How to make a great novel out of a cheesy premise
Last time we visited our cheese-making pediatrician, we looked at appropriate use of backstory. Today, I’m going to show how we can elevate a novel from good to great by relating the doctor’s emotional needs to the plot she’s embroiled in.
Good novels have good pacing, rising tension, and a satisfying climax, but they leave their characters essentially unchanged. Great novels change their characters along the way, too. The characters leave the book wiser or with a different perspective on life than on page one.
Note: you can’t do this merely by tacking a “So what have we learned, Jimmy?” scene onto the end.
A great novel gives its important characters an emotional need, and uses the events of the plot to explore how that need shapes the character’s choices and beliefs. That is, a great novel has a character arc as well as a story arc. The two are tightly inter-twined, often by forcing the character to confront the emotional need in order to resolve the plot.
Dr. Lisle is a pediatrician, the daughter of a French couple who moved to the states in the early ‘70s. As a hobby, she makes cheese—her specialty is Roquefort—a craft she took up to address her mother’s incessant complaints that she just couldn’t get a good wheel of Roquefort here in the U.S. Now that her mother has passed, Dr. Lisle still makes cheese as a way of maintaining an emotional connection to her mother.
We can discover a plot that supports a character arc from this backstory by alternating between analysis and plotting.
Analysis: We’ve got her backstory already, so what emotional need does Dr. Lisle’s derive from that? She longs for someone dear who is gone. She is lonely. What she needs is a new, deep connection to someone else. But she’s not going to be able to get that until she lets go of her mother. As a doctor she knows the reality of death, yet she hasn’t deeply accepted her own mother’s demise.
Plotting: Let’s say our basic plot, as hinted at in those earlier posts, involves saving the life of a politician’s child. Except we already know that we’re going to need to do something in the plot to force her to face her mother’s death. So maybe, although the life of a child is already pretty high stakes, we need to let the kid die. Sucks, but there it is.
Analysis: Now the politician, Governor Adams, has the same emotional wound as Dr. Lisle. Further, he’s probably pretty pissed at her for not saving his child, even though she did everything she could.
Plotting: Because he’s so angry, and naturally looking for someone to blame and punish, he uses his power to threaten her hospital’s accreditation. If the hospital closes, a lot more people will die because of lack of care, which is raises the stakes nicely. The hospital’s Chief of Medicine orders Dr. Lisle to fix the situation.
Analysis: How can she do that? Well, since they both have the same emotional wound, she knows exactly what he’s going through. If she can get him to see that she empathizes with him, maybe he’ll back off.
Plotting: She shows up at Adams’s office with a wheel of cheese as a peace offering. Naturally he is not thrilled to see her. That’s an obstacle for her to overcome, which she can only do by spilling her guts about her feelings over her mother’s death. When he learns that she actually made the cheese she has brought, rather than simply buying it from a deli, he lets her in.
Analysis: This is a critical spot for the story. Dr. Lisle is herself on the brink of a cathartic moment of healing, but must also guide the Governor through his own grief.
Plotting: They talk. He has some stale crackers in the office left over from a fundraiser the night before. They eat the cheese, share memories of their lost loved ones, and form a bond. He asks her “how did you get past it?” She admits that she hasn’t, except in that moment she realizes she has. In talking about it she can feel herself letting go of the hurt. Not the memories, just the hurt.
Analysis: The cheese has become a metaphor for her emotional pain. In sharing it with Governor Adams—and eating it—it has gone away.
Plotting: In the end, she helps him find a way to stay connected to his son by convincing him to take up his son’s baseball card collecting hobby. He drops his vendetta against her and the hospital. The book ends with the suggestion that the two of them may pursue a deeper relationship of their own.
Conclusion: Who knew that would turn into a romance novel? You follow the story where it takes you. But you can see how at every point we link Dr. Lisle’s emotional wound to the events of the story. We even took the Governor on a journey of his own; it’s not as fully developed as Dr. Lisle’s, but it’s there. He, too, is in a better place at the end of the novel than when we meet him.
That tight coupling between inner and outer journeys is what can elevate a good novel to great. By the time the outer plot is resolved, so is her inner emotional need. Readers are happy not just that the hospital has been saved, but also that Dr. Lisle isn’t so sad about her mother anymore, and that there is hope on the horizon for ending her loneliness, too.
I want you to take a look at your current work-in-progress to see whether you’ve done this. Ask what your main characters’ emotional needs are, and whether those needs are appropriately related to the events of the plot. Make plausible connections wherever you can and you can elevate your novel from good to great too.
October 02, 2009 18:31 UTC
Do you know the right way to use backstory?
Last time I gave Six tips for constructing effective, interesting backstories for your characters. I promised I’d follow that up with some how-to on using the great stuff you’ve invented in your novel.
It’s not always as simple as it seems. As I wrote last month, there are lots of rookie mistakes you can make with backstory, ones that undermine your story rather than support it. This does not mean that backstory is a waste of time. Here are three ways you can use backstory effectively:
Use it to raise questions. One of the problems I cited in my last article was that, when presented in the wrong way or at the wrong time, backstory can answer too many questions about your characters. It can destroy the mystery. A much better strategy is to use backstory to raise questions, rather than answer them. For example, in my last article I suggested that a fun backstory element might be that a character makes her own cheese at home. You could use that to raise questions in the reader’s mind—that is, to create compelling mystery about the character—by showing that she does this, but neglecting to explain why. After all, why would someone make their own cheese? It’s difficult, time-consuming, takes a lot of work and some special equipment, et cetera. Why not just buy a slab of cheddar at the grocery store? Mysteries keep readers moving forward, so if you can create some with careful use of your backstory, you win.
Use it to create conflicts. So now that we’ve got the reader wondering why our heroine makes her own cheese, let’s heighten the drama a bit by creating a conflict around this bit of backstory-driven behavior. Perhaps the heroine is a pediatrician. On her day off, she’s whipping up a fresh batch of curds, something that must be done with a fair amount of care and attention to detail: timing, temperature control, and so forth matter to how the cheese turns out. Right in the middle of all this, her cell phone rings. It’s a resident at her hospital, begging her to come in for a consult over something that is 95% likely to be nothing. Does the she tell the resident to make the diagnosis so she can get back to her cheese, or does she sigh and hop in the car knowing that when she gets home her curds will be ruined?
Look for ways to put your character’s backstory elements in conflict with your story’s outer plot elements. But note, this only works when it creates difficult choices for the character. In my last article, I suggested that the cheese making hobby is, in fact, very emotionally important to our hypothetical pediatrician. The situation is only dramatic because it forces her to choose between something that is personally important to her and something that is professionally important but that she knows is almost certainly a total waste of time. So look for those conflicts, but remember that the conflicts have to have credible emotional stakes attached to them, or they’ll fall flat.
Support it early. I particularly want to stress this one, because getting it wrong can ruin a whole book. Let us imagine that we would like an important plot point to hinge on our pediatrician’s familiarity with cheese making. Perhaps she uses her knowledge of cheese cultures (the particular bacteria and fungi involved) to make a difficult diagnosis, saving the life of an important politician’s child. That’s great. We’ve tied the backstory to the plot, and in doing so, give ourselves opportunities to connect the character’s inner journey with her outer journey.
This only works if we have spent the requisite effort ahead of time to demonstrate and support her cheese making skills. Imagine if we have not. Imagine that we have said not one word about cheese making prior to the diagnosis scene. It just wouldn’t work to have her swab a sample on a microscope slide, and immediately exclaim “My God! This child is infected with Penicillium Roqueforti, the mold that gives the rich taste of Roquefort cheese!” Not only is that horrible, infodump dialogue, but it’s a deus ex machina solution: we’ve given the reader no reason to believe that the good doctor should know this, and any trust the reader has in you to tell them a good story is wiped out.
However, if we have spent scenes and time earlier in the book establishing the cheese making hobby, connecting it emotionally to the character and putting it in dramatic conflict with the plot, then the reader is primed to say “oh, yeah, she’d totally know what that mold is.” Problem solved. Backstory is a great way to establish important skills or pieces of information that characters will need in order to overcome the plot’s obstacles, but only if you do a good job of showing them to the reader before they are necessary to the plot.
September 25, 2009 21:31 UTC
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