Making Things Active In Your Mss;
Or, If The Amazing Captain Underpants Has More Plot Twists Than Your Ms, You May Be In Trouble
My son has recently discovered The Amazing Captain Underpants adventures. Fortunately, I greatly enjoy them too. With lines like, “George and Harold were usually responsible kids. Whenever anything bad happened, George and Harold were usually responsible,” how wrong can you go?
In any event, as we ripped through the first book at lightning speed, in one sitting, Christmas night, I realized there was a lot happening in those pages. Like, a lot. Not deep, dense thematic stuff stuff, nor layered complications of the sort single title length popular fiction writers (us) aspire to. But just . . . stuff.
Now, whenever I recount a book I’ve read or a story I’ve seen, rarely do I say, “It was a majestic sweeping survey of human relations and human frailty blahblah.” I, and others, generally say things more like, “And then they ran around the corner, right?, and there was this car, and it EXPLODED! So, they went back the way they came and….”
i.e. Stuff Happens.
I’m not saying we should pack our novels with titillating, pointless conflicts or the literary equivalent of car chases and pyrotechnics just to fill pages. I believe firmly that we need deepening risks and complications for our protagonists, not high-speed, successive-but-unrelated-conflicts. I cheer when I get a story where the tension is ramped up via the use of subtext. I love underlying themes, revealed through character blind spots, Black Moments and triumphs.
I’m just saying we need to make sure there’s enough actually happening in our story world, actual story events, that will make the reader turn the page.
This means the reader has to have questions. Questions like, “OMG, how will she ever get out that window with him standing right there?” Or “Oh man, they are SO going to fight about this. Wonder who will win, and what they’ll do to the other person when they do?” Or “No, way! That army just camped beneath the tree they’re in–holy cow, what next?”
In short, something of more or less value has to be at risk, so the reader can wonder, “How will they make it out of this?”
And for me, that is one of the most fun things about writing,. Making things bad for other people.
And then, of course, there’s this: ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBM854BTGL0&feature=related )
See what she’s talking about? Story. Story, story, story. Not themes, not character arcs. Things That Happened That Made Stuff Really Bad for Characters We
Because, in the end, we readers aren’t necessarily supposed to ‘hear’ the larger issues at work in a story. We’re just supposed to get a good story. Make that: A Good Story. The actions and unfolding events are supposed to communicate any larger issues or themes. And those unfolding event and subsequent character actions are best when they increase the stakes, when something changes as a result of the event and choices made.
(Hint: Sitting in a coffee shop chatting probably won’t do it. It may reveal information or character, but if it doesn’t change anything in the next story scene, it doesn’t count.)
When you ask a child to tell you a story, or the synopsis of a story they’ve read or heard, you get the important Story stuff. Plot twists, explosions, the big Black Moments, what the bad guy did, and how the good guy fought back. (Of particular note: They will usually, although not always, mention warrior-heroes with swords if one was, in fact, present. I am in favor of this.)
I’m telling you, if you have a young child, and his/her reading material contains more plot events than your current work-in-progress, you may be in trouble.
(Said by the woman furiously trying to write a wip with value-relevant plot turns that deepen conflict, increase stakes, and generally emotionally sucker-punch the hero and heroine who are already, poor kids, in a very tight spot. )
How about you? How’s your work-in-progress? Feeling stuck? Would a Captain Underpants-type plot turn help get you going again? Remember, sometimes (often) this writing gig can be fun too.