Sunday, September 16, 2007

Conflict, Plot and Structure

So I'm reading this novel online. It's being posted a chapter at a time, as it's written. The writer's not bad -- her mechanics are decent, I care about the characters, the setting is unusual and interesting, the flow is mostly smooth. Her dialogue doesn't clunk and she makes me laugh at times and some of the passages and scenes are quite beautiful. But I've found it hard to keep reading for the last six or ten chapters.

That's because, about that long ago (and that's as close as I can come without searching back for the exact point) the main conflict wrapped up. The characters had been running for their lives from an agent of an overwhelming authority and the entire first chunk of the novel had been about that flight, that struggle to escape from unjust persecution. The characters were clever and brave and had just enough good luck and they succeeded, yay! There were some less important plot holes left and I would've been interested in a sequel, but the Main Conflict was resolved and the story was over.

Except it wasn't. It just kept going. Another chapter went up, and another, and not a whole lot was happening. There was some character and relationship development, and the characters did some, "So, what do we do next?" type of pondering (which reflected my own thoughts and I'm sort of wondering whether it didn't also reflect the writer's flailing around as she tried to regain her grip on the story which had slid out from under her). A couple more chapters down the line the characters had another problem to solve, although it wasn't really a novel-weight problem. They solved that one and fell into another short-term problem, promptly this time. And just a scant handful of chapters ago, they solved that second not-really-heavy-enough problem and (promptly again -- she's getting better at this) found another one.

Now they have another longer-term goal and it looks like they're set for a while. But I still have to sort of make myself read each time a new chapter goes up, because my inner reader knows that the main problem was solved like eight or so chapters back and the story was supposed to end and it didn't and my inner reader is still a bit pissy about that. Maybe it's that I don't trust her anymore to be in control of this story she's writing. Once I start reading each new chapter, I enjoy it (which is why I bother nudging myself each time) but that reluctance is still there.

So what happened? It could be a few things, and without interviewing the writer about it (since I don't know her anywhere near well enough to have the, "So, exactly what mistakes are you making with this story...?" discussion [wry smile]) I have some guesses.

First, it might be that she didn't have a clear idea of exactly what the main plotline would be when she started. She might be a seat-of-the-pants sort of writer, who starts with some characters and a situation and just writes wherever they take her. This works for some people but not for others, and if this is how she works then in this case it hasn't served her very well. Even when writing seat-of-the-pants, you still need to be aware of how conflict, plot and story relate and she doesn't seem to.

Second, she might've had a clear idea of what her main conflict was all about when she started, but when she got to the end she saw that there were more unanswered questions or more interesting things for the characters to do, so she just kept writing until she came across another major conflict. If this is the case, then she might have a decent grasp of plotting but not know much about structure. That is, it's possible she can identify a major conflict and how it relates to a plotline, but she's not quite clear about how conflict and plot relate to story structure, or specifically to where a story begins and ends.

Or third, she might have started out with some clear ideas of what she wanted her characters to do over the course of the story, including the parts she hasn't written yet, but didn't know how the events of the story relate to conflict, plot and structure. Some beginning-level writers think that writing a story is just "telling what happened" and have no notion of the structure behind it all.

Whatever the problem is, one of those or something I haven't thought of, the bottom line is she's not in control of her story and it's suffering for it. Which is unfortunate because like I said at the top, it's basically a good story, interesting, well-written at the mechanics level, with good characters and all. It's the larger structure she's not getting.

Pick a protagonist. Who wants something and can't have it? Who's about to fall into a flaming pit and wants to escape it? Whose action to achieve some goal is going to drive the story? You can have multiple main characters, although they're trickier to keep organized and their goals need to be pretty closely related, even if the reader doesn't see how until the end of the story.

What does your protagonist want? [Goal] Why can't he have it? [Obstacle] What does he do to try to get it anyway? There -- that bit right there is your plot. It's depressing how many writers can't define "plot" at that basic level.

There can be multiple subplots (in a novel length story there had better be) but the main plot should be introduced first so the reader knows what the story as a whole is about. If your story opens with your protag griping to her best friend about how much she hates her job, how pointless her life seems, and how she has all these dreams and goals of owning her own business and making a difference in the lives of many people, then that's what the story's about. There's your protag's goal and that's what the readers will assume she's going to work to achieve over the course of the story. Introducing some gorgeous guy in chapter five and turning it into a romance novel doesn't work -- the readers will feel cheated and misled no matter how well-written the romantic storyline is.

The climax of the story comes when the protag either gets what he wants, or comes to realize and/or accept that he can't have it no matter what he does. Everything after that -- and it should be as short as possible -- is just wrap-up, weaving in loose ends. If there are loose ends which will take another chapter or more of weaving, then either they should've been taken care of before the main plotline wrapped, or they should be left for a sequel.

The story I mentioned at the top ended when the main conflict was resolved. The characters' main goal, as presented, was to escape the unjust persecution of the government and specifically of the government agent who'd been after them. Once that was achieved, the story was over.

The characters still had more to do, yes -- they weren't kicking back on a beach sipping umbrella drinks once they slipped the net and went zooming off unpursued -- but the main plotline of that story was finished and the story should've ended. Their next major goal, the one they're currently working on, should've been the driver for the main plotline of a sequel. (And I estimate she's over 150K words, while barely into the second main plotline -- it's not like breaking this up would leave her with two scrawny stories.)

The two intervening minor bits could've been worked in or worked around; personally I can think of one I would've dropped (neither of the two main stories would've been affected at all) and the other I'd have tied into the second main plotline. The one that could be dropped without hurting either of the larger stories could even have been written up as a short story, taking place between the two novel-length stories. It's not like these are printed books which have to fit neatly on a Borders shelf; each story can be whatever length it needs to be.

Instead it's all mashed together, the edges stuck onto each other with duct tape, and the story feels random and disconnected. It doesn't feel like "A Story," and that makes me as a reader back off a little, emotionally. It feels like the writer's just sort of wandering and I no longer fully trust her not to lead me off a cliff somewhere. Which is a bummer because she is a good writer; she just needs to learn what a story is so she knows when to begin and end.


Nancy Beck said...

(And I estimate she's over 150K words, while barely into the second main plotline -- it's not like breaking this up would leave her with two scrawny stories.)

Holy crap, Batman...150K for one book? :-O If it's a fantasy or SF, it's okay up to about 90,000 words or so. But anything beyond that...yeesh! That puppy should definitely be broken up.


Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds like a serious sagging middle. Maybe the author was still finding the story. Sounds like they should definetely go back and rework, revise.

Angie said...

Nancy -- it's SF [nod] and I've seen printed SF and fantasy books that long before. Heck, Lord of the Rings is technically a single novel printed in three volumes, not actually a trilogy, and it's longer than 150K words, isn't it? And I'm pretty sure Jaran is over that.

It's not the sheer length that's a problem for me, although I'll grant it's unusual for one book to go on that long. But this is going up electronically a chunk at a time and it's free for anyone who feels like reading it, so there's no particular reason to constrain it within standard length categories. My point in estimating the wordcount was just to reassure myself that she could've wrapped up the first story six or ten chapters ago and started a sequel without having either story feel at all skimpy. [wry smile]

If she broke it off where the first story actually ends, I think it'd be around 120-130K words, somewhere in there give or take. That'd be perfectly reasonable for a long SF novel. I agree it should be broken, though, because of where the story ends.

Charles -- I hadn't thought of it that way, but that's another possibility. [nod] If she'd introduced the second main conflict toward the beginning of the story, so it wouldn't feel like a whole different book when she finally got to it, then it'd just be a matter of tightening up the transitional middle.

But yes, that was my strongest feeling, that when she started out she wasn't quite sure where she was going. I wouldn't swear to it but that's what it feels like, and fixing it would take some reworking. Most of her bits are good; she just needs to connect them more smoothly.