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Novelists' black holes

This month, an enormous amount of my work time has been sucked up in preparing to do book doctor consultations with aspiring novelists at the annual PNWA 54th Annual Summer Writers Conference. They signed me up for 24 of these one-on-one consultations, each one accompanied by a 25-page excerpt from the aspirant’s novel for me to read and critique.

Anybody who has made a serious attempt to write a good novel knows that there are endless pitfalls one can blunder into on the trail from blank page to finished first-draft. I’m getting down to the last few excerpts in the pile, and I have to say I’m surprised some of these pitfalls haven’t been eliminated simply because they’re full to the brim with the bodies of those who have fallen into them before. I’m thinking you ought to be able to cross right over them on a crusty bridge of bones.

But, alas, some of these pitfalls seem more like black holes than holes in the ground.

Since they never fill up, I’m going to take a little diversion from my usual character-development fare to point out some of the more obvious ones, so future aspiring novelists can at least try to step around them. I’m not going to talk about little stuff: how to avoid run-on sentences, or even how to “show, don’t tell” or what have you. There are hundreds of credible books on creative writing that can help you with the basics.

I’m not so interested in the basics because those issues are comparatively easy to fix in an edit pass. What isn’t easy to fix in an edit pass are the big blunders. The ones that affect the bones of your story (if I may mix metaphors for a moment). If you all tell me in the comments that you want me to write about the basics and the intermediate stuff too, I’ll be happy to do so, but for today I want to talk about the big blunders that you ought to think about before you start writing chapter one.

Your line has no hook, or your hook has no bait.

I have yet to come across one of these excerpts that opens with a sufficiently well-constructed hook. I talked about how to do this the other day, in Hook ‘em with Character, but it’s important enough to be worth talking about briefly again. As I said in that earlier post, a great hook shows character through conflict. That is, it opens with a situation of meaningful conflict, one in which the POV character is forced to speak, act, and react in ways that show what that character is made of. You’d think that at least 5% of unpublished manuscripts would manage to do this, wouldn’t you? Yet, I haven’t found a single one that has put a sharp hook on page one, and baited it with a compellingly interesting character.

It’s not difficult to add a mere hook scene to the beginning of a novel that lacks one, but if the rest of the novel doesn’t contain interesting characters to work with, then there’s nothing to bait the hook with. That’s why I include this issue in the hard-stuff-to-fix category, because your opening hook isn’t going to catch many publishers if you can’t bait it with compelling characters.

Before you start writing chapter one, make sure your characters are worth writing a whole book about. I’m continually surprised at how rarely this happens.

"Country two-step” Pacing

These are books where the plot takes a step forward, then two steps back, then a step, step forward and a Do-Si-Do. If I had a dollar for every one of the excerpts in this set of 24 that opened with some plot, then took an immediate, pace-killing detour into flashbacks and backstory, well, I wouldn’t be rich but I could certainly buy myself a pizza.

It’s hard enough to craft a well-paced opening to a novel even if you only do the essentials: establish the premise, setting, and characters. The burden of starting the story inevitably makes the pace in the beginning slower than in the body of the novel. But, throw a bunch of infodumpy flashbacks, character background, or premise exposition into the mix, and the novel’s pace stops dead. Readers yawn—or at least, they would if they got to see it. They won’t, because agents and publishers will throw it in the trash and send you a “not right for our needs at this time” letter.

What kills me is that the material that’s in these pace-killing bits of backstory is almost never actually necessary. Usually, it’s material that is just plain irrelevant. The reader doesn’t need it. In the maybe 10% of cases where the material is relevant, nearly all of these do nothing but answer questions the reader hasn’t thought to ask yet, and as such, rob the story of a lot of mystery, drama, and suspense. These aspiring writers haven’t learned that leaving the reader with some questions and puzzles is a good thing. If the questions are compelling, if the puzzles are enigmatic without being trite, then the reader will read on and on to find the answers.

But when you kill your novel’s pace with an infodump flashback that reveals all of your character’s tragic secrets, you also spoil the mystery. Cut out all those pace-killers, throw away the truly irrelevant material, and sprinkle the other 10% here and there throughout the body of your story. Reveal it by degrees, to create a deliciously evolving portrait of your characters.

"Waiter, I wasn’t done with that!” Plots

These are books that open like one kind of novel, but then—surprise!—turn into something entirely different mid-way through. If it’s going to happen, this will usually happen right around the end of act one. If the best possible thing has happened, that is, the reader has actually enjoyed act one of your novel, switching it on them is an extremely risky move. It’s like your reader going to a restaurant only to have the waiter (you) take their plate away mid-way through the meal and replace it with something entirely different from what they ordered. Oh, and then also for the waiter to be surprised that the reader gives them a lousy tip.

If a reader actually gets as far as the end of act one, they have invested a lot of time and energy into your story, with an expectation of some sort of payoff: that the story will finish well. If, instead, it finishes by turning into an entirely different story, you’ve violated the implicit contract between author and reader. You’re saying to the reader “I know you were enjoying my hard-boiled detective story, but come on, don’t you really want a rollicking historical romance farce with aliens?”

I’m not saying you should never surprise the reader. Obviously, you should. The right kinds of surprises are good. I’m just saying that the middle and end of your plot should live up to the promises made by the beginning.

Film Negative Plots

Every novel has to find its own balance between showing, creating fully life-like scenes of important events, and telling, summarizing events that don’t need to be shown. A film negative plot is when the author confuses the black with the white, and shows us the boring parts while telling us the exciting parts.

You would think it would be utterly obvious not to do this, but again, this black hole knows no bottom. This is in the hard-to-fix category because it means re-writing everything, turning shows into tells and vice-versa.

I had one of these 24 excerpts start out with so much that was right: it had an interesting premise, and a main character who was doomed to struggle through events his background didn’t prepare him for. But, in the book’s opening, the author chose to show us a dialogue scene between the main character and his amicably-divorced ex-wife. In this scene, the main character recounts for her the most dramatic event in the whole first act: a dying man using his last breaths to give our hero a cryptic set of instructions. He literally tells it. The dialogue scene itself was well crafted, but for crying out loud, open with the dying guy! If you’ve got that in your back pocket, why on earth would you ever open with a congenial chat with the ex-wife?

So there you go. Four killer black holes in the universe of novel-writing. Now you know where they are, so please, try to avoid them. And if you’ve got any favorite pet-peeve ones of your own, please add a comment and share!

July 23, 2009 20:15 UTC

Tags: plot, hook, character, pacing, infodumps, backstory, flashbacks, bait-and-switch, PNWA, conference, show don't tell

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