Monday, July 18, 2011

Is it exciting enough? Plot #4

It's been a long, cool summer--getting hotter now, not that it's anywhere near the record-breaking heat anywhere else, but still. 80 in Seattle is like a 100 anywhere else. People run around looking for air conditioners and buying fans. Guess I'm acclimatized, because I did the same thing--going to Target for something to push the air around and finding out the shelves were bare.

Maybe people think the heatwave in the rest of the country is going to spread, I don't know. I just know that I'm happy to wake up in the morning, when the wind is pushing at the blinds and everything smells crisp and cool. One day when I have time (my mantra) I'm going to stop running and take some pictures. The trees make my eyes happy when I can see them. Just wish I'd known I was allergic to grass pollen, sitting here with a big open pasture next to my window. Allergic conjunctivitis, not a fun thing.

I'm crossing posting with savvy since I had to put up a blog post and had no idea what to talk about. Hopefully I won't freak out the people who're reading and wondering what on earth I'm talking about.

Recently, interrupted by the conference and random things, I've been talking about how much plot is too much plot, stuff about proportion, keeping it real, and the limitations of an author's pov, when Hailey asked me how stripping a character-driven story down to relationship conflict and a teacup-sized plot in a contemporary worked for stories like urban fantasy and paranormals. (lol, I didn't forget) I love questions and it got me thinking about expectations and exactly what defines a character-driven story. Other than a contemporary or something where the focus is on one character's actions.

I wonder how this applies to fantasy/PNR? Since conflict grows out of your characters, the potential for conflict in fantasy is enormous. While I'm content to focus on the characters, there's this sense of "more" hanging over my head.

In a character-driven fantasy or paranormal there's always more going on because character-driven stories change according to the sub-genre. The world, people and potential story events are different, just like reader expectations.

In a contemporary Jane and John are just regular people with issues because that's what contemporaries are all about. In a paranormal, Jane might be a disenfranchised goddess cut off from her powers which would give her a whole different set of potential reactions, issues, and story events. And that goes back to “Is my plot exciting enough?”

The woman who picks up the latest installment in Debbie Macomber's Blossom street series, wants to read about the relationships and interactions between people just like her, her family and neighbors. While the woman who picks up the latest installment in Harry Dresden's continuing fight against ghouls and the Dark Council isn't interested in a cancer survivor who opens a yarn shop—she wants to ride along while Harry saves the world.

Although Lydia from the Debbie Macomber's contemporary has a sister, and spars with her in the same way Harry spars with his brother, Margaret is a real person in a setting with no paranormal elements which means the parameters of Lydia and Margaret's interactions are limited to what might happen in real-life. Harry, on the other hand, is a wizard, and his brother, Thomas, is a White Court vampire. While they might talk about girlfriends, draining your girlfriend's life force to the point of putting her in a coma because you fought a bunch of dead people doesn't happen in mainstream fiction.

The characters are more, which means the story events will also be more. A wizard and a vampire are very different from a cancer survivor and an embittered mom. 

So while the book could be about the hero/heroine meeting in a small village and talking about their lives in the local tavern, sparking a connection, it feels like it's always more important to talk about the dragon they were each hired to kill which led them to the small village and to their eventual meeting. You know what I mean? 

True. Backstory, environment, cultural mores, and a million and one other things that make the characters who they are, and the infrastructure of their sub-genre—the expectations, shared knowledge, and world-building—create probable scenarios. If the backstory you put into your world involves rogue dragons, it's highly unlikely the hero and heroine, who are both dragon killers, would talk about something else unless your world is totally Machiavellian and people naturally talk around the subject instead of confronting it.

Which means plot—which can be a few sentences long in a contemporary where the focus is on the growth of the relationship between characters—changes shape and proportion depending on what you're writing, as well as who you're writing about.

A short story that focuses on Harry and Bob sitting around watching a football game while they talk about life in general wouldn't work because that's not what people expect from Harry or the sub-genre. However a short story Jim wrote to promote the series can be about Harry and Bob talking, because the reader understands it's a promotional piece, (what you're writing) and the characters are true to themselves and their world (Harry is stressed out over his ad).

As I type this, it occurs to me that scenario feeds the character-driven aspect because if they were both hired to kill the same dragon, you've got competition. You've also got attraction. Is killing the dragon and winning the purse more important than the connection the h/h feel? Can the hero let the heroine collect the prize even though it's not about money for him, it's about the dragon that ate his parents when he was a small boy and his crusade to rid the world of the vile beasts so other children can sleep soundly at night?

lol, knitting a baby blanket is not an option for your hero and heroine. The minute you set them loose in your story their huge range of probabilities narrow; think of a bubble gum machine. There are lots and lots of gumballs, but to get a piece out it has to fall through an ever-narrowing chute. Only one goes through the actual dispenser.

The way you build your people—making one a dragon killer with childhood trauma, or another a cancer survivor whose father died, and the genre you put them in has a direct impact on the amount of plot sliding down the bubble gum dispenser. Lydia and Margaret can let go of their anger toward each other and create more than enough excitement without throwing a serial killer into the last third of the book. But Harry and Thomas can't just "be" brothers, because the very fact that their relationship exists creates issues in their world. Characters create scenarios, and staying true to them—wherever they take you, wizard or yarn shop owner, creates more than enough excitement, although the definition of excitement varies within sub-genres.


deanna said...

I'm glad your weather warmed up; maybe ours will later this week...

Sorry for the eye allergy. I had something similar one summer, but it didn't last, so here's hoping you'll get over it soon.

Your bubble gum dispenser analogy makes sense. Do you usually know going in what sort of character issues are most interesting to you, and therefore which genre you'll go with, or does that part of things come about after you start a story?

jodi said...

Hi Deanna!

I hope the eye allergies go away too. The other day I woke up and my eyes were covered in what looked like blisters--it scared me so badly I wanted to go to emergency, but they worked fine. It's gone down, but it's still really uncomfortable and I'm back on antihistamines.

I really love trees and being right up against Rainier, but I'm starting to look forward to going to work because the air is filtered. :( know? I think it's more a tone kind of thing. I'm drawn to a lot of genres. I like literary fiction, but I'm not good at it. And if I weren't a dyed in the wool romantic, I'd check out mysteries and thrillers. But no matter where I go I take my character issues with me.

I did an experiment once, taking my favorite hero and heroine and putting them into different genres, and occupations/time periods. Regency, contemporary, rs, historical, and urban fantasy. And they were always recognizably the same people with the same issues although they fit into their surroundings.

Maybe it's a part of an author's baggage. I carry my belief in redemption with me and that pretty much guarantees anything I write will be dark and angsty.

And now you've got me thinking again. :) I wonder....

Kaige said...

Yuck on the continuing allergy saga. Have you thought about trying to find a source of local honey? Some people swear by a tsp of that every day. Has to be VERY local though.

Loved the bubble gum machine analogy too. The stuff about the sub-genre differences made a lot of sense, especially with Harry and his brother. Definitely built-in to create nothing but conflict there, but they seem to almost make the brother thing work sometimes. :)

Hailey Edwards said...

Allergies suck so hard. Would shots help? My daughter has a grass pollen allergy, and she's on shots. She still uses a nebulizer, but it's better than it was.

The minute you set them loose in your story their huge range of probabilities narrow; think of a bubble gum machine. There are lots and lots of gumballs, but to get a piece out it has to fall through an ever-narrowing chute. Only one goes through the actual dispenser.

I loved this. I think my biggest problem with searching for enough excitement is I tend to start books strong, and then I worry there isn't enough conflict. So I add and add until I have a series of random events that has to be edited later. :/

I made a note of your bubble gum machine. It's next to a quote from Jess. She something similar, in that I could go nuts for the first 2/3 of a book, but I can't introduce new elements in that last third. I can only use characters/objects/etc already in play.

It sounds simple. I understand the concept and work to apply it. And yet...I never get it right on the first, second or third tries. LOL

jodi said...

Hi Kaige! I'm totally a honey person. There's a farm stand right down the road from me, and I'll drop in there tomorrow and see how local their "LOCAL HONEY!" really is. Funny how I always drove up this ways and sighed, "If only I could live there. It's so pretty." I have a gorgeous view out of my living room and kitchen of a grove of aspens. Total eye candy, if I could see them.

I've been reading free chapters of Ghost Story on the Butcher site. I was worried it'd fall flat, but it looks really good.

Hi Hailey! Yeah, that's me and my grass pollen allergy. As close as I can get it is that I'm allergic to "smooth bromegrass", a type of pasture grass. It was great living out here the first few months (end of winter), then the grass started to grow...and bloom, and I've been fighting the idea of any kind of shots or pills because of my benadryl issues. Oh well. Might as well go in and get something, because I can't deal with these swollen eyes (conjunctivitis??? I've never even had itchy eyes before) and breathing issues.

and lol, you're further along in practical applications than I am. I'm good at theory and the "why" behind something but it still needs to be usable or it's just theory. :) I think you can do it. It's just follow-thru.


Hailey Edwards said...

It's funny. I was in chat last night and finally hit a point where I said, "This is it. I've written the chapter one I'm going to keep."

I'd already written about 25k and scrapped it, and everyone felt sorry for me. There was talk of drowning if that ever happened to them.

I don't think they wanted to know the second book in that series (Evermine) was in the 60K range of "try and fail" before I hit stride, started fresh, and rewrote the book. Yes, it was easy. That particular version was. The versions that came before, not so much.

It's funny how writers view time/work wasted. I'd do 60k for scrap every book, every time if it meant word 60,001 was the one worth keeping. LOL

Hailey Edwards said...

Also, while rambling, I lost sight of what's must resist the excerpts!

Only three more days now! :D

jodi said...

lol, Hailey. I'm torn between pre-ordering it to get the lowest price and knowing that if it arrives I'll drop everything to read it and I still have half a workshop to write, two consulting gigs, a full (two fulls) to edit, and a couple of partials to read. And I think I promised Sharon I'd do something for the symposium.

er...I might need to check my email and see what I promised. O.O

I admire you for chucking your work and knowing when to start over. I have this prickly feeling I need to do that for one of my projects and can't bring myself to dump and go. :(

But yeah--most people wouldn't understand. It's supposed to be easy. It's scary when it's hard.