A Problem For Plotters (part two)

>> Friday, August 20, 2010

A while back (gosh, I guess it must be two years now), a friend was working on a zombie short and I was one of the people he spoke to during the early phases. I don't think he actually used any of my ideas, which is how it goes sometimes, but there was one idea I had that I knew he couldn't use but that I kept for my own: a zombie western (yes, I know it's been done--I don't care). This was my 2008 NaNoWriMo project, which I didn't finish but ended up with 50k words towards that year; since then it's been restarted, shelved, plotted, revised, sent to Limbo, rescued from Purgatory, researched, reinvented, jerked around, diligently worked on, deleted, backed-up--everything that you can do to a piece of writing, really, other than finish it.

Murrow's story--Murrow being my tale's protagonist, see--has gone back onto an imaginary shelf while I focus on short stories, in part because it has two problems, a major one that might be worked around and a small one that might be fatal.

Yes, I know, that doesn't sound right. But that's where it is.

The major problem isn't really relevant here, but I'll tell you what it is because I brought it up. In choosing a setting, I thought it would be interesting to set the story during the American Civil War. And this turns out to be a slightly bad idea.

Here's a digression that sort of illustrates why: Dan Simmons wrote a decent horror novel a few years ago called The Terror, a tight, page-turning read that offers a supernatural explanation for the disappearance of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage. It's a fairly good book, but it has one really ironic and awful flaw: the supernatural bogeyman Simmons has plaguing Franklin and his men is actually a lot less awful than what almost certainly really happened to the expedition. That is, having your head ripped off by an unseen monster turns out to be a little less terrible than having your body literally disintegrate from malnutrition because you can't get the Vitamin C your body needs to maintain and repair its connective tissues. For that matter, all the other horrible things that can happen to a person stuck in the Arctic with insufficient supplies are all worse than anything I--or Simmons, as it turns out--can imagine. In the real world, the damned, doomed men accompanying Sir John faced the likely prospect of freezing to death or dying of malnutrition assuming they didn't fall into the water and get trapped beneath the ice and drown or get crushed when ice compromised their ship's hull or get shot or stabbed by a fellow crewmember driven crazy by the relentless environment--being ripped into pieces by a ginormous whatsit was the least of their worries, maybe would've even been a peculiar mercy.

So I'm facing the same problem if I keep my story set in the Civil War, right? Because as I do my research reading it's hard not to notice that battlefields full of dead and dying men were horrifying enough without the living dead getting up and doing whatever terrible things I can think of. I keep running into the prospect that I could, if I were inclined (and someday I might be), write a really horrifying Civil War story with no supernatural elements at all.

This is a major problem, but easily fixable: add twenty years to the date and it goes away without changing too much of anything else. Okay, I'd have to revise the way the story begins, but I don't think it would suffer if I tightened things up.

My minor problem is what has probably killed A Song Of Ice And Fire.

Let's back up a minute. Someone, somewhere, defined plot as a character's changes over time. This is a limited definition and I'm sure someone can find an exception or challenging case, but it does point you to some crucial things, particularly the fact that a plot is more than just a bunch of stuff that happens. Let's just say, rather, that if you're going to try to write a story where lots of stuff happens but none of it changes anybody or anything, you'd better be fast and smooth about it, else you risk your reader sitting there on the last page, wondering why he bothered or why he can't put his finger on just how meh his reading experience has been.

Now, to be fair, Martin's characters in ASOIAF change--a lot of them grow, some diminish, and every one of them turns out to be more complicated and multilayered than one might have suspected. This is one of the series' strengths, really, even when things seem to be bogged down with a character nobody wants to spend any time with (looking at you, Cersei Lannister).

But, as Hilliard points out, this is undercut by the fact that Martin's characters aren't really going anywhere. They may be growing, but there's not actually any point to that, there's not a sense that they're growing into something or that the changes should be especially affecting to the reader.

On one level, this creates a wonderful sense of realism. In real life, lots of things happen and people change and none of it amounts to very much--even the things that are a big deal at the time and affect lots of people get shuffled into the past somewhere and everything moves along. But it's problematic as fiction. At some point in a story, the reader has to feel that sense that there's been a reason for going through all this, that it has mattered in some sense, even if it's only the sense of, "Well, this was a lot of fun and killed an afternoon."

In that Civil War zombie western that's plagued me, I can tell you how the story begins (assuming I keep the Civil War setting), and where Murrow goes when he doesn't find his son and everything that's ever died begins rising en masse, and how he tries to get back to his family and what he does next. And I can tell you what happens to Murrow's future antagonist, Walker, in Nova Scotia and then in Wilmington, North Carolina. And how Murrow and Walker meet in Charleston, (West) Virginia and what happens there. And their travels westward and final confrontation in New Mexico. And I can tell you all sorts of things about Murrow's awful horse, Powder, who in some ways is the most important thing in the whole damn story. I've had all these things swirling around my fucking brain for two years and bits and pieces have frequently been committed to and de-committed from paper. I can tell you that some of those bits might even be kind of good.

But I can't tell you why you should care.

See, I have what could be GRRM's problem, albeit a different strain because he apparently just writes things down without much planning and I actually have this zombie apocalypse fairly-well-drawn in my head. But what he and I have in common is that there are a whole lot of events, and things happen, and then other things happen, and then more things happen--but that's not actually a story, it's just a lot of things that happened in some sort of sequence.

In Martin's case, his problem is that he apparently never planned anything and probably got sidetracked from his original plot and sucked into his backstory (I agree with Hilliard's assessment on this score, and think it's kind of supported by some of the points made in this blog post by Shawn Speakman. In my case, the problem's a little different in that Murrow was originally conceived of as a kind of cipher-esque Clint Eastwood "Man With No Name" type (remember, he was originally imagined as a movie character), and I'm starting to think he can't pull the weight of a long story written like that.

I have to gloat, somewhat perversely: I have the advantage of Murrow's continued residence in my brain--I haven't strung out an audience of readers millions of words into a possibly-unfinishable epic. If I decide to permanently shelve Murrow and Walker and Powder and the rest and I am the only person who'll ever really give a shit. Indeed, Murrow's going back on the shelf for a bit, probably not for good... but maybe.

Martin, on the other hand, has written himself into a terrible corner. (I think--I mean, I don't actually know the guy or anything and this is just guesswork.) Or, really, not so much a corner as out onto a limb suspended in infinite space without even the benefit of a gravity well to helplessly plummet into. He's stuck, the poor bastard, and I'll be shocked if he gets unstuck.

I hope you bore with me or forgive me if I lost you. This was a useful series for me in terms of putting together some of my thoughts on plot and Murrow, etc.--indeed, I was going to write some of this in a journal entry instead of out here. I hope it was also interesting to those of you who also write and to all of you who, I know, love to read. If it was all too wordy or rambling, we have a Portishead video on the menu tomorrow, looks like. Thanks.


Jeri Friday, August 20, 2010 at 1:51:00 AM EDT  

Oops. Now I care about Murrow and Walker too, and whether they ever complete their blood-splattered duet. ;)

Agreed on ASOIAF - with the added issue that the delay between books will cost so much in reader context (3 to 4 totally stumped me) that the drop-off in fanbase will be sharp.

Phiala Friday, August 20, 2010 at 6:54:00 AM EDT  

Do you want people poking at your plot? Because I have a couple thoughts... and don't think it's unworkable at all. Oh hell, I'm going to poke at it anyway.

What does Murrow want? And Walker? If both of them want things, presumably mutually exclusive, badly enough, that can drive the book all by itself. And the characters are naturally changed by getting or not getting their desire. There's a hint of Murrow's desire to get back to his family in your summary, but not enough to explain all his travels. I think you're right that a man-with-no-name character isn't strong enough to pull a whole novel. So give him some motivation and let him run.

Really, I just want to read about Powder.

Eric Friday, August 20, 2010 at 9:41:00 AM EDT  

Thanks, all!

I have a pretty good idea what Murrow and Walker want (in this incarnation), but I don't know if what Murrow wants is strong enough to carry the story to a satisfying climax. You may be on to something, though, in that making Murrow's wants more important may be what salvages the thing.

At the moment, what Murrow wants is escape, essentially--he's not pulled towards anything but is pushed away. Problem is, that makes him a very reactive character, which can be effective in a 2-hour movie but not-so-much in a however-long book. It's probable that I need to give him more of a goal instead of merely repellents.

Powder is wonderfully awful, and if I don't give this thing up, he's what will keep the thing on the burner. I want to write about Powder. I'm not a horses guy and he's not really a primary character--but he's a presence on the edge of every single thing.

Support is good and so is poking, which is part of why I put this out there: folks' ideas on what makes a story fail are useful considerations. I started to write "what makes a story work," but of course that's actually less interesting and useful; I think we all have a sense of what we like reading and even a sense of what makes us throw a book across the room, but it's those works that straddle the middle spread between those things that can really tell us more (I suspect) about what a writer needs to do.

This isn't a work I intend to give up, just to be clear about that. Not yet, anyway. No, it's simply got to simmer--or perhaps ferment in a cask a bit.

timb111 Friday, August 20, 2010 at 11:00:00 AM EDT  

Thanks, Eric, that was interesting even for a non-writer. And it had a point!

mattw Friday, August 20, 2010 at 5:34:00 PM EDT  

I'm assuming you've already done this, but have you tried just starting up from you last point and writing without a clear ending in mind and seeing what happened? That's how I did my NaNo's, and in at least one case I was a little surprised at how the ending worked out.

Also, have you had anyone beta read it to see what their reaction is to the story and the plot?

Eric Friday, August 20, 2010 at 6:31:00 PM EDT  

Matt, it's never gotten far enough to hand over to a beta reader. And the longest (and unfinished) version, the 2008 NaNoWriMo version, picked up and left off at various points that were going to be/will be/ would be connected up again. Subsequent restarts picked up at various of these points and added to them or rebuilt them entirely. (A prelude chapter has been re-written from near scratch three times, I think.)

Vagabond Saturday, August 21, 2010 at 10:49:00 AM EDT  

You did lose me at first, but only until I read the posts in chronological order. I then realised I have read the first two books of ASOIAF, going on ten years ago and was really bummed that I didn't like them. I love GRRM's prose and eye for detail, and his world is compelling, but I never got a sense that the story was going anywhere other that the death of the next pretender to the throne.

I really enjoyed reading your posts and the linked reviews, as it put me in mind of my own struggles, and some other folks epic story fails as well. I've always had a bit of an aversion to open ended fictional series, just like the reviewer (although my reason was financial; when I was a kid and just beginning my readers journey, they represented more of a financial investment that I could make with my allowance!).

Now, I'm questioning many of my decisions on a fiction piece I'm outlining, and your posts have provided grist for the mill, if nothing else. As I just moved to a new place and don't yet have cable or internet, I've been watching a lot of "Bonus Material" on DVD's, including all three of the Star Wars prequels. Having been underwhelmed by all of them, watching several hours worth of documentaries has given me some insight as to how that happened. I think Lucas was the opposite of GRRM; he was TOO well plotted and allowed no digressions from the main plot, digressions which would have done neat things like advance the arc of the main characters and develop their personalities.

So, I now have the two extremes I must work within. I hope your journey goes well and I'll be looking to hear more about Murrow and Walker.

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