REMEMBER A WHILE BACK, I WARNED YOU that every plot will try to go wrong after the first big scene?
It’s true. Generally, it’s because fiction fatigue has set in. You’ve been concentrating intensely, and now your beginning is complete, doing all the jobs that beginnings need to do.
Back off a day or two, catch your breath, before going any further.
But leave your beginning alone.
That’s terrifically important. You’ll be inclined to tinker with it, unsure that the hard choices of intuition and craft were the right ones, after all. And much of your second-guessing will be wrong. When you’ve just finished something is not the right time to revise it. You don’t know where it all fits in yet – what it’s leading up to. Your story doesn’t have a real shape yet that can resist insecure tinkering.
Leave your beginning alone, at least until you have one whole draft, in the case of a short story; or until you’re past the middle, in a novel. Until then, you’re not in a position to judge the fiction as one unified thing and make informed decisions about the individual sections.
If you have ideas for revision, fine. Jot them down, staple them to page one. Start a file of afterthoughts. But don’t try to implement them – not yet. Your beginning may well benefit from revision; as I warned you earlier, you may even find you have to scrap it and start over. But not now.
I think more stories have collapsed from premature tinkering than from any other single cause.
Fiction fatigue: expect it, and don’t let it ruin your story.
Let the beginning cool off enough to stand poking and prodding, before you go back to it. Instead, after a healthy rest mowing lawn or going to your job, start gearing up for the special tasks that middles involve.
AFTER THE OPENING, TAKE YOUR BEARINGS
I’ll talk about short stories first because novels have to do exactly the same thing, only more so. (Novels have to do extra things, too, but don’t worry about that now.)
If you followed my advice, you began in medias res. So there’ll be things the reader will now be interested in knowing, to understand how matters came to be the way they were in the opening.
So you may decide to insert some exposition at this point or even a dramatized flashback, where past temporarily becomes present. These can do any of a variety of chores.
A New Perspective on Your People
You can broaden the reader’s understanding of a character by giving a highly selective account of his past, distant or immediate. Emphasize just the two or three (or so) things which are going to be of significance in your story’s present context. As I’ve said before: Important things – not everything.
Or you may follow the character as he goes about his present business, as Dickens does with Scrooge: trudging home through the holiday streets from his frigid office to his frigid house, starting to eat his wretched supper.
You can get into a full-blown character sketch, establishing some contrary facet of your protagonist that wasn’t apparent in the opening. The huge, wilfully unattractive protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” lumbering around on her artificial leg, is shown to be a highly intelligent, sardonic observer of her rapacious and hypocritical circle of rustic acquaintance.
Naming the Norm
If you’re going to establish departure from a norm or a then/now contrast, it’s a good time to lay the groundwork for it.
After its beginning, Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine shows the newly-hired and mysterious stranger at work in the fields and playing his cherished harmonica, at peace with himself and his surroundings – a peace that will be broken when the farmer discovers the hired man is on the run from a murder. This second section establishes a norm the story’s later developments can be contrasted against.
Or the norm may be environmental – the character’s society he or she is at odds with. In many of the stories in Dubliners, James Joyce follows that pattern: first giving a close focus on the protagonist, then showing the character’s social world, demonstrating common attitudes and customs to present the protagonist in clearer perspective. If your story has the main character in conflict with his immediate society and social norms, you may want to try this kind of opening-out too.
The shortest fiction can seldom support more than one viewpoint. But now the first scene is over; if you’re going to change viewpoints at all during your story, here’s where you should do it for the first time to establish the pattern for the rest of the story. Thus your character sketch may centre, instead, on the story’s antagonist, profiling him or her in a way that shows why a collision course with the protagonist is inevitable.
Driving Right for the Cliff
Of course, you may plan a story that maintains tight focus to the end, with scarcely any exposition at all and perhaps just two characters. Many of Poe’s short stories follow that pattern; I think of the narrator and doomed, foolish Fortunato, who provide the entire cast of “The Cask of Amontillado.” And the plot is down the stairs and down the stairs, pausing only to collect wine and brandish the necessary mason’s trowel as the narrator prepares to wall his victim up in the ancestral wine vaults to avenge a (perhaps) imagined insult.
That’s the pattern in most genre short stories. The story flies like an arrow and hits the target at maximum speed.
If your story is going to have a direct, unencumbered narrative line with no digressions or shifts and virtually no exposition of any sort, then from the opening you’ll continue the same scene or move right to another, with no interval at all.
The Janus-Faced Interval
Whether you’re writing short or long fiction and whatever the section following the beginning is, it’s got two chores: to open up the beginning by looking backward or simply around, adding context; and to look anxiously forward and lay the groundwork for what’s to come. The Roman god Janus, the god of doorways for whom January is named, had two faces so he could look both ahead and behind. That’s what you need to do, after a story’s first beginnings. I’ll talk about methods of doing that kind of necessary spadework in a minute. But this part of your story is where it starts in earnest.
GEARING UP FOR THE LONG HAUL
Now, the good news for the novelists out there: everything I’ve just been explaining applies to you too, but you’ve got more space to do it. You can devote a whole Chapter or two to this second part, if you want. Probably there’ll be scenes as well as straight exposition, to keep things rolling; but a strong effective beginning will win your readers. They’re on your side now.
They’ve picked up the book. They know everything isn’t going to be over in three or four pages. That’s the way they want it, if they like novels. They’ll stay with you now, unless you do something to lose them.
The looking-forward aspect of early middles is even more important for you, though, than for the short story writers. There’s short-term plot and long-term plot, and both have to be running at once, either together or in alternation.
Stages in the Journey
Remember, plot is a verb. Something is happening, and going to happen. But there are stages to plot, and in long fiction there should always be some specific event in the not-too-distant future the reader can anticipate. The main or long-term plot ideally runs through the whole story from the beginning. It’s what the opening centres on; it provides the final climax or confrontation.
In Lord of the Flies, the castaway boys’ immediate problems are, in sequence: establishing order, lighting a fire, hunting a wild pig, exploring the island, and dealing with their dread of “the Beast” they believe is on top of the mountain. More problems follow. But each of these intermediate problems is a stage in the larger problem of staying alive, and civilized. The whole long-term problem is brokenup into a series of actions, each of which has its crisis and resolution. For instance, the problem of gathering the castaway boys together is solved by the finding and blowing of the conch. The problem of making fire is solved by Piggy’s glasses, concentrating the sun’s rays. But the solution sets up a later problem, when the breakaway tribe led by Jack steals the glasses and deprives Ralph’s group of fire and Piggy of sight/vision (not precisely the same thing, in this Chapter about books).
One problem or crisis builds to another, and another yet beyond. You need to have the main plot firmly in mind all along and be building toward the final crisis – in Lord of the Flies, the murderous pursuit of Ralph by painted, screaming savages driven by fear and superstition. You may not, at the early stages of the story, know precisely what the final crisis is going to be. That’s all right. I’ll offer some advice about endings in Chapter 10. Early in the story, just know that you should be building toward that ultimate crisis and that it should derive from the main plot as it was in the beginning, not from something weird and unexpected that turns up someplace along the way.
Setting Up Subplots
Often long fiction will have more than one plot. The subplot(s) may run just a while before coming to resolution, or may continue through almost the whole story, being tied up just before the story’s end. Sometimes subplots centre on the main plot’s protagonist, and sometimes they focus on one of the subordinate characters.
Well handled, they can deepen the story’s context, offer ways to mirror or contrast with the main action, and be used in pacing to offer foreground motion while the main plot is in a temporary lull. When the main plot is busy, they can generate suspense when the narrative splits off to follow the subplot for a while before rejoining the main action, generally with added momentum and impact when they again converge.
If you’re going to have one or more subplots centring on the main characters, start the first one running right after the beginning. For instance, your protagonist, Fred not only wants to avoid rescuing Ginger from the roof – he also wants to prevent anybody else from rescuing her. This involves sabotaging the walkie-talkies before they’re issued, one per boat crew. Or Fred is in fact a concert violinist and is worried that his flood rescue efforts will mean he won’t be able to get to his solo appearance in Detroit. And he’s worried Ginger may not have taken his centuries-old Stradivarius to safety up onto her roof with her. He wants to rescue the Strad, but not Ginger. Conflict!
But if you’re going to have a subplot centering on somebody other than the protagonist, don’t treat it separately just yet. (Remember Tiffany, stuck in the tree?) Instead, introduce the subordinate characters central to the subplot so the reader can get to know them before the narrative line splits off to follow them. Maybe a flashback to the last argument between Ginger and Fred, when Tiffany ran out shouting that she wanted to live with Grandma. Then, when main plot and subplot are running simultaneously, you can switch off to follow Tiffany all by herself. Maybe she got caught in the tree while trying to run away to Grandma’s house forever. Maybe she’s worried about Grandma, or having second thoughts about running away. Maybe Grandma’s up in the tree with her.
Whatever it’s an independent (though closely related) subplot. Lay some groundwork and establish your main plot firmly before splitting off to follow another line of action.
Try a Braid
In long fiction, plots don’t merely alternate with subplots: they’re often woven together in something very like a braid. One strand loops around to the outside, out of sight, then warps in or under to briefly become the central point before warping off for another turn.
Once you have your initial situation running, with the major characters established and facing some crucial problem the reader can tell isn’t going to go away, a braided plot won’t just continue on. You’ll bring in a new subject, one that has some new plot thread which you make clear but leave unresolved so that the reader can see that there are more developments to come.
You can braid that way two, three, even four times before you pick up strand A again and continue to new developments in that plot for a little while. Then C loops back, and B perhaps crosses over it to make a new pattern. Aha! Here comes D!
The stronger and clearer your individual plot threads are, the thicker the braid you can make. But a braid, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest element. If one plot thread – especially your main one – is fragile, delicate, subtle, even confusing, be careful not to warp it more than it will stand or strangle it with subplots pulling this way and that. A braided plot can have so many twists and turns that it becomes something like a lump of fouled fishing line no sane reader’s going to try to disentangle. Be sure there’s always a strong central narrative thread the reader can follow in spite of diversions and interruptions.
If your central plot is built on hints and slow unfoldings rather than on a series of clear and decisive developments, cut the number of subplots way back, maybe even to none. Conversely, if your main plot is as direct as a falling piano (something like boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl find one another), then braiding can broaden your story’s scope and add narrative interest to an otherwise thin, straight-line, and predictable tale.
Multiple-strand plotting can yield a good solid braid if you watch out for dangling loose ends and keep tension strong at all times. Try a two or three strand braid, to start with. Then, as you learn the feel, you can expand to as many strands as you have pages and plot enough to spin out of your imagination.
Don’t Forget to Knot as You Go
Remember what I said about alternating viewpoint: that the story will try to split in two? That’s even more true when it comes to subplots. Knot the different strands of your narrative together from time to time. Build in all the connections and convergences you can. Show events in the main plot affecting what’s happening in the subplot, and the other way round. Have characters overlap, figuring in both main plot and subplot, although perhaps more important in one than the other. For instance, in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is one of the main protagonists of the plot as a whole; but in the subplot detailing the successive romances between young Cathy and her two cousins (one of them Heathcliff’s son), Heathcliff becomes a background figure, like a thunderstorm grumbling in the distance.
Build in connections of mood, event, props, setting, and narrative pattern, as I’ll discuss more in Chapter 8.
Finally, remember that like main plots, subplots need developments, crisis, big scenes, and resolution. Even if a subplot is only going to run for thirty pages or so before coming to final crisis, it deserves the same care, in miniature, as does your main plot. Don’t neglect it. Refer to it from time to time. If possible, make the subplot’s crisis coincide with, and be directly involved in, an important crisis in the main plot. Converging plot lines will add to the whole scene’s impact and meaning.
For instance, you shouldn’t kill off your protagonist in mid-plot; but you can kill off an important subordinate character who’s been the centre of a subplot. The implied threat to the protagonist will be intensified. And if you really like the subordinate character, you can write him or her a wonderful death scene and maybe throw a spectacular funeral.
Sometimes judging which is main plot and which is subplot is about like tossing a coin. Both seem about equal. Perhaps the most familiar example of that would be the contrasting adventures of Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca, on the one hand, and of Luke and Yoda, on the other, in George Lucas’ movie The Empire Strikes Back, the second segment of his Star Wars trilogy.
All the characters are initially established together, at the secret rebel base tunnelled into the ice. Since the ending of the story will involve Luke’s rash and unsuccessful attempt to rescue Han from Darth Vader, a similar situation is set up in the beginning, where Han rescues Luke from being frozen to death. By no coincidence, Han’s peril from Vader also involves his being frozen, although in something called “carbonite,” not ordinary ice. The opening crisis mirrors the ending.
Likewise, Luke’s initial resourcefulness in killing a snow monster and in singlehandedly destroying a huge, walking tank mirrors his lone battle with Vader at the movie’s end. Since in the middle Luke is shown failing, blundering, whining, and not doing too much exciting, the action-filled beginning and end prevent him from looking like an incompetent wimp.
The beginning provides contrast and context for the middle. It’s also strongly tied to the ending, to help hold the middle together.
The middle needs all the tying it can get, because in the middle, two plots spilt apart to follow different protagonists. The narrative line cuts back and forth between them. The part of the story focused on Han & Co. is a fairly straight chase/adventure with a romance thrown in. Luke’s plot, more subtle and thoughtful, involves his education by Yoda in the nature and use of the Force – a more interior plot with hardly any action at all and certainly no romance.
I’ve found it interesting which among my friends prefers the Han plot and which the Luke plot, in this movie. Whichever you like better, notice the differences in subject, pacing, and tone in the divergent sections. Pains were taken to balance the comparatively less dramatic account of Luke’s education with the lasers-blasting escaping and hiding and capture involved with Han & Co. Each plot is the richer and stronger for being contrasted with the other.
And notice how connections were built in. Although Han & Co. are completely occupied with their own problems, Luke becomes aware of them through a vision. That awareness and feeling of connectedness is what prompts Luke to leave although his training hasn’t been completed. So Luke’s awareness is a bridge between the two plot lines. Another is the fact that Han & Co. are captured by Darth Vader primarily as bait, to bring the real target – Luke – into Vader’s reach.
But there are even more obvious connections – events repeated in slightly different form in each plot line. For instance, both plots involve the sudden and unexpected appearance of Darth Vader. For Luke, Vader appears as a malignant vision of possibility and identification (the illusory Vader has Luke’s face), laying the groundwork both for the later duel and for the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father; for Han & Co., Vader appears as an even more malignant reality. Both plots involve journeys. Han & Co.’s journey is primarily across space, whereas Luke’s is mainly one of interior growth and insight – to and through the dark spaces in his own soul, moving from self-doubt to confidence (maybe even overconfidence). Both protagonists meet old friends: Han encounters Lando, and Luke finds he’s still under the not-quite-ghostly oversight of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the dead (?) Jedi master. Both plots involve a cave where things aren’t quite what they seem. Han parks his souped-up space jalopy somewhere in the interior of a mammoth space worm which, open-mouthed, fills the cave – the cave is a monster in literal fact. In Luke’s cave, he finds the dreadful shadows of his own interior made manifest: his own fear and hatred take form as the figure of Vader, the threatening monster.
In each case, what in the Han plot is external, a physical reality is, in the Luke plot, internal – a realization or a vision. Internal and external balance, connect.
Then, after this middle section, the plots converge again in Luke’s attempt to rescue Han & Co. and his first face-to-face confrontation with Vader, Luke joins the Han plot.
Together, apart, together. But even during the separation, many connections and echoes keep the two plots strongly interconnected and related. And suspense is created as the narrative line shifts from the one to the other, typically at cliffhangers in the Han plot, so we’re kept waiting to find out how things are going back in the asteroid belt or in the Cloud City.
This is a story that could easily have fragmented; but it’s held together by strong and effective narrative rivets so that the whole works as one single connected action.
Even though I assume most of you aren’t planning to write space-opera melodrama, the structure of this story serves as a valuable demonstration of the basic techniques of handling parallel and equal plot lines. Reviewing it on videotape, if you have a VCR, can reveal still other connective devices, echoes, mirrors, and pacing techniques you’ll find useful no matter what kind of fiction you’re interested in.
Though there are all kinds of fiction there’s only one craft. What works for one story will likely work for another, and all good works of craft repay thoughtful study.
If you’re contemplating a divided plot structure, spend this after-beginning section strongly establishing your characters and their relationships, and creating scenes and events you can echo later on, to be a solid basis for the coming split.
Because after this, things are going to get really interesting. In just a few paragraphs or pages, you’ll be looking toward your first major crisis, your first Big Scene, where the plot is really going to thicken and knot and spit sparks in all directions.