Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Plot Tectonics

Beginning the writing process with a better idea of plot than of story was less an experiment and more of a flat out mistake. While I had a basic premise and a good feel for who I wanted the characters to be, I didn't have any real idea of what they all were after. I didn't know why they were doing what they were doing, just that they were doing them. Clearly this can only take you so far. In my case it took me to 46,000 words.

I kept thinking that if I couldn't make a book out of all the cool stuff i had, something was wrong with me. I was right. And now I have to see if I can legitimately save it. If there's a real book here I'd like to figure it out and get it done but if there's not, I'd like to chalk it up to experience and move on, hopefully a bit wiser, to the next one. The one thing I won't do is work on it if I don't believe it can be truly resurrected.

After much effort, I've come up with more complete pictures of my characters, including new relationships and motivations. In other words, I know the story of the book now. The next thing is to hang a plot on it, the structure that takes the protagonist through the events and influence of the other characters.

The book is a thriller, with a strong element of international events, none of them involving terrorism, rogue nations with weapons of mass destruction, or other cliche-ish premises. As such, I want it to have suspense, a mystery and a sense of urgency. Writing without knowing what creates these elements is a classic sign of beginning the process too soon. You have the core of an idea, an intriguing concept that by itself is merely interesting. The plot is the telling of it so that it is interesting. It's the bookness of it, what makes it enjoyable to read about.

When I read Erle Stanley Gardner's (as A. A. Fair) Gold Comes in Bricks, it seemed to me that I could see my own process evidenced in the book and it can be readily reverse engineered and made clear. I think. Anyway, I'll try.

The core idea is that a defunct California corporation could be resurrected by buying out its outstanding shares and satisfying whatever outstanding obligations it had left behind. So what? Well, what if you did this with the idea of selling shares in a legitimate corporation that wasn't really what it was supposed to be?

We need to make it interesting and as a crime novel we need an actual crime so the obviouse thing is to involve fraud, and a big enough one to keep the stakes high. Since the book takes place in California, a state built on a gold rush, Gardner uses the notion of drilling on previously dredged land, going down to the level of the bedrock in pockets where the dredge couldn't reach. The theory is that the leftover gold represented an overlooked fortune and by purchasing shares now, immense profits could be had in a mere few months when full scale drilling commences.

So we have the concept of reviving a coroporate entity and a basis for a crime by using it to sell shares in a phony scheme. So far so good but this book isn't about a drilling operation or even the swindle. It's a series detective novel and Gardner has to develop a way to involve his characters in an interesting way worth reading about. Investigating a swindle isn't inherently all that sexy but he has the story elements at hand on which to hang his plot.

The book opens with the diminutive detective taking jujitsu lessons. In walks a man with a problem who meets the detectives and is initially fooled by what he takes to be their martial arts prowess and decides he needs their help. He's a recently remarried widower, wealthy and with a daughter in control of her own money from her mother's estate. In the past month she has written two checks for ten grand apiece to a company that runs illegal gambling parlors. But she doesn't gamble so he doesn't know what's going on. His son in law may be involved but he's not sure. The son in law had become a business associate with some of his new wife's acquaintances in some company and he had been trying to get the daughter to invest.

So now we have blackmail. In the course of trying to help the daughter, Lam (the detective) follows her to a hotel where he sees her making a third payment and receiving an envelope in return. She leaves but before he can do anything the blackmailer is shot to death. Since Lam was seen at the hotel, he becomes a suspect so now he not only has to unravel the scheme but stay ahead of the law.

From a plot perspective, and the reader's, the book is about the unraveling of the blackmail plot. It's made complex and interesting because of how the plot leads us not only to the gold swindle and the characters involved with that, but how they overlap with the blackmail scheme and the blackmail itself. The cohesiveness of the structure is such that the book is never confusing or overwhelming. In other words, an example of a well crafted novel.

I think this kind of analysis can help define the process necessary for success, by which I mean a novel with a sound foundation. It doesn't rely on gimmicks or wild coincidence or a deus ex machina to save the hero's bacon at the end. It's well crafted and, hopefully, well written but then that should always be the case, shouldn't it?


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