Monday, September 15, 2008

Moving the Plot Forward

During a recent BookEnds meeting we were discussing a manuscript in which our biggest concern (collectively) was that the author hadn’t done enough to move the plot forward. Her writing was beautiful and we all loved the idea and really wanted to love the book, but felt it moved much too slowly. In this particular case the book was a mystery, and so the discussion naturally fell to mysteries and how when writing a mystery it’s imperative that each scene somehow takes the reader one step closer to the final outcome. Of course, during this discussion what we all agreed on was that it’s not just mysteries that require this, but all books. In any book you read you’ll notice, sometimes subtly, that every scene has a purpose, and that purpose is to take the reader to the end, or give the reader the information required to get to the end of the book.

What this means is that you need to be very, very careful of endless coffee chatter. Those scenes where characters are sitting around and waxing poetic about life, love, and themselves. While these are great for character building, they do nothing for novel building. It was Katelynn, our assistant, who actually pointed out that writing courses can be a real hindrance to writers when it comes to novel building. As a student with a number of creative writing courses under her belt, she would know. She pointed out that teachers and professors will frequently encourage writers to sit and “have coffee” with their characters; that by writing a scene in which characters do little but chat you’ll learn a lot about who they are. And that’s certainly true and fabulous advice for getting a handle on who your characters are, but not great advice for how to write a novel. Once you’ve written that coffee chat scene, my suggestion is put it into a character file and start the book.

One of the mistakes we often see with beginning authors are those who just love their characters and want you to love them too. They want to welcome you into their world and have you sit and share their experiences. Which is great, but not necessarily the best thing to build a novel on. Now, if that coffee chat is somehow discussing the state of the world you are building, clues from the mystery, or the heroine’s latest romantic adventure, in other words, if it’s moving the plot along, great. Keep it in. If not, you’ll need to find a different way to introduce your characters to readers.



Susan said...

I once asked an editor if she could recommend any writing courses; she said "Oh God don't take a course--just write." Something about the way she started with "Oh God" came back to me while I was reading this post! Maybe sometimes we all learn *too* much...

Karen Duvall said...

That course had to have come from some creative writing thing at a university. Great for literary fiction, not so much for commercial fiction.

I'd say 99.9 percent of novel writing courses taught at writers conferences are spot-on. You won't find such nonsensical advice from a professional writer who actually makes money writing books. University professors, on the other hand, teach because most of them have yet to sell. I wonder why.

Amy Nathan said...

When I first learned this about dialog - that every conversation needs to enhance the story, move the plot along, not just give background information (so, how was your life back in Kansas?) or backstory (hi, I heard you were married four times, please tell me all about it so i understand you today) cleaned up my ms quite a bit. Not that you can't drop a quick quip in there now and then, if it suits the character, but I often write scenes and then take stock of whether or not they are doing something or explaining something.

Robena Grant said...

I re-read Steven King on Writing, this weekend. He also says forget the courses and the retreats and just write. But it's easy to say that when you're already successful.
However, I do understand what he says, if you keep learning and understanding what works by writing, reading, and analyzing both what you write and read, then your writing will improve whether you take courses or not.
I was guilty of character building or scene setting chapters that did little to move the story forward. I'm exploring writing shorter and tighter stories right now. For the first time in years I'm having fun.

J.P. Kurzitza said...

I'm an aspiring writer myself, and wouldn't you know it, my first go at this has spawned a story that spans 6 books. There's just no getting around it.

My wife read a very rough draft of my first 3 chapters and said she was waiting for things to "get moving". But I'm worried about putting too much into the first story and run out of surprises for the following novels. Any expert advice?

Love the blog.

Kristin said...

JP, maybe your story doesn't really span over 6 books. Maybe you only have enough plot for 3. Think about it that way. Definitely get to the plot as quickly as you can, or no one will stick around to read 5 more books about it.

Anonymous said...

"She pointed out that teachers and professors will frequently encourage writers to sit and “have coffee” with their characters; that by writing a scene in which characters do little but chat you’ll learn a lot about who they are."

I'll admit that I've never taken a writing course and I really have no idea about the type or quality of advice given by teachers. This advice though seems pretty good to me. I think it is true that if you write a scene of your characters chatting you will discover a lot about them by what they say and how you have them interacting with other characters. What I wonder is if the professors tell the students to put these scenes in the novel/story or if they are meant to be a tool to aid the student.

Julie Weathers said...

I agree and disagree about the courses. I think it depends on which courses you're taking.

I was thinking about taking some courses at the local college on writing and my editor at the magazine told me it wasn't a good idea. She was afraid it would most likely quell my voice. Instead, she suggested I just buy a good book on grammar if I felt unsure about the nuts and bolts. I was writing horse racing stories at the time, but that's a bit different than epic fantasy.

Diane has two degrees, so it's not that she's anti-education.

Donald Maass' book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL cautions about writing scenes in the kitchen and the bath because nothing is happening. Oops. My first chapter has both.

Rather than get rid of them, I rewrote both scenes so they do a lot to advance the conflict and the plot. It's amazing what just a few sentences can do to change the scene.

I'm just finishing The Next Level workshop with Barbara Rogan and I can't say enough good things about it.

She taught us how to completely break down the entire novel and examine each scene and character to see if they are pulling their weight. We looked at the story arc, beginnings and endings, character development, plot, etc.

Arc? What the heck is an arc? Fortunately or unfortunately, I am a story teller. Even though I didn't understand the anatomy of a story, I pretty much had the bones right. I just needed to rearrange some of the flesh.

For me, it meant rewriting the last five chapters of the book, deleting the prologue and one chapter and rewriting or deleting many scenes. I think the story is much tighter and more professional now.

She also really hammered on us about getting that first chapter perfect. We had to grab the readers by the throat and set them firmly in our world. They had to care about the characters and want to know what was going to happen to them.

I'm going to Surrey in October and I hope the workshops I take there will put the final polish on this work.

I guess what I'm saying is I think a person needs to be careful about which courses and advice you take to heart.

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristin Laughtin said...

They want to welcome you into their world and have you sit and share their experiences. Which is great, but not necessarily the best thing to build a novel on. Now, if that coffee chat is somehow discussing the state of the world you are building, clues from the mystery, or the heroine’s latest romantic adventure, in other words, if it’s moving the plot along, great. Keep it in.

Exactly. Once I realized this and removed all the pretty-but-ultimately-useless scenes, I found my stories were much tighter. It also helped me cut a lot of words, and made similar scenes that actually did advance the plot stand out much more.

It can still be useful to write those coffee scenes in order to get to know the characters, but it's important not to become too attached to them if they really don't help the story at all.

Keri Ford said...

I never thought I was bad at this. Until now. I'm rewriting a story right now and man did I do this in the past! I have deleted scene after scene that I used to love and adore--including the first two whole chapters.

So, I am sorry Jessica for having you read work in the past that was a lot of coffee table stuff!

JohnO said...

Ugh, how bloody appropriate -- and timely -- this post is!

Just last week I got this comment from an agent: "I can see a future for [your] novel but my problem is that from the beginning it moves far too slowly for its own good."

... That's Book 1, which I'm trying to sell (and now overhauling). In Book 2 (in progress), I basically strapped the characters in and floored it.

Should I ever be lucky enough to be a published novelist dispensing advice, I'd say, character is good, character is nice, but you'd be better off giving your hero/ine a goal, sticking a big obstacles in the way, and letting the collisions commence.

PS - I have to agree with the writing program critique, to a point. I got way too much coddling, not nearly enough tough-but-fair editing.

Belletristic Bloggette said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Belletristic Bloggette said...

Hi Jessica,
I am a Newbie. Great post! Maybe you have seen this before, but I found an interesting blip by Robert Mckee from his book, STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING that addresses this issue on writing courses and plot.

"Over the last twenty-five years the method of teaching creative writing in American universities has shifted from the intrinsic to the extrinsic. Trends in literary theory have drawn professors away from the deep sources of story toward language, codes, text-story seen from the outside. As a result, with some notable exceptions, the current generation of writers has been undereducated in the prime principles of story."

So, now I am wondering, do you think it is usually easier to sell plot instead of voice?

Steve Stubbs said...

Who was it who said if the characters in a play sit down the whole play sits down?

The idea being, of course, that the actors should stand and move throughout the play, or the playwright had better know what he is doing.

Despite that, I am reminded of an excellent scene in the movie ABSOLUTE POWER in which Clint Eastwood and Ed Harris meet at a diner and discuss the fine art of burglary. It was a way to introduce back story without thhe cheesy device of a narrative voice over.

That scene lasted just a couple of minutes. The rest of the movie was action. It seems to illustrate your point.

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