Keeping the plot moving

Hello, readers —

No, I didn’t go quiet at the end of last week due to an excess of memoir-blockage-induced woe: I had an awful head cold. My ears kept squealing like a hog-calling convention, and I lost my voice for a few days.

Now, if my life were a short story written for a high school English class, this voice loss might pass for legitimate symbolism — or even irony, in a pinch. A bit heavy-handed, true, but certainly situationally appropriate: villains move to silence protagonist’s voice through censorship = protagonist’s sore throat. Both New Age the-body-is-telling-you-something types and postmodern the-body-is-a-text theorists would undoubtedly be pleased.

But the fact is, in a novel, this cause-and-effect dynamic would seem forced. Just because something happens in real life doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make convincing fiction.

My sore throat is precisely the type of symbolism that comes across as ham-handed in a novel. It’s too immediate, for one thing, too quid pro quo. Dramatically, the situation should have taken time to build — over years, perhaps — so the reader could have felt clever for figuring out why the throat problem happened. Maybe even anticipated it.

How much better would it have been, fictionally, if I weathered the storm now, not coming down with strep throat until just before the final crisis? That way, in fine melodramatic style, I would have to croak my way through testimony on the witness stand, while my doctor stood by anxiously with antibiotics.

The possibilities make my novelist’s heart swoon. Just think how long it would extend a courtroom scene if a key witness were unable to speak more than a few emotion-charged words before her voice disappeared with a mouse-like squeak. Imagine the court reporter creeping closer and closer, to catch the muttered words. Or just think of the dramatic impact of a high-stakes interpersonal battle where one of the arguers cannot speak above a whisper. Or the comic value of the persecuted protagonist’s being able to infect her tormenters with strep, so they, too, are speechless by the end of the story.

Great stuff, eh? Much, much better than protagonist feels silenced, protagonist is silenced.

Then, too, readers like to see a complex array of factors as causes for an event, and an equally complex array of effects. Perhaps if I had been not speaking about my subject for a lifetime (which, actually, is quite true: I had never shared the core information in my memoir before a couple of years ago), then I would be fictionally justified in developing speech-inhibiting throat problems now, or a childhood of chronic sore throats (also true in real life, as it happens).

But a single event’s sparking a severe head cold? Dramatically unsatisfying. Makes the protagonist seem like a wimp. Because, frankly, readers, like moviegoers, like to see protagonists take a few hits and bounce up again. Even better is when the protagonist is beaten to a bloody pulp, but comes back to win anyway.

One of the great truisms of the American novel is don’t let your protagonist feel sorry for himself for too long. We see this philosophy in movies, too. Think about any domestic film with where an accident confines the protagonist to a wheelchair. Got it? Now tell me: doesn’t the film include one or more of the following scenes: (a) some hale and hearty soul urging the mangled protagonist to stop feeling sorry for himself, (b) a vibrantly healthy physical therapist telling the protagonist that the reason he can’t move as well as he once did is not the casts on his legs/total paralysis/missing chunks of torso, but his lousy attitude, and/or (c) the protagonist’s lecturing someone else on his/her need to stop feeling sorry for himself and move on with his/her life? Don’t filmmakers — yes, and writers, too — EXPECT their characters to become better people as the result of undergoing life-shattering trauma?

Now, we all know that this is seldom true in real life, right? Generally speaking, pain does not make people better human beings; it makes them small and scared and peevish. That sudden, crisis-evoked burst of adrenaline that enables 110-pound mothers to move Volkswagens off their trapped toddlers aside, few of us are valiantly heroic in the face of more than a minute or two of living with a heart attack or third-degree burns. Heck, even the average head cold — with or without a concomitant voice loss — tends to make most of us pretty cranky.

And dramatically, we as readers accept that the little irritations of life might seem like a big deal at the time, even in fiction, because these seemingly trivial incidents may be Fraught with Significance. Which often yields the odd result, in books and movies, of protagonists who bear the loss of a limb, spouse, or job with admirable stoicism, but fly into uncontrollable spasms of self-pity at the first missed bus connection or hot dog that comes without onions WHEN I ORDERED ONIONS.

Why oh why does God let things like this happen to good people?

One of my personal favorite examples of this phenomenon comes in that silly American remake of the charming Japanese film, SHALL WE DANCE? After someone spills a sauce-laden foodstuff on the Jennifer Lopez character’s suede jacket, she not only sulks for two full scenes about it, but is seen to be crying so hard over the stain later that the protagonist feels constrained to offer her his handkerchief. Meanwhile, the death of her dancing career, the loss of her life partner, and a depression so debilitating that she barely lifts her head for the first half of the movie receive only a few seconds’ worth of exposition. Why? Because dwelling on the ruin of her dreams would be wallowing; dwelling on minor annoyances is Symbolic of Deeper Feelings.)

Edith Wharton remarked in her excellent autobiography (which details, among other things, how terribly embarrassed everybody her social circle was when she and Theodore Roosevelt achieved national recognition for their achievements, rather than for their respective standings in the NYC social register. How trying.) that the American public wants tragedies with happy endings. It still seems to be true.

I have heard many, many agents and editors complain in recent years about too-simple protagonists with too-easily-resolved problems. I have heard in conference presentation after conference presentation the advice that writers should give their protagonists more quirks — it’s an excellent way to make your characters memorable. Give ’em backstory, and if you want to make them sympathetic, a hard childhood, dead parent, or unsympathetic boss is a great tool for encouraging empathy. Provided, of course, that none of these hardships actually prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her ultimate goal.

In other words, feel free to heap your protagonist (and love interest, and villain) with knotty, real-life problems; just make sure that the protagonist fights the good fight with as much vim and resources as someone who did not have those problems.

Again, this is not the way we typically notice people with severe problems acting in real life, but we’re talking fiction here. We’re talking drama. We’re talking about moving a protagonist through a story in a compelling way, and as such, as readers and viewers, we have been trained to regard the well-meaning soul who criticizes the recently-bereaved protagonist by saying, “Gee, Erica, I don’t think you’ve gotten over your father’s death yet,” as a caring, loving friend, rather than as a callous monster incapable of reading a calendar with sufficient accuracy to note that Erica buried her beloved father only a couple of weeks before. Why SHOULD she have gotten over it already?

Let’s move the plot along, people.

I don’t think that the agents, editors, and readers who resent characters who linger in their grief are inherently unsympathetic human beings; they are just easily bored. In a short story or novel or screenplay, people who feel sorry for themselves (or who even possess the rational skills to think at length over the practical ramifications of obstacles in their paths) tend to be passive, from the reader’s POV. They don’t do much, and while they’re not doing much, the plot grinds to a screaming halt. Yawn.

Or to express it in the parlance of agents and editors: next!

This is a very, very common manuscript megaproblem, one about which agents and editors complain loudly and often: the protagonist who stops the plot in order to think things over, rather than taking swift action. Or stops to talk the problem over with another character, rehashing the background information that the reader already knows. When you see these pondering scenes in your own work, even if the project in question is the most character-driven literary fiction imaginable, pause and consider: could the piece work without the pondering scene? Often, it can, and brilliantly.

A more subtle form of this megaproblem is the protagonist who waits patiently for all of the pieces of the mystery to fall into to place before taking action. Why, the reader wonders, did the protagonist NEED to know the entire historical background of the problem before doing something about it? Because the author thought the background was interesting, that’s why.

Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: “because the plot requires it” should NEVER be the only reason something happens in a story. Wouldn’t it be more interesting, and substantially more active, if the protagonist acted on PARTIAL information, and then learned from the results of what she had done that she needed to learn more?

In the midst of manuscripts where 2/3rds of the book is spent hunting down every last detail before the protagonist acts, I often find myself wondering: is it really such a good thing that HAMLET is so widely taught in high schools? Yes, many of the speeches are mind-bogglingly lovely, but here is a protagonist who more or less sits around feeling sorry for himself and not acting until the final act of a very, very long play — is this really the best exemplar of how to construct a plot? Yes, it’s beautifully written, but honestly, by the middle of Act III, don’t you just want to leap onto the stage, shake Hamlet, and tell him to DO SOMETHING, already?

Oh, yeah, right, as if I’m the only one who’s had THAT impulse…

One form that the passive protagonist often takes is the lead who interviews relevant players not by asking questions, but simply by showing up and waiting for the bad guys — or whoever has the necessary information — to divine psychically what the protagonist is after and spill their guts spontaneously. Amazingly enough, they always oblige. (A common corollary is the villain who casually retails background information while the protagonist is at his mercy. Villains are SUCH nice fellows; they are always more than willing to kill a little time while waiting for the protagonist’s rescuers to show up.)

So, for reasons of drama, I apologize for how slowly events have been unfolding in the saga of my memoir’s path to publication. If the saga’s a comedy, it’s moving way too slowly, and if it’s a tragedy, it should have had at least a hint of a happy ending by now. Nine months — yes, the threats against the book really have been coming in for longer than I have been writing this blog — really is far too long for the plot to have paused.

I assure you, behind the scenes, this protagonist really has been taking action. Soon, I hope, the Medusa’s head will be successfully lopped off, and everyone concerned will stop acting as though he has been turned to stone. Because this is an American drama, damn it: we need to move the plot along.

There endeth today’s attempt to derive something from my ambient reality that will help at least some of you in your writing efforts. Okay, so it wasn’t a particularly subtle connection — but hey, I still have a sore throat. Cut me some slack for a minor annoyance.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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