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Marginal Notes


A couple of months ago, a writer posted a problem on the WU Facebook page. A character who would play a major role in her plot’s climax didn’t show up until the second half of the novel. This meant they never got a chance to know the character well enough given her place in the story, which made her more of a plot device than a person. The problem was, if the author introduced her earlier, the ending would lose some of its shock value because readers would guess the character was going to figure into it somehow. Otherwise, why would she be there?

Stories are artificial, with a carefully constructed internal architecture, each piece relying on the others, all of them there for a reason. And readers are aware of that. Sure, they’re willing to suspend disbelief and enter the world of a story as if it were real life. But they’re still aware of the structure behind the story, even if they’re not conscious of it.

Normally, this isn’t a problem. If your characters are engaging enough, readers are willing to forgive you a plot whose bones show through from time to time. But the more your readers notice your plot architecture, the harder it is to suspend disbelief. The most effective stories are completely transparent, with readers blithely unaware of the author’s behind-the-scenes manipulations. How do you get your story to that level? How do you give an essentially artificial construct the organic feel of real life?

The most effective way is to watch and listen to your characters as you write. When you let your events arise out of their personalities and desires, the story they lead you into will feel more authentic. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a number of clients who became clients because their characters led their stories right into the woods – plots that rambled, doubled back, and ended up nowhere, as often happens real life. I suspect that many overly literary stories have their stereotypical flaw -- engaging, beautifully drawn characters to whom nothing much happens – because the writers want to capture real life and avoid the gauche artificiality of an actual plot.

But if you want to tell an effective story with your characters, or if you still haven’t developed the depth of imagination you need to follow your characters wherever they go, then how do you get a plot that moves along so naturally that readers feel they’re watching real life unfold?

The most effective way is to make sure various elements of your story accomplish more than one thing. Plots creak the loudest when, for instance, your characters engage in a conversation simply intended to give your readers information, or examine the details of a random piece of background because it will later play a role in the story.

Instead, every element of your story should have several reasons for being there. The conversation that slips readers important information should also establish something new about your characters. The description that reveals key hints of your backstory should also add to the atmosphere of your setting. The light subplot that gives your readers a break from the relentlessness of your thriller should also demonstrate a side of your main character that doesn’t show up elsewhere. Nothing should do just one thing.

The writer who asked for help on the WU Facebook page simply needed to find some other reason for her character to be in her story -- as a possible romantic interest, or to support the hero through tough times, or to simply provide comic relief. That way, she would seem more a part of the world of the story, and readers wouldn’t be watching for her to step into her role at the end.

Getting the structure absolutely right is most critical when you’re writing a mystery. Mystery readers, after all, know that at least one of the characters is playing a second role in the story – as the murderer. They know the author is trying to slip them information subtly enough that they won’t recognize it. In fact, most mysteries are almost a contest between the authors, who are trying to hide their structure until the end, and the readers, who are trying to spot it before then.

And yet the best mysteries manage to make all this complex plot architecture feel like real life, mostly by making important elements do double duty. Consider the following passage, from Sue Grafton’s G is for Gumshoe. [SPOILER ALERT] Kinsey Milhone, Grafton’s gumshoe, has just tracked an elderly woman, Agnes Grey, to a local hospital. Agnes, who has been missing for years, is afraid to come home, and Kinsey is trying to understand why.

“Can you tell me what you’re afraid of?”

I could see her struggle, and her voice, when it came, was so frail that I had to rise slightly from my chair to catch what she was saying. “Emily died. I tried to warn her. The chimney collapsed in the earthquake. The ground rolled. Oh, I could see . . . it was like waves in the earth. Her head was bashed in by a brick. She wouldn’t listen when I told her it was dangerous. Let it be, I said, but she had to have her way. Sell the house, sell the house. She didn’t want roots, but that’s where she ended up . . . down in the ground.”

“When was this?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation afloat.

Agnes shook her head mutely.

“Is that why you’re worried? Because of Emily?”

“I heard the niece of the owner of that old house across the street died several years ago. She was a Harpster.”

Oh, boy. We were really on a roll here. “She played the harp?” I asked.

She shook her head impatiently. Her voice gathered strength. “Harpster was her maiden name. She was big in the Citizens Bank and never married. Helen was an ex-girlfriend of his. She left because of his temper, but then Sheila came along. She was so young. She had no idea. The other Harpster girl was a dancer and married Arthur James, a professional accordion player who owned a music shop. I knew him because we girls at the Y used to go over to his place and he would play for us after he locked the door,” she said. “It’s a small world. The girls said their uncle’s house was their second home. She might still be there if he left it to her. She’d help.”

I watched carefully, trying to understand what was going on. Was there really something she was too frightened to talk about? “Was Emily the one who married Arthur James?”

“There was always some story . . . always some explanation.” She waved her hand vaguely, her tone resigned.

“Was this in Santa Theresa? Maybe I could help you if I understood.”

“Santa came over special and gave us all a stockingful of goodies. I let her have mine.”

“Who, Emily?”

“Don’t talk about Emily. Don’t tell. It was the earthaquake. Everyone said so.” She extracted her hand and a veil of cunning dropped over her eyes. “My arthritis is in my shoulder and knee. My shoulder has been broken two times. The doctor didn’t even touch it, just X-rayed. I had two cataract operations at least, but I never had to have a tooth filled. You can see for yourself.” She opened her mouth.

Sure enough, no fillings, which is not that big a deal when you have no teeth.

“You look like you’re in pretty good shape for someone your age,” I said gamely. The subject was careening around like conversational pinball.

“Lottie was the other one. She was a simpleton, but she always had a big smile on her face. She didn’t have the brains God gave a billy goat. She’d go out the back door and then she’d forget how to get back in. She’d sit on the porch steps and howl like a pup until someone let her in. Then she’d howl to get back out again. She was the first. She died of influenza. I forget when Mother went. She had that stroke, you know, after Father died. He wanted to keep the house and Emily wouldn’t hear of it. I was the last one and I didn’t argue. I wasn’t really sure until Sheila, and then I knew. That’s when I left.”

I said, “Unh-hunh,” and then tried another tack. “Is it the trip that worries you?”

She shook her head. “The smell when it’s damp,” she said. “Never seemed to bother anyone else.”

“Would you prefer to have Irene [Agnes’s niece, who hired Kinsey] fly down and travel back with you?”

“I worked cleaning houses. That’s how I supported Irene all those years. I watched Tilda and I knew how it was done. Of course, she was dismissed. He saw to that. No financial records. No banks. She was the only casualty. It was the only time her name was ever in the papers.”

“Whose name?”

“You know,” she said. Her look now was secretive.

“Emily?” I asked.

“Time wounds all heels, you know.”

“Is this your father you’re talking about?”

“Oh dear, no. He was long gone. It would be in the footing if you knew where to look.”

“What footing”

Her face went blank. “Are you talking to me?”

“Well, yes,” I said. “We’ve been talking about Emily, the one who died when the chimney fell.”

She made a motion as if to lock her lips and throw away the key. “I did it all to save her. My lips are sealed. For Irene’s sake.”

“Why is that, Agnes? What is it you’re not supposed to tell?”

She focused a quizzical look on me. I was suddenly aware that the real Agnes Grew was in the room with me. She sounded perfectly rational. “Well, I’m sure you’re very nice, dear, but I don’t know who you are.”

I’ve quoted this scene at length because it was the only way to see the true beauty of it. You’ve just read a detailed description of three murders Kinsey discovers by the end of the story – Emily and Lottie, whose deaths were passed off as natural, and Sheila, who was found buried in the footing of a garden shed. You could smell her in the damp.

But at this point in the plot, Kinsey is simply trying to get Agnes back to her niece, and this is the first real dialogue between them. It seems this rambling conversation is there just to highlight what a hard time Kinsey is going to have in dealing with Agnes. And because the scene already has a function in the story, and because all the key clues are mixed in with the Harpster sisters and Agnes’s teeth and Arthur James and his accordion, readers never realize until the denouement that Grafton has already told them everything.

The structure is sound, and solid, and precisely calibrated, and it all just feels like everyday life. The story is completely transparent.