novel-writing and controlling information

A random subject, I must admit, but this has been on my mind recently.

Part of my book involves… we’ll call it a mystery. Unclear motives, conspiracy, a bigger picture than the protagonist sees. I’m exactly three chapters from ending the book according to my recent chapter plans, and as more and more climax-heightening information comes through, I have to wonder… is the big reveal, aha-moment too obvious? The characters have every scrap of information they’d need now to put things together. A stressful chapter, a distracting goal, and a wrong take on one of the events ought to keep the characters busy… what about the reader?

This is probably the most agonizing part of writing fantasy. Fantasy is a setting-genre. It has a great deal in common with sci-fi, westerns, and even historical fiction for that reason. And yet the genre constantly overlaps with the event-genres… action, adventure, romance, mystery, thriller (suggest that fantasy is an event-genre by the necessity of a ‘quest’, and I will vaporize you with my scary teacher-stare). So in able to be able to fully command the genre, one must be at least adapt at the subtleties of romance and mystery, the chill of a suspense novel and the tension of a well-crafted fight, no matter the era of weapon.

Back to my original question: how do you know when you’ve made the reveal too transparent? Like spotting a scratch on a piece of furniture– when you know where to look, it jumps out at you. I have some ideas– only a survey of test-readers can be accurate, but there are a few tricks that I’ve noted.

One upon a time, I was an admirer of the Harry Potter series. (Hey, at least it’s not ‘Twilight’). One thing that I admired about Rowling’s work was how thoroughly she would foreshadow her endings. By the fourth book, I caught on to her style enough to see them coming ahead of time, but the first three books left me hitting myself, declaring “Stupid! Stupid!” at the end of each one. Rowling also has a lot of characters, each involved with their own activities, and lots of quirky detail, to hide what’s important with what’s not. So what if the pet rat has a missing toe? It’s an old, pathetic rat that’s had one too many encounters with a garden gnome or something, nestled right in a description of how haggard it looks. And there was that vacation it was hauled off to in Egypt over the summer. It might have caught something. Plenty of reasons not to think it has anything to do with plot.

Use of detail, amid lots of other detail. Logical rationalization, yet a point unique enough to stand out. Foreshadowing each element as its own separate island, as if they’re not connected. Mistaken assumptions that the reader is lead to agree with can be startling to overturn.

But then, my next example uses something entirely different. Gosford Park, a murder mystery film… which was more about the people and less about the murder.

I will warn you, I really, really loved this movie. Watch it five times, and you might have picked out all the subtle sub-plots. Everyone is guilty of something… some more than others. There’s bickering behind closed doors, affairs, blackmail… in fact, all the sub-plots can be so interesting that they take away focus of the murder entirely. The reveal isn’t dramatic. On the contrary, it’s quiet, and not exactly a ‘pursuit of justice’.

So… is detail the secret? I haven’t made a habit of reading mystery for some time– I think I need to go back to it. Does anyone have any great references that they’d like to point to?

villian: kione remerdii: scene

“Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled. We called sadism a sexual perversion; but you must first have the idea of a normal sexuality before you can talk of its being perverted; and you can see which is the perversion, because you can explain the perverted from the normal, and cannot explain the normal from the perverted.” -C.S. Lewis, ‘Mere Christianity’

((A sample of Kione’s POV, to practice the details of my villain. We’ll call it free-writing, and I make no promises as to the quality of the prose.))

Kione had sat with his usual glass of firewine through breakfast, swirling the liquid and picking at his food though his stomach protested with every bite that he forced down his throat. He had imagined himself presenting a front of high spirits on this anticipated day, and though he had thought that he had better control over himself than this, had relied several times on his nerves, he found them failing him. The sensation worsened when young Prince Davyer Kanichende looked at him and asked, “You’re not sad, are you?”

“Sad, my prince?” Kione smiled and shook his head. “I can rarely eat before an event of importance. The coronation certainly counts, if nothing else in the world would. You must be very excited.”

“Don’t forget, we’re taking off the traitor’s head today.”
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plot, the contortionist

My changes to plot has fixed a hundred problems that I didn’t account for when I wrote the 0-draft in NaNoWriMo. Subplots have popped up, interweave with the main storyline, the characters, even unintentionally, are changing as the story progresses. Rylan finally believes he knows what to do and is starting to act like the pseudo-noble that he is.

The problem is that in my first write (and this was one of the problems with that draft that I hadn’t specifically identified) my characters’ strength and connections had remained fairly static throughout the story. Now that I’m paying more attention to the villains, I’ve realized that if they’re going to survive, they need allies and connections.

Allies and connections means that the catalyst that brings them down is no longer going to work. Not even remotely. My characters would have to be blitheringly stupid to even get close. Which means that one of my key events is completely wrong.

Now, I could find ways to explain it off. Ick, no. I can’t even salvage part of the original plan and make it consistent and believable. I am not going to bend and twist my plot to give it a preordained mediocre pre-climax. Plot can be a contortionist in some cases, but the moment it had a foot sticking out of its stomach, something’s wrong.

My villain’s going to have to do something pretty amazing to bring them down now. I’m going to keep on writing, and see how it happens, because I’m off my outline.

climactic ending

I had some thoughts about endings while I was driving home from work last night. To warn you now, I was listening to Metallica’s ‘King Nothing’ as I pondered.

In my 0-draft I had an semi-decent idea for a climax, but the setting was nondescript and it lacked the drama that I was seeking. It came to me that if this was a movie, if I was really shooting for a visual effect, what I should do is to set it in a place where the characters have been before instead of just another tunnel in the city. And instead of the main character ‘knowing’ that what he does is going to break the villain later down the road (and out of sight of the camera, which is perhaps a little more realistic) I ought to move elements around so that all parts of the confrontation happen at once.

The applicable part of all this is that I should reconsider the imagery of the scenery and manipulate it to include more interesting elements, not exactly the ‘logical’ elements. I’m used to sculpture, but novels are so movable, so fluid, that it seems strangely rigid to confine fantasy to a perfectly realistic straight-lines style when you can give important scenes more meaning by tweaking the lines just a bit. Perhaps this is an argument why making maps isn’t always helpful, because once you create them you feel bound to what you’ve filled in.