story : plot

Ethan, once more

Recently I’ve had quite a few emails with questions about the Wilderness series. They are maybe four or five questions that keep coming up, so I’m posting this first, to provide some general insight into this phenomenon, and second, to point people to answers.

Here’s my philosophy about questions arising from a novel: if the author has to tell you, she didn’t do her job very well, OR, you need to think about the questions some more on your own. Because for every question you can ask, there are many answers. Every reader takes away a different reading, and it’s not for me to agree or disagree. So for example, many people have written to me asking about Ethan and the ‘secret’ that brought him home to Paradise and then motivated his proposal to Callie.

It’s not really a secret. All the clues are there, but for me to tell you would be forcing a reading on you that should be your own. I know what I meant, but you are free to read the story, read the clues, and come up with an answer of your own. This is the kind of question that makes a good book club discussion point.

Now, do people sometimes get the wrong end of the stick? Yes. If somebody tells me that Ethan was clearly abducted by aliens and suffering post-traumatic stress, I would say: huh. Really not what I was going for. I might go so far as to say that that person did not read very closely. But that’s as far as I’ll go.

Having said that, there’s an older post that does go into more detail, and you’ll find it here.

Finally, here’s my general explanation of things: authorial confessions.


Digging down to Conflict

Update: I spend a half hour or an hour every day sorting through old weblog posts in an effort to bring some order to the chaos (for example, if you care to have a look, the FAQ section is actually starting to come together). But every once in a while there’s a post that’s been culled somehow from the herd, so I have to either do some research to figure out where it originated, or repost it. Today time is short, so I’m reposting this, after some editing.

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The nature of conflict in a story is so complex it’s hard to talk about. I’ve rarely run into a teacher or book that does a good job of laying out the very subtle manouevering that goes into establishing and building on conflict. There’s a good chance I won’t pull it off either, but I’m going to try.

People who are just getting started with writing fiction often take things too literally. Yes, you need a major conflict. A couple married seventy years who are thinking about divorce? Yes, excellent conflict. But how do you put that idea into actions, into a story that makes the reader want to turn the page?

You might set the whole story at the breakfast table, your two characters arguing and fighting — but that’s very restrictive for you as a writer, and really hard to pull off well. Your characters will give you an idea of where to start.

Imagine them sitting at a table with you. You are interviewing them.

Writer: Sam, can you tell me why after seventy years of marriage you want a divorce?

Sam: She’s too damn picky. She never lets up. I’m ninety-two, I think I deserve a little peace in whatever time I’ve got coming to me.

Sally: Aren’t you going to ask me?

W: Of course. What’s your version of this story, Sally?

Sally: Sam is selfish. He never thinks about anybody but himself. He gets up, goes to the kitchen, gets a cup of coffee. Does he think to ask me if I want coffee? No. If I ask him will you bring me a cup too? — He makes faces like he’s got a sore tooth. For seventy years I have put dinner on the table. You know how many meals that is? 40,320 meals! And that’s just dinner! And he makes faces about bringing me a cup of coffee.

W: Any response, Sam?

Sam: There was that week I went fishing with Marty, you didn’t cook that week.

Where are you now? You know quite a bit about your two characters’ personalities, but you still don’t know what’s really up. Ask them one more question.

W: But you’ve been coping with things that irritate you — both of you have been coping — for seventy years. Why now? What set this off?

Sally: Mind your own damn business.

Sam: See, now she’s got nothing to say.

At this point you have the backbone of the story. Something happened before the curtain opened. We don’t know what. Sally is defensive about it. Sam is resentful. Maybe she lost all their money at roulette. Maybe she revealed an affair she had fifty years ago. She might want to move to Argentina, while Sam is comfortable outside Santa Fe. As the story unfolds, you’ll start to understand how these two communicate, and a lot of that won’t have anything to do with talking. So I could narrate a scene:

At dinner Sally puts a big pot of Carbonada Criolla on the table. It’s her mother’s recipe, which Sally brought with her when she came from Argentina eighty years ago. She serves Carbonada Criolla only when she really wants to irritate Sam, because she dislikes it as much as he does.

This narration would be the absolute wrong way to handle this scene, but for the moment I just want you to think about what’s the conflict of the moment. Any conflict of the moment has to feed the big conflict, or it doesn’t belong in the story. Does this scene about Carbonada Criolla move the story along? It could. Carbonada Criolla can serve as a big fat symbol for what’s wrong between them. Sally insists she wants to go back to Argentina, and she won’t stop harping about it… but on some level she’s counting on Sam to talk her out of it.

On the other hand, Sam always wanted to travel, and he likes the idea of Argentina — but after seventy years of saying no, he’s got to find a way to say yes that will save his pride. In this chapter or story, there will be very little direct discussion of Argentina, but you will see conflict on an every-day-to-day level. And each scene with its conflict of the moment moves us closer to a crisis in this ongoing struggle of wills.

I’m going to jump over the crisis for the moment and get straight to the resolution. You could be lazy. You could send them off to Argentina, and wave goodbye. But isn’t it more interesting to let the reader participate? If you followed the story of the HBO series The Sopranos, you probably heard all the controvery about the ending. It left everything up the air. Maybe a hitman was going to come through the door and shoot Tony; maybe the FBI was going to arrest him on some charges that he won’t be able to sidestep; maybe he’ll just have a dinner with his family. As the viewer, you take everything you know about the characters and what’s happened thus far, and draw your own conclusions.

In a nutshell: The resolution doesn’t have to be a summary about Sam and Sally’s trip to Argentina. You can lead the reader up to that point, and if you are devious enough, you can leave the question for them to answer. Here are some possible very symbolic final scenes to this story — each of which provides a very different idea of the story that went before it:

Sam goes into a travel agency and asks for brochures about visiting Sweden.

Sally calls her awful sister in Argentina and says she’s sending her a first class, one way ticket to Sante Fe.

Sam opens a book to find a photo of Sally when she was twenty-one.

Dinner time, and Sally puts Carbonada Criolla on the table.

Sam buys a bathing suit.

So what we’ve done here is: we’ve got our characters fleshed out and moving around. And we’ve got the resolution. With only this much, a whole story can blossom into being. I realize this may not be very clear at this point, but bear with me a little longer.

Yesterday you put down some thoughts about a character based only on a photograph. Today you’re going to think up five possible symbolic resolutions — not for your character, but in isolation. These symbolic resolutions may not be huge or emotional events; they may not be completely passive, either. Here are some examples:

(character unknown) …. buys a red velvet cape. …. jumps the stile instead of paying the subway fare …. takes a half eaten sandwich out of a public trash bin and tucks it in his/her pocket

resolutions that won’t work: Character X gets run over by a train (too big); brushes her teeth (too little).

Tomorrow I’ll pair the characters with yesterday’s exercise with resolutions from today’s. You’ll be astounded at what pops out of the Story Machine.

The Trifecta of Storytelling, or the Whole Pie

I came across this diagram and decided to put it back up here, because it’s useful. I, at any rate, find it useful when I’m thinking about what I’m writing.storypie


The star in the middle represents the holy grail in fiction: a book that is loved by critics and devoured by readers. There are a few such beasts out there. Lonesome Dove always comes to mind when I think about this, a masterpiece of storytelling with characters who are going to outlive all of us, with pitch perfect prose and dialogue. The critics adored it, the public did too. It rode the top of the best seller lists for a good while, and made a lot of money.

Most novels fail in one or more of these three key areas. What’s interesting to me is that the litcrit crowd is vocally dismissive of one piece of this pie, but it’s the one piece you can’t do without if you want a novel to really take off, because here’s the universal truth: people need stories. Human beings think and perceive and understand in terms of narrative and story. The story is what makes the reader turn the page.

Strong supporting evidence for this can be found on almost any day’s best seller list. There are books out there which have made fortunes for their authors, which are (bluntly stated) badly written at every level. Off the top of my head, two titles: The DaVinci Code, and Fifty Shades of Grey (and yes, I’ve read them both). What these novels have going for them are their stories, and some of the wildcard elements (marketing in particular can do a lot for sales). They are both built on shocking but appealing ideas: In the first case, Jesus of Nazareth had children; in the second case,  a well-raised young woman can be sexually curious and open to the possibilities of kink,  if the guy in question has a ton of money and a tragic background.

Both of these novels are pretty awful in terms of prose and dialogue and characterization. I’m not going to quote anything here because the idea isn’t to point out what’s wrong with them, but what’s right. Either of them could be a fantastic whole-pie novel if their authors had taken a different approach.

And still: none of that matters because the stories work.

People who write and enjoy the genre generally called literature consider their work or taste  superior to all other genres, and they’ve convinced almost everybody else of this too — the emperor’s new clothes, on a grand scale. But even the most respected writers of literary fiction rarely get near the top of the best seller lists, because plot is, for them, a four letter word.

I personally  consider all three elements of the story pie equally important, but  it’s pretty rare that I come across a whole-pie kind of novel. Byatt’s Possession, Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising series, Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, some of Austen and Dickens and Hardy.  I’m always looking for candidates for the whole-pie shelf, if you’ve got any to suggest.




Counting Kids: Nathaniel’s Offspring

I get questions quite regularly from people who are unclear on how many children Nathaniel fathered.  There is some room for confusion, because some of the children were born in the ten year pause between the second and third novels, and some of them died in that period, as well.

And it is recorded incorrectly in a couple places. Here’s the definitive answer in the form of a family tree. Before you click on it for a larger, more legible version, be warned that if you have not yet read the novels but intend to, you will find this chart chock full of spoilers. It also provides a little bit of context for The Gilded Hour, but nothing spoilerish at all. This chart includes all children born, even those who died at birth or shortly after.

Really I should post this in the FAQ section, but the software is misbehaving and I haven’t had the time to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it.