Posts Tagged Plotting

Endings

The writer has to decide whether the ending of a story will be happy, sad, or neither. Sad endings are the stuff of tragedy; everyone dies. Happy endings are for comedies; everyone gets married. Sex and death–that’s all that’s important, really. We have permutations of the happy/sad outcomes; in modern work, maybe only one person dies, or maybe the hero doesn’t get married, but triumphs over evil. The mystery is story is like this. The detective/cop (forces of order) catch the murderer (force of disorder), and thereby mend the tear in the fabric of society that the murderer created. A happy ending, except that one or more people did end up dead.

In another category entirely is the unresolved, or “nowhere” ending, where most of what goes on in the narrative is left partially or completely unresolved.

Some people only want happy endings. Life is depressing enough without seeking more unhappiness in our reading and viewing. On the other hand, there is public appetite for the tear-jerker. The sad ending can bring catharsis, and a different sort of triumph–facing loss with dignity and courage. Many people dislike the nowhere ending, where people just go on much as they have, because there is little triumph or catharsis to be found there. I have a particular affection for the nowhere ending, though, because it is the ending that stares me most squarely in the face.

Happy endings are ephemeral. The wedding is over, and you have to get on with married life, which turns out to be one day after the other of plain old living, albeit punctuated with happy and sad events. The most happily-ever-afters end eventually with the death of one partner. And, whatever sad events happen to us, we end up going on as well, going on to more happy and sad events; that is, unless we kill ourselves. And when we die, we are either at the end of everything, or at the beginning of an afterlife. Either way, our own death mostly affects our friends and family. Our own end has very little to do with us, really. I love the nowhere ending, because it is the most true.

The most important decision regarding a proposed ending has less to do with what the writer likes, than whether or not it is appropriate. Put another way, what sort of ending has the story earned? Sometimes the writer needs to try out several. The io9 link below tells about that process, and gives us an example of that in Dr. Strangelove. The initial ending apparently called for a pie fight in the war room, rather than nuclear annihilation.

That would have been quite a different movie and not nearly as good.

Not an unresolved ending!

Not an unresolved ending!

http://io9.com/12-movies-that-filmed-happy-endings-you-never-saw-496347212

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I Know A Place…

I don’t remember the name of every dearly departed restaurant my husband and I used to love going to, but I remember the food, the ambience, and the basic serenity that descends upon one while being waited on and nourished with excellent food. Here is a short list of the departed:

Gandhi

Gustaf Anders

Bangkok 4 and 3

That French restaurant in Tustin

The Iron Squirrel

W

The Four Seas

It hurts when a favorite restaurant closes.

I have vivid memories of restaurants visited away from home, in Albuquerque, San Francisco, Brighton, Calais, Paris, St. John Cap-Ferrat, Venice, and Rome.

If restaurants are so important, why don’t we see more of them in fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy? When I Googled “Restaurants in Science Fiction,” the results were mostly for Disney, plus an ad for Ruth Chris’ Steak House. I had the same result when I searched for fantasy. Why?

One reason may be related to plot. Restaurants are places to pause, to relax, to have a nice meal…to restore oneself. SF tends to be literature involving action, often in places too remote in time or space to have such amenities. Even is they were available, our characters don’t have time to sit around and restore themselves. And if they do go to a restaurant, someone recognizes Lady Catelyn, and a huge fight breaks out. We never get to see the dessert tray!

Another reason restaurants are thin on the ground, especially in science fiction, is that they may not exist, in the same form, in the future. They might all be automated, with no human wait staff. The food may, indeed, all be printed from machines, sort of like the pellet diet I feed our cockatiels. Or we may end up in the world of The Windup Girl, where Monsanto has taken over the food supply.

An unappetizing thought. And no, I don’t really think it’s going to be that way.

And the more I think about it, the more I can come up with memories of restaurants in SF:

1) A teahouse figures prominently in The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald.

2) They stop at inns for nice meals in The Hobbit quite a lot.

3) Poppy Z. Brite has a delightful mainstream series–Prime, Liquors, and Soul Kitchen, which are entirely about two chefs and their restaurant, but it is entirely non-SF.

4) And what about The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams?

I guess maybe what I’m looking for here is something a bit different than the above, like a picky eater with a craving she can’t quite define.

Okay, I can define it: It’s the individually owned, sit-down venue with excellent food at slightly expensive but-not-ridiculous prices. The bistro. And it is this exact sort of place I think is in dinosaur mode. It’s much easier not to have wait staff or a lot of square footage devoted to seating. Much better to have most of your sales be take-out. This appears to be a trend. As for food quality, it depends on what is available, affordable, and demanded in various areas of the world. The number of hopeful chefs on TV competitions leads me to believe no one is going to give up cooking any time soon.

the-restaurant-at-the-end-of-the-universe

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Keeping It Moving

In a previous post which I will not look up and tag, I believe I cited some advice from writer Laurel Winter, who (and I’m going to go for a paraphrase here) said she made a point to work on her project every day, no matter what else was going on, no matter if all she could do was two sentences. Two sentences, she said, was her minimum. Two sentences was enough to keep that project in her mind, to keep the flow going. And, when she had more time, she could thereby avoid the “…awkward getting-reacquainted time…” required to pick up a project after a long break.

Good advice. Keep the flow going, and–in a mixture of metaphors–you’ll keep the pot simmering on that back burner. Metaphor #3: I think of a shark who never rests but is always swimming. A quick Google check indicates that thing about sharks perpetually on the move isn’t entirely true, but it’s a great image. Keep moving, keep the flow going, and keep the pot gently burbling.

Keeping it moving (or gently burbling) is necessary to keeping one’s attention, and I’m speaking of writer, not the reader. Nothing will ever appear before the reader unless it first makes it past the writer. If the writer becomes disengaged from her own work, the work will wander and fizzle.

I set aside two hours a day to work on my novel. If I am prevented from doing two hours, I do an hour and a half. Can’t do an hour and a half? Do an hour…and so forth. No day exists when I cannot do two sentences.

Let’s make that two paragraphs. No day exists when I cannot do two paragraphs. I can do something else as well: I can give myself my next assignment. Before I set down the work, I can look at the next two paragraphs and think about what might be next. I don’t actually have to compose them, I need only toss them in the burbling pot. When I return after a day, they will be at least partially cooked.

The alternative to keeping it moving is to get stuck. Getting stuck puts one at risk for writer’s block. When I am stuck (in the middle of my second paragraph?) I need to find a way to get moving again.

There’s no magic answer, but there are tricks. There are things I can do that are not unlike shaking out my arm when it’s numb from being slept on wrong. There’s nothing perfect or precise.

If I have a problem moving forward, what is the problem? Why am I stuck? Let’s say I need to get my character to the moon, but I want him to have a different reason for going there than the plot turn that actually happens. The reason I currently have for his going there seems stupid, leading me to feel like a Bad Plotter. In another situation, I suddenly realize I am not a biologist and my alien biology is therefore really stupid. I do not believe in my own science. My alien needs to be in more scenes, but I keep avoiding talking about it. I keep writing scenes where the characters seem to be in denial about the alien in the center of the room. Or…I’m tired and impatient. I want to get to action and dialog, but need to set up the scene first. I don’t want to set up the scene. It’s boring. It’s hard. I don’t seem to be able to imagine anything, and can’t seem to describe anything. The sun was shining. Her eyes were blue. I am a Lazy Writer and there is No Hope For Me.

In the third situation, being stuck on description, I simply close my eyes. I relax. I let the movie in my brain roll. I open my eyes and quickly write down anything I see, hear, feel, or smell. I do not judge the quality or appropriateness of what I write. I think as little as possible, except to prompt myself to remember to include all the senses, not just what I see. (Just out of scene, a spigot opens, a shark swims, and a pot simmers.)

In the case of the I-don’t-know-my-science-from-squat problem, I have resources. I can do research, and I can ask a biologist. I know some, as it happens. Find out what I need to know. Or sometimes, the very lack of knowledge can give me a whole new idea. My alien in the middle of the room? Hey, that sounds like a great SF absurdist play! Maybe I can work that into my story. (Just out of scene, a fish comes out of the spigot, the shark eats it, and an octopus jumps into the stew.)

Plot problems are usually easier than they look. There are always choices, different paths one can take, especially if–as in my example–I know where I’m going, i.e., the moon. If my character has no good reason for going to the moon, well, maybe he’s kidnapped. Why not? (The water scalds, the shark is arrested, and the pot boils over. The paths keep diverging.) Once it’s down on paper, I can trust the boiling-over pot to know what should go in it, and what should not.

My stories all flow better than the Santa Ana River.

My stories all flow better than the Santa Ana River.

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“The Birds and I Don’t Like Change”

Real life and fiction are different when it comes to the notion of change, specifically, how much of it we want.

Ten years ago. I was sitting on our bed, watching TV, and our daughter came in with our four cockatiels perched on her shoulders and hands. The four got one look at our new bedspread/comforter, shrieked, and flew off to the safety of the living room. Our daughter did not run, but eyed the new bed covering, and said, “The birds and I don’t like change.”

Bird owners will recognize the reaction. For a prey animal, any change in the environment is a potential threat until proven otherwise. This includes large items, such as ladders or brightly colored brooms being brought into the house, new big-screen TVs with people playing basketball on them, and yes, new bedspreads. If you’re a cockatiel, you fly. If you’re human, you may be more open to changes in your environment, um, well….kind of.

We are and we are not. Some people love to travel to far-off places; others are agoraphobic. Some are always looking for ways to change their circumstances; others are content to stay where they are and not “rock the boat.” For some, tranquility is the highest good. Others become restless and will seek to stir the pot at the first sign the folks around them are getting too comfortable.

As individuals, we have our moods, and most of us both like and dislike change, depending on how much, and what kind, and how much control we have over it. Too much change, even good change, is stressful. Too little causes stagnation, and we know it. Most of us fall on one side or the other of the likes change/doesn’t like change spectrum. And while we may not know ourselves perfectly well, this is something I think all of us can answer, immediately, and accurately: How open am I to change?

I’m on the not-open-to-change side. Oh yeah, there are some changes I definitely want. I want people to stop doing stuff I don’t like. I want to try new restaurants. I want new carpet. That kind of thing. But my routine, oh, I am stuck on my routine. I tend to do the same things at the same time on the the same day of every week. In some ways, my routine is my salvation. My routine allows the bills to be paid, the laundry to get done, and the trash to be taken out, but it also allows me to get together with friends, to exercise, to write, to garden, and to hang out with my family. I do not like having my routine disrupted. I am not spontaneous. Spontaneity screams danger to me.

Well, that’s my life, but I must take care not to write that way, because change is always the center of fiction. What happens next? Plot is change.

They say there are only two plots, the quest, and the-stranger-comes-into-town. Your protagonist is either the hero compelled to go out, slay the dragon, and put the world to rights, or your hero is quietly minding his own business, and the disruptive factor suddenly rides in on a horse. Many tales appear to be a combination of the two. Sandwiching the plot often are two brief places in which a) we are introduced to the character and see his/her regular life, and b) everything is resolved, explained and everyone goes back to whatever they were doing previously. I like those bookends. They are where I want to live.

But not how I want to write. I recall years ago seeing Kurt Vonnegut being interviewed on some show. He said the number one thing a writer needed to do was be mean to his characters. Whatever you are thinking of doing to your protagonist, double down and make it worse. Doing so will raise the stakes, and energize the plot.

Our mortal animal bodies are in tune with Vonnegut’s advice. We are programmed to protect our lives, even as we understand fully that perfect safety comes at too high a price, that price being a lack of personal growth. If I become too comfortable, or lazy, or timid, I know I must shake things up. I must leave the castle and confront the demon. I do this for possible rewards, and also just to stay in shape, for the day I am confronted by change I had not anticipated, be it a new bedspread, or a trip to the vet, dragon-slaying, or chasing the bad guys out of Dodge.

Hates change. Takes few risks. Refuses to confront demons.

Phot0: Mine. All rights reserved.

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