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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, August 10, 2007

making it believable

Plotting is fiddly. I spent my (admittedly abbreviated) writing-time yesterday continuing to tinker with the creation and arrangement of events in the chapter I'm working on. It always strikes me as strange how difficult it can be to find a sequence of events that later will seem natural and inevitable.

This is how it struck me even when plotting stories for The Odyssey. How do you decide what happens in a story? There aren't really any rules; as a writer, a storyteller, you apparently have infinite choice. How about this? How about that? How do you choose?

The story must flow to my own satisfaction. I have to believe it before I can ask anyone else to believe it; and I'm a pretty skeptical person. The more you know of the world, and the more you know of people, the less likely it is you'll be ready to swallow something that doesn't seem realistic.

I find myself easily put off by implausibilities in a drama. I very much enjoyed the first season of 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland, but found myself smiling wryly at the seamless interoperability of all the different computer systems--how the antiterrorism team could speedily link into civilian data systems and whatnot and get the information they wanted. Anyone who's ever seen a computer being used knows that this is pure fantasy; you're lucky if things that have been designed to work together actually do. I would have been much more pulled in to the show if the high-tech, expensive information systems worked only very intermittently. I would have felt more that I was watching a real story unfold, and less like I was watching actors play with make-believe props.

Then there is the matter of character decisions. When these become too contrived or foolhardy, you have "idiot plot"--a story based on decisions that no thinking adult would actually do. These are the scenes in which the lone woman agrees to meet with the villain on a dark road at night and so on. I remember watching E.T. when it came out. The scene in which the little boy, wanting to catch a glimpse of the unknown creature, parks himself out in the yard at night on a chaise longue with a flashlight, was one I could not believe. It's too flipping scary--it's not how real nine-year-olds behave.

I recall too a hole in a movie I recently watched again, and which I regard as basically good: Tin Men, a show about aluminum-siding salesmen in Baltimore in 1959, starring Danny De Vito, Richard Dreyfuss, and Barbara Hershey. This time it hit me that Richard Dreyfuss, in the course of seducing Barbara Hershey, tells her that his wife has just died (he's never been married). Later, they move in together--but we never see her learning that his "widower" line was a lie. Even if she was indeed able to swallow this, we would have to see Dreyfuss talk his way out of it.

Then there's the integrity of the setting itself. I recall my mother's criticism of Melrose Place after she's seen an episode: "That's not how people in offices behave." Indeed not. The scenes could be believed only by those who had either never had a job, or were naive enough to think that people working in "glamor" jobs such as fashion photography or publishing never concern themselves with practical things. The sets may as well have been painted backdrops against which the audience could watch attractive people betray each other (the purpose of the show, as far as I know).

Movies, TV, and even novels are full of devices that clearly are unreal--cars that start too easily, unlocked doors, ventilation ducts you can crawl though. All these things erode the credibility of a story. They mark places, in my opinion, where the writer could not be bothered to imagine things properly. The writer reached for a cliche, slothfully thinking that it would be accepted because it had already been accepted so many times before.

I can't stand that. For me, a scene must ring true in every detail--in setting and in character. Cheating with these things for the "sake of the story" does not work. All you're doing is making your story bad. There may be reasons for doing so--time constraints, the network is ordering you to, or you just can't be bothered--but don't kid yourself that it doesn't matter to the quality of the product.


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3 Comments:

  • Ive been toying with plotting... not that I write out flow charts or anything, but thinking about what could happen, what is credible, etc... to the point that I believe I've shut myself out from my story. I _know_ it, I really do. But after writing a good chunk, then setting that side to start over, i've been locked. I know I plot and think too much when I'm avoiding my writing, but it has really crippled me. I agree with your points, I wish I could really agree inside and just write out what works and get moving again, instead of using "plotting" as my excuse. I know you're post wasnt in this vain, but I wanted to complain and vent!

    As usual, your posts remain in my daily reading. I always check them as soon as I'm home from work, before I shower and have dinner or go for coffee. They keep me stimulated. Thanks Paul!

    -Greg

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at August 10, 2007 5:48 PM  

  • I have to say I agree with you totally. I'm not into fantasy (Am I the only one who hasn't read Harry Potter?) and although you can go beyond the limits of disbelief sometimes, you have to be careful with it. I write historical fiction too, and although my interpretation of characters is 'fiction' I like to make sure I get details straight. I can't stand it when I read books or see movies that have blatant errors. (except, I know there were many complaints about the Alexander movie. I also disagreed with some things in it, but saw it 3 times looking for specifics such as costumes, characterizations etc. And actually I liked it except the omitted some of my favorite parts of his life and battles.)
    When writing scenes, I'm a bit like you and get stuck wondering what should come next, what should be dramatized, what should be in narrative??? The most important thing to keep in mind is "Is this forwarding the plot?" If it isn't, it's probably not necessary. I know I have large portions of my novel Shadow of the Lion, that have to be edited out in the final draft but at the time I was developing the characters and let them go off on their own little tangents sometimes.

    By Blogger Wynn Bexton, at August 12, 2007 10:16 PM  

  • Many thanks, Greg and Wynn, for taking the time to comment.

    Yes, I'm sure there's no one way that works in writing. I remember talking to a pilot once, and praising the way some airplane I'd been on had landed--a perfect three-point landing.

    "A three-point landing is not what we aim at," said the pilot.

    I asked him what did constitute a good landing.

    He said "a good landing is one you walk away from."

    That's pretty much how I feel about writing. First of all, I want to survive the experience and live to tell the tale.

    By Blogger paulv, at August 13, 2007 8:29 AM  

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