Lots of Events, No Story

events

Lots of Events, No Story

In the last post, I discussed Amor TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow which, while it had lots of events to recommend itself, a story that went somewhere seemed absent.

I want to talk about how to up the chances that your novel will have forward motion. But before I do it, I do want to repeat that a compelling plot is not the only thing which makes a novel attractive. It might be beauty of the language or brilliant capture of the nuances of a character or a time or a setting.  If this is where your novel is focused, then ignore this post.

But if you’d like to make sure that your story has forward motion, read on.

Events do not a story make

I think the idea that lots can happen in a novel but still not have a story is a tough concept. But without a plot that gives meaning to the events, the reader is left vaguely dissatisfied but doesn’t know why.

So, indulge me if I try another example, this time a good one. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a widow and her three daughters try to make their way in the world when her husband’s estate passes to the male heir. They move, they meet interesting new people, the older girls fall in love, etc. So, lots happen. The difference is that the novel has forward motion. We want to know what is going to happen to the family, particularly the two young women. We keep reading for that reason.

This applies to memoirs

By the by, memoir writers should take note of this concept. Memoirs are not, or should not be, just a listing of the events of your life. That’s history not memoir. Remember, a Memoir is a Lifestory, emphasis on story. You want your readers to want to keep reading so you need to build in a sense of forward action beyond the tried and true, I-was-born-I-lived-I’m-writing-this-before-I-die.

Building story in

So after harping on what a difficult concept forward action is to identify, the answer is, I think, is a lot less mystic.

You need to make sure you build in the classic plot structure. You know, rising action, climax, etc. The novel needs to build to some point that the reader cares about. Will the young women marry the right men? Will the hero overcome the monster? Who killed Cock Robin? (Sorry).

I know this seems an obvious and even disappointing answer. But I find a surprising number of writers, perhaps carried away by the fun of creating secondary characters and subplots, forget this fundamental principle. They may end up with an entertaining novel but they are less likely to create a story that readers can’t put down.

So carefully review your manuscript to make sure that you have built this forward action in. This includes establishing a goal or outcome the reader cares about but isn’t limited to that. Does the rising action keep rising at a good pace or does the story get bogged down in interesting byways and asides? Is the climax ‘justified?’ That is, has the protagonist done enough or changed enough so that the outcome is satisfying rather than out of the blue.

So think of this as good news. The fix to forward motion is very doable. A lot of work, but doable. Not unadulterated good news, I grant you.

A Gentleman in Moscow

Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles’ widely acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is the story of a Russian aristocrat during the Russian Revolution. His sanctuary/house arrest is the luxurious Metropol Hotel where he meets a girl who shows him the inner workings of the hotel. A moody chef, among other characters, figure in his discovery.

I found I enjoyed reading the novel while reading it but when I put it down, it took me a long time to pick it up again. This happened again and again. At about page 250, I think I figured out what was causing the sporadic reading.

The novel has lots of events, but no real plot. Things happen but the novel doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

A Gentleman in Moscow has other charms

Although I enjoy a good plot, I recognize that novels can be excellent for other reasons. I can and do appreciate living in the world Amor Towles created. The Count is quite a delightful character and his insights into Life are both apt and apropos. NPR’s review of the book says:

All of the verbal excess, the gently funny mock-epic digressions, the small capers and cast of colorful characters, add up to something undeniably mannered but also undeniably pleasant.

And I agree. It is lovely to read when I am reading it.

But there is the problem that I keep putting it down and not picking it up for a long time.

Lots of events, no story

This is tough concept to get. The idea that lots can happen, but there is no real story. The closest thing I think I can get to is when you watch, willingly or otherwise, somebody else’s vacation photos. Lots of places are visited, lots of boats boarded, lots of meals consumed. But it isn’t so much a story as a litany of events.

Which is fine for holiday snaps but readers usually expect more from a novel. I am prepared for people to argue that A Gentleman in Moscow does so have a story. I might even agree with them. But fundamentally, although things happen, it doesn’t have a sense of forward motion. The sense that the protagonist is going to end up somewhere different or be someone at least slightly different.

It might be argued that it is more real life to have a protagonist who is adapting as well as he can to a difficult situation. True. But, as I have said Fiction is Not Life and how it really happened is not actually an adequate defense against the charge of no story.

Fiction has its own rules. In order to feel authentic on the page, it often requires a distortion of what usually happens in real life. And generally, fiction requires that the story goes somewhere even if we don’t necessarily expect our own lives to come to a climax which is resolved in a surprising yet satisfying way.

Well, it is possible that A Gentleman in Moscow does suddenly develop a forward motion even if there was no sign of it at page 250. I’ll let you know when I get back to it.

Next post—how to turn events into a plot.

Foreshadowing

foreshadowing

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a literary technique used to allow writers to hint at an event which is in the offing. It has gotten a bad name and for good reason. It is often done clumsily and as a substitute for a good story. An example:

Mary entered the ballroom. It was all shine and glass. Suddenly, she heard a large clap behind her. She whirled. The floor to ceiling mirror had a large crack. And as if in slow motion, the pieces loosened from the frame and toppled to the ground. “I have a bad feeling about this,” she thought.

Okay, so I went for the clichés. But there are plenty others. Stormy weather to denote disturbance in the characters’ world. Ravens or crows abounding doom. Spilled wine presages flowing blood. A shattered mirror portents the destruction of a life, a hope, an idyll. Or even, as in the piece above, a character saying, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

The intent of all of these is to signal to the reader that something BIG is coming.

Foreshadowing versus building tension

The reason I don’t favor foreshadowing much is that I think writers can sometimes use it as a proxy. Instead of putting the time and effort into building tension in a story, they figuratively and sometimes literally tell the reader, oh, this is going to get exciting, oh, you’re going to be so surprised, look at how tense things are getting. It’s sort of a tell in that the writer isn’t necessarily constructing a plot which builds and builds tension so the reader can decide herself when she’s excited, surprised, or tense. Instead, the writer signals the expected response. Let’s try the Mary-ballroom thing again.

Mary entered the ballroom, checking to make sure she was alone. She sauntered down the large space, noting the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and the sunshine bouncing off the highly polished floors. “Like a downmarket Versailles,” she thought. And then she smiled.

Obviously, you need more than a couple of lines to build good, rip-roaring tension. But in this segment, there are possible clues in Mary’s actions. She makes sure that she’s alone which might suggest furtiveness but then she sauntered in the room which is more associated with being carefree. And what was it with the thought about downmarket and the smile? Why did she do that?

You can build tension through the character’s actions rather than tired old tropes.

Good foretelling

I don’t want to suggest that foreshadowing is never appropriate. But it needs to be subtle, perhaps so subtle that the reader, at most, takes it in unconsciously. Then it can be quite effective. The novelist Carol Shields advocates the use of foreshadowing so that “when the denouement arrives, it will both surprise and satisfy some level of expectation[1].” When used well, it can contribute to the reader’s feeling that the ending was the ‘right’ one.

So, when/if you use foreshadowing, apply with a light hand. Leave the hammers for stories that start out with It was a dark and stormy night.

[1] Shields, Carol, Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing Random House, Canada, 2006

Stories in a Frame

frame

Stories in a Frame

What are stories in a frame? Typically, the novel opens with the story-teller/author, recounting events which occurred either to him or to someone else. The form is reminiscent of campfire tales. This phenomenon is also referred to as a story within a story.

The movie Titanic, starts with elderly woman, Rose, who is a survivor of the disaster. Rose tells the viewer of her ill-fated love affair with another passenger. Rose provides the frame to the movie.

Okay, so does anyone remember Rose when you think of the movie? I don’t. The ship, the special effects, the stars, yes. Rose, no.

Are frames needed?

Often, the answer is ‘no.’

Framed stories frequently start out that way because it is the writer’s sort of clearing her throat. Rather than jump right in, she may find it easier to use a proxy of herself through whom to tell the story. Don’t ask me why, but it seems an easier way into a story.

Would Titanic the movie lose steam (sorry) if we went straight into the story without Rose? Not a jot.

The disadvantage of a frame around a story is that it removes the reader one degree from the main action. You lose the power of seeing the story directly through the eyes of the protagonist. The format also makes it easier to slip into more telling than showing, which also lessens the power of the drama.

Avoiding a frame

Often, it is pretty easy to get rid of a frame. Just drop it. Start directly with the story.

Yes, you may have to do some fiddling throughout the story if you have allowed your story-teller to break into the action. Oh, if I had only known what was about to happen.

But that’s a good thing. Concentrating on the main character’s thoughts and feelings up the chances of a compelling portrayal.

When to use the story within a story technique

As usual, nothing is hard and fast in writing.

For example, Arabist Richard Francis Burton translated parts of One Thousand and One Nights which used the frame story of Scheherazade who must tell a new story every night to her husband, the king Shahryār, to keep alive. It is a way of linking basically unrelated stories into a cohesive whole.

Similarly, Hamlet hires a group of actors to perform a play. This play within the play is intended to flush out the guilt of his step-father for the killing of his father.

So, it’s not that stories in a frame can never be used. But you need to ask yourself why you need it. If the story within a story is intended to further the plot as in Hamlet, that makes perfect sense. But if it was just your way to get into the real tale, it might be worth dumping.

Using Dialect—Not

dialect

Using Dialect—Not

Many writers have used dialect to portray characters whose use of non-standard English often indicates a difference in geography or social status from the protagonist.

There are many examples in literature. One of the most famous is Mark Twain’s use in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. An example:Yes. You know that one-laigged n***** dat belongs to old Misto Brandish? Well, he sot up a bank, en say anybody dat put in a dollar would git fo’ dollars mo’ at de en’ er de year.”

So, how easy was that to read? Pretty tough, no? I find myself working so hard to figure out what is being said that I forget to concentrate on the meaning.

And because of that, I also lose whatever emotion intended for the passage.

By and large, I’m not a fan of using dialect for that reason alone.

Other dangers of using dialect

But there are other hazards to using dialect.

Stereotyping. You run the risk of stereotyping the culture you’re trying to portray. You can get away with this type of dialect if you’re writing about your own culture. But be very careful if you introduce ancillary characters who are not. Yes, you might be able to get across quickly who this minor character is using dialect. But I think you’d be better off either having the character speak in his own language and providing a translation in brackets immediately after or creating another character who translates for the group being addressed as well as the reader.

Cultural appropriation [1][2]  is a much talked about and contentious issue right now. It is basically when the member of one culture uses/adopts aspects of another culture and, in our case, incorporates this borrowed material into a written piece. It questions to what extent, for example, a non-indigenous writer can portray an indigenous character. Or any other culture not their own.

Use of dialect can be a slippery slope into either of these two phenomena.

Capture the sense of the idiom

However, it also doesn’t make sense that a writer can write only about his own culture, with no contact with others’. But here is how you can portray the culture/language without resorting to dialect.

Use easily recognizable words from the language. There are often words in your character’s native culture that are recognizable to English readers. Sayonara or Arigatō from Japanese. If you think the reader might not know the word, the dialogue can always be something like: I am most grateful. Arigatō.

Use grammatical errors. Prepositions are tough to get right in any language. German people speaking English might say “I am interested for” rather than ‘in.’ Or “I took an aspirin against a headache” rather than ‘for.’

Use the cadence of language.  In French, débit is the flow of the spoken word. If you know French, you will soon pick up the particular rhythm that Francophones use, particularly with other native French speakers. You can mimic this pace and tempo in your dialogue to give the impression of a Francophone even if the speech is entirely in English.

If you don’t know the culture well enough to use one of these techniques, why are you trying to portray a character from that background? Just asking.

Anyhow, both for ease of reading and to avoid straying inadvertently into controversial territory, stick as closely to standard English as you can, making adjustments at the margins to add flavor.