, alive and wet. But it was August. The muggy air sucked all the life out of the plants, leaving them dry, disheveled, and dead. Today, the forest smelled of burnt grass and dried mud. Among the pivots, the creek bed, and the broken logs, I followed the trail, and my dependable dog ran in front of me.

Then, she runs into a stranger:

a boy whose “tone was sarcastically carefree, his stare was intense, shadowed by the setting sun. I recognized the stillness in his expression. It was a predatory look, the expression of an animal preparing an attack.”

But by the end of the scene, the boy’s tone has shifted:

“‘Am I near the park?’ His quiet tone was rushed. ‘That’s where I meant to go.’ His shoulders slumped in defeat. ‘Really.'”

That tone isn’t the only major shift. The boy hurries away because someone else has arrived, and that arrival causes a change in the narrator:

“My usually goofy friend was a mess. His mop of brown curls sprung into his widened eyes, and he wheezed from the run. His alarmed expression ruined any lasting comfort I maintained. Something was wrong. Seriously wrong.”

One of the smartest things I ever heard about crafting scenes was from writer and screenwriter Owen Egerton. He shared with me the screenwriting tip that scenes should almost always contain a reversal (a “flip” of a situation) or a change in tone. So, if a scene starts out happy, it should end with sadness. Of course, the best scenes will end in ways that don’t change the tone 180 degrees but instead change it in a way that is less predictable. This is precisely what Thompson does in her first chapter. The chapter begins with the character’s confidence in her own knowledge of her surroundings and ends with that confidence disrupted.

The next chapter does something similar. It begins with a risky encounter with the police, who are enforcing a State-mandated curfew. The encounter goes smoothly, according to the expectations of one character:

“Everything is a scare tactic with these people. They don’t check everything.”

The chapter ends with the knowledge that another encounter with the State is coming, and this one will be more serious and more dangerous: “I need you to bring me a bag of food, water, and one of your dad’s knives to school.”

Though the scene ends on a similar note as it began, the stakes have been dramatically increased.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s structure chapters using the novel Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon A. Thompson as a model:

  1. Choose the scene(s) at the heart of the chapter. I’m using the word scene because it’s sometimes a more helpful organizational unit than chapter. Most of us know what a scene is even if we have no idea what a chapter should look like. Scenes also appear in stories, whereas chapters do not. So, start by outlining a scene that you know will appear in the story/novel. There may be passages that come before or after it, but you should focus on the drama that you know will occur.
  2. Identify and clarify the tone or situation at the beginning of the scene(s). You can think about this in two ways. One, what is the situation at the beginning of the scene? Think broadly. What problem is the character facing? What approach is the character using? What is the character’s attitude? What is the balance of power? Two, what is the tone at the beginning of the scene? Is it serious? Comic? Goofy? Casual? Think about the scene as a whole, not necessarily the character’s emotions. For instance, a birthday party is casual, but a waiting room at a hospital is likely serious.
  3. Reverse or shift the tone or situation at the end of the scene(s). When you reverse or change any of these situations, you can go for a full reversal (happy to sad, birthday party to cancer), or you can go for a change in degree. So, if someone has more power, that person’s power could be amplified or reinforced rather than diminished or taken away. When you change the tone, you can keep the setting the same but introduce an element that changes the way we view it. For instance, if an ambulance shows up to a birthday party, the tone has changed from fun and casual to serious and formal. (As a general rule, if a scene contains people in uniform, then it’s probably formal.) You can also produce a change in degree: mildly happy to incredibly happy. For instance, birthday parties are mildly happy, but if you’re given a gift of a lottery ticket, and you scratch it and win a million dollars, the party just got a lot happier.

The key to all of these steps is to identify what you establish at the beginning of a scene. By the end of that scene, at least one of the basic building blocks of the scene should have changed. If you’re trying to decide where to end a chapter or scene, consider picking a moment immediately after something essential has changed.

Good luck!

How to Make Small, Intimate Stories into Page Turners

14 Oct
Michael Yang's story "Hollywood Bodies Found Headless" appeared in Amazon's literary series, "Day One."

Michael Yang’s story “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” appeared in Amazon’s literary series, “Day One.”

When we think about drama, it’s tempting to believe that bigger is better. A story about a marriage on the rocks is good, but a story with married characters throwing rocks at each other is even better, right? Not necessarily. There’s a reason that some journal editors ban stories about characters who die. It’s important to explore the range of dramatic possibilities that exist between morning coffee and evening murder.

For an example of how domestic dramas can be made exciting, check out Michael Yang’s story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” The lurid sensationalism of the title draws you in, but the drama that holds you is smaller and more intimate than a tabloid headline. The story was published as part of Amazon’s “Day One” literary series, and you can read the first pages and buy the story for $1 at Amazon.

How the Story Works

I’ve mentioned a number of times on this blog the Ron Carlson quote about a story having two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Usually, this means that a dramatic plot (ninja fights dragon in cage match) is given depth and resonance by the nuances of the story’s world (ninja can’t pass final ninja qualifying test, can’t get the girl, can’t make his parents happy, can’t get along with his more successful brother and sister). The world, then, gives the story texture.

But what if the opposite is also true? What if small, intimate plots can benefit from exciting worlds? What difference would the world make to a story about two characters working in a restaurant and trying to pay bills—one story is set in Kansas City, and the other is set in Pompeii just before Mt. Vesuvius erupts. Context matters—and that is exactly the truth that Yang uses in his story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.”

The story is about a woman who has moved to Los Angeles so that her 9-year-old can pursue her dream of becoming an actress. It might seem odd to view a Hollywood story as mundane, but Yang sets the story in the grind-it-out world of television commercials: standing in line to audition, dealing with directors and other parents, and eating (and not eating) in order to look the part. Plus, the story isn’t concerned with a make-or-break moment for the girl, Sara. Something happens, of course, and it may or may not determine Sara’s future, but the immediate impact is felt most acutely by her mother. In other words, it’s a domestic story with small, intimate stakes.

So, look what Yang inserts into the story’s world: On the first page, the mother buys a grocery story tabloid magazine with the headline, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” After she feeds her daughter dinner, she reads the article:

I open the glossy pages. The first body was discovered off a Sacramento highway a decade ago, a homeless man. There was hardly any press, only a small article in the back pages, but two years later the second body, a well-known former prostitute for celebrities, lapped up on the shore of the Los Angeles River, wrists and ankles bound. The only connection between the two crimes was the headless nature of their bodies. For a while, the Hollywood Lopper had been an LA secret, because of how infrequently he struck, but the killings ramped up as he began garnering news. The latest murder was a month ago: a ubiquitous character actor who always played the weaselly, cocksure best friend— the one who tries to steal the hero’s girl, only to get humiliated in the end.

After we learn the dramatic, Vesuvius-erupts part of the world, we learn about its personal ramifications:

On TV the news anchors prattle on about a besieged Los Angeles, with celebrities blinking under bright lights, stars turned into martyrs now that the Hollywood Lopper has moved up the entertainment food chain, while we no-names, the real victims, the people on the edges who had been enticed and promised celebrity, toil in obscurity through our ordinary lives.

In short, Yang has taken a small, intimate story and set it against a backdrop of 1) murder and 2) celebrities versus ordinary people. There  is a serial killer on the loose, but no one will care unless he kills someone notable. His murders have ascended the Hollywood social ladder, but there’s no guarantee that he won’t kill an unknown person next, like a certain nine-year-old trying out for commercials—or her mother. What makes the story beautiful is that it keeps the serial killer in the background (as part of the world) and foregrounds the story about a mostly oblivious girl chafing at the limits placed on her by her concerned mother.

That is how you can use a dramatic world to make an intimate story more exciting.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a small, intimate story more exciting by giving it a dramatic world, using “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” by Michael Yang as a model:

  1. Choose a mundane story. Perhaps it’s one you’ve already written. Or, you could choose one of the many usual domestic plot lines: marriage drama, relationship drama, parent/child drama, money drama, extended-family drama. Regardless, you’re looking for a story that makes you worry that it’s not exciting/dramatic/sexy enough. Setting aside issues of fiction written by men vs women (and the tendency to dismiss domestic stories), this is a worry that most writers have: is our story interesting enough. Why should anyone read our story?
  2. Choose a dramatic backdrop. If you’re writing a short story, this might mean choosing something to exist in the background: noise that’s buzzing in the characters’ heads. It could be something unusual and threatening like a serial killer on the loose. It could be a significant election or a historical moment like the first moon landing. If you’re writing a novel, you might use the larger arc of the story (throw the ring into Mt. Doom, return the painting The Goldfinch) as a backdrop for an intimate moment or minor arc. Even though the action may be small, it’s cast against a much larger story that gives it weight.
  3. Watch for a moment to unite the story and backdrop. Michael Yang does this when he writes that “we no-names, the real victims, the people on the edges who had been enticed and promised celebrity, toil in obscurity through our ordinary lives.” Give your characters a chance to notice the backdrop, just as the mother in Yang’s story reads about celebrities in the tabloid newspaper. That moment can have many emotional angles. In a story set in Pompeii, one character could look out her window while eating dinner with her children and think, “Oh no.” Another character could glance away from her cheating husband, see the smoke, and think, “Thank god.” This moment will likely be brief. It may happen more than once, just as the mother in Yang’s story thinks about the serial killer more than once, but when she does, it’s to refocus our attention on the importance of the intimate drama in front of her.

Good luck!

How to Make and Thwart Plans

29 Jul
Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark's story, "The Disappearance of Things" appeared in The Chattahoochee review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things” appeared in The Chattahoochee Review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

In his poem, “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the line—now famous as the source of the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men—”The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry.” As a piece of advice for story writers, the line is as helpful today as it was in 1785. We often create a draft of a story or novel that has The Big Thing That Will Happen and The Way The Character Feels About It, but we don’t have any middle. In other words, we have no plot. To solve that problem, we can create plans and then let them go awry.

This is exactly what the writer Mathilde Walter Clark does in her story, “The Disappearance of Things.” Clark is Danish, and the story appeared in translation (by Martin Aitken) in The Chattahoochee Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man whose possessions have begun to disappear: “a screw lid, a left sock.” It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a case of absent-mindedness. His shoes vanish, and the man realizes that his entire worldview is threatened.

That was not the way matter behaved. It could be obstructive, but it was an obstructiveness that came of existing, of having substance and shape. Of possessing hardness and inthewayness. He was under no illusion that he was a knowledgeable man, but the few things he did know were things to which he attached great importance. He knew, for example, that orderly surroundings make an orderly mind. And he knew that shoes don’t just disappear.

And so the premise is set, and we know how the man feels about it. We also know with some certainty that the disappearances will continue and that this will affect the man’s mental state. The question is now one of plot. The story can’t keep moving in the same way as it began: things disappearing, the man feeling confused. Resistance is needed. The man needs to push back. Something needs to happen. But how?

Here is Clark’s solution:

Following the disappearance of the rissole, he had drawn up a detailed list of all his possessions in order to help him navigate in what were habitually new and chaotic surroundings. The list ran initially to one hundred and forty-eight pages of yellow, lineated A4 paper.

The man creates a plan. He’s going to keep his things in a single room and consult his list to make sure all is accounted for. The temptation, now, would be to immediately thwart the plan. But that’s not what Clark does. Instead, she explains the logic behind the plan (“His possessions were ordered according to the following taxonomy”).

Okay, so now it’s time to thwart the plan, right?

Wrong. Instead, Clark adds to the plan:

He had yet to experience things disappearing in front of his eyes, so if he stayed awake long enough he thought he might be able to reduce his losses. He also took a chamber pot into the living room with him, since a number of his things seemed to be taking the opportunity to disappear during his visits to the bathroom.

This is how plot works. The character encounters a problem and comes up with a plan for dealing with it. The plan has a rationale. It’s personal to the character, and as the character thinks about it, she realizes holes in the plan. Perhaps those holes cause small problems, and so she adapts and closes the holes. Things are under control.

And that’s when you make the plan go awry:

It worked fine for a day or two until the lists disappeared.

Not only does the plan get thwarted, but that act—the disappearance of the list—feels personal:

[T]he leaves of yellow A4 were gone, with the exception of the one itemizing
temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region. On the other hand,
the pile containing temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region
was also gone, exactly as if matter had decided to play a very serious practical
joke on him.

The story has created a situation in which the character cannot defeat the problem. But the character himself isn’t defeated. And so the story continues. When all hope is lost, what comes next? That’s where plot must go.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and thwart plans to create plot, using the “The Disappearance of Things” by Mathilde Walter Clark as a model:

  1. Create a problem to be solved. The type of problem will depend on the type of story. Clark is writing (generally speaking) in the style of Fabulism (think of the writers Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, or the filmmaker Michael Gondry), and so her problem isn’t realistic so much as a supernatural manifestation of some internal problem. The point is this: all genres create problems. Vampires must be killed, bills must be paid, cancer must be faced, and intergalactic nemeses must be defeated. The important thing is to create problems that can be addressed head on. In other words, the character must possess the power to solve the problem (serfs can’t defeat intergalactic villains, at least not on their own).
  2. Create a solution. Simple solutions tend to be better than complex solutions. In Star Wars, the good guys blow up the Death Star—pretty simple. It’s the complications to enacting the simple solution that make it interesting. In “The Disappearance of Things,” Clark has her character make a list of his possessions so that he can track the ones that go missing—again, a simple solution. The solution also fits his character because he’s detail-oriented. So, identify a trait of your character and ask yourself, “What kind of plan would that kind of person invent?”
  3. Give the solution a rationale. In part, this means to explain how it will work (the way a heist movie has its thieves rehearse the heist before actually enacting it). But it also means giving details about why the character knows the plan will work. The reader of the story or novel (or viewer of the heist movie) has suspicions that they’re being set up, but those suspicions need to be balanced out by the solidity of the plan. Readers need to believe that even if one or two things go wrong, the plan as a whole is solid. This is why Clark explains the taxonomy of the man’s possessions. She’s convincing us that the man is mentally fit and together. Even if one or two of his possessions goes missing, he’s still with it. He’ll be fine. Without this paragraph (this rationale for why his solution of creating a list is a good one), the readers will simply believe they’ve been given another plot point to be easily knocked over.
  4. Tweak the planShow your character in a state of reflection. There’s a scene at the end of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise when the novel’s main character, Jack Gladney, is driving to confront a man. As he drives, he repeats his plan to himself. But also, as he drives, he thinks about the plan and adds details to it. Any character, if they bear any semblance to real-life people, will try to anticipate the future and the things that might occur in it. So, let your character anticipate the ways the plan might go wrong or the obstacles it might encounter. Then, give the character room to adapt the plan to these potential problems. In so doing, the plan becomes more solid, more believable.
  5. Thwart the plan. The plan must go wrong. If something goes according to plan, readers will be disappointed. At the very least, the results must be different than expected (the old “Be careful what you wish for” thing). There are two ways that a plan can go wrong: the expected way (that the writer and character have anticipated) and the unexpected way. I don’t mean that a meteor appears from space. I mean that you can use any of the characters or things or trends that you’ve already established and reintroduce them in unexpected ways. Clark does this by returning to the disappearances that set the story in motion. The expected move would be to make things on the list disappear. The unexpected move is to make the list itself disappear. It’s also a move that renders the plan totally unworkable. As a plot point, this is useful because it forces the character into terrain that he could not (or refused to) anticipate. Once the character is in that situation, that’s when the story really takes off and the reader leans in. That’s when we see something we did not expect to see.

Good luck!

How to Write Ideas into Fiction

25 Mar
Aliette de Bodard's story, "Immersion" appeared in Issue 69 of Clarksworld Magazine.

Aliette de Bodard’s story, “Immersion” appeared in Issue 69 of Clarkesworld and won the Nebula and Locus prizes for Best Short Story.

When I was in an undergraduate fiction workshop at Kansas State University, my teacher told us not to worry about what our stories were about. Focus on the characters and plot, he said, and the rest will sort itself out. This is often good advice—but not always. Some stories are about ideas, and the issue becomes not how to momentarily forget those ideas but, instead, how to attach them to the characters and plot so that they read as story rather than apart from it.

One genre that consistently tackles big ideas is science fiction. And one of the most interesting new science fiction writers is Aliette de Bodard, whose story, “Immersion,” appeared in Clarkesworld and won or was nominated for pretty much every award possible: Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for Best Short Story. You can read “Immersion” at Clarkesworld‘s website.

How the Story Works

The story states its ideas outright. It’s about a piece of technology that allows its user to drop into a world and culture that isn’t their own and still communicate. In the story, de Bodard writes that certain people “believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” She also writes that the technology takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”

These are strong statements about culture and cultural appropriation, and it’s impossible to not read them as sharp critiques of very real technology in our very real world. The risk that any story runs when stating its ideas in this way is that can begin to feel more like an essay than a narrative. Essays are great, of course, but when readers begin a piece of fiction, they often have little patience for tangents that do not advance the forward momentum of plot and character. So how does de Bodard successfully include these statements in her story?

  1. She applies them directly to a single character. Here’s the story’s first sentence: “In the morning, you’re no longer quite sure who you are.” And why is the character not sure? Because she wears a device that produces an avatar that not only produces an external image but also delivers cultural and linguistic cues directly into the character’s brain. Imagine a Fodor’s guidebook mixed with Siri and the information delivery system in The Matrix. In short, de Bodard has created a machine that turns her ideas into tangible objects with consequences for the characters who encounter with them.
  2. She makes the plot hinge on the character’s decision. The story begins by asking the character who she is, and the plot follows an attempt to answer that question. Three of the characters (her husband, Quy, and Quy’s sister) are actively pushing or, at least, tangentially giving her space to answer that question, but the technology (the immerser) is pushing back. It wants to supply its own answer. In a way, the plot is similar to any story about powerful external influence (addiction, cults, relationships with manipulative partners). Because the technology is a character with (almost) a will that it exerts, it makes perfect sense for de Bodard to write that the immerser takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write ideas into a story using Aliette de Bodard’s story, “Immersion,” as a model:

  1. State your ideas. What is your theory about _____? de Bodard is writing about cultural appropriation, and you can write about something equally large. Or, you can focus on something smaller. To get you started, how would you finish this sentence? The thing about (pick your group of people) is ______. For instance, you’ll sometimes hear people claim that certain men suffer from small-man syndrome; i.e. the guy is short and making up for it. Congressman Paul Ryan recently blamed poverty on inner-city people who don’t know how to work. President (at the time, candidate) Obama once said about Midwesterners that “”it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Interestingly, when my Midwestern, religious, gun-owning father heard this, he thought it seemed about right.) All of these statements are basically ideas or theories about human behavior. de Bodard’s ideas are more rigorously academic, but they are still about human behavior. So, what’s your theory about 1) why people act the way they do or 2) the systematic consequences of that behavior?
  2. Create a machine that turns those ideas into things. This can mean a literal machine like the one de Bodard has created. The point of the machine is to put your character into an existential dilemma that is tied to the theory you have developed. So, if you believe in short-man syndrome, you might create a machine that makes tall people short. If you’re a Paul Ryan acolyte, your machine would make people unwilling to work (a city full of unwilling scriveners). Or, if you agree with the president, your machine might make people bitter in order to see what they cling to. But your machine doesn’t need to be an actual machine. I’ve already mentioned that addiction or cult personalities can fulfill many of the same functions. But so can the circumstances you create: if you want to make a character bitter enough to hate foreigners and brandish guns, there are realistic ways to do that. Melville found a way to make Bartleby avoid work. Many stories are filled with characters who suffer illnesses or accidents that change their physical appearance. In short, you can use the world of your story to drive your character into a situation that forces them to act.
  3. Make the plot hinge on the character’s action. How will the physically altered character react, and how will that reaction the ones she loves? If the character refuses to work, even in the face of extreme poverty, will someone eventually step in to help or not? Will the bitter character use the gun you’ve given him against the people he blames for his misfortunes? Turn the plot into a question of the path your character will take? The story can end once the decision has been made. Or, it can proceed from there to show the effects. Either way, you’re turning your initial ideas into a story that may have room for the statement of those ideas.

Good luck!

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