Guest Post: Victoria Mixon on Fueling Plot Momentum

Peeps, this post is a landmark for me, and I’m so excited. I’ve had guests here in the guise of interview victims before, but never entirely turned over the Tartitude reins. I can think of few more qualified to handle them than Victoria Mixon.

You might know Victoria from elsewhere. She’s a frequent contributor  to Writer Unboxed, a writer, and an independent editor with over thirty years’ experience.  Today’s post is an excerpt from The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, a companion to the successful The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual. It was specifically chosen to help the plot- or pacing-challenged in the crowd, which at this point probably includes anyone doing NaNoWriMo. Enjoy!

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Using Character to Fuel Momentum

Every day, in every way, I am always telling aspiring writers, “Whatever you do, never interfere with the forward motion of your plot.” Life is short, and stories are legion. We haven’t got that kind of time.

But even better than simply not interfering, we need to know how to increase that forward motion.

Momentum: from snowball to avalanche.

We’ve been talking about how to use character to create plot, how our protagonist’s two conflicting needs create the nightmare collision that is their inevitable Climax. But, while we’re exploring this plot, how do we go beyond the admonishment not to interfere with our plot’s momentum and actually increase the momentum, exaggerate, fuel it? Through character?

By taking every opportunity to conflict those two needs. And, at carefully timed intervals, increase them.

This technique is rooted in the character’s freedom of choice. Because every time we set up a decision for them—A or B—whatever they choose leads to C, which we must arrange to be even worse than whatever they didn’t choose.

Say a man needs to be safely on the right side of the law, even to believe in justice, or at least not make things any worse for himself. He’s in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and he has a health problem the prison environment is exacerbating badly. Staying and sticking out his term keeps him safe from further prosecution. But he also needs to survive.

He needs:

1) to be safe from the law (which he knows now he won’t necessarily be even if he avoids breaking it)

2) to live

 His choices are:

A: obediently stick out his term and hope prison doesn’t kill him, or

B: break out of prison and safeguard his health

He chooses a need, and he breaks out of San Quentin.

Now, the movie version of David Goodis’ noir classic, Dark Passage, made film history for the most inadvertently hilarious introductory scenes ever: the camera acting as the eyes of the protagonist, Humphrey Bogart, who must, upon his escape from prison, have plastic surgery to make his face unrecognizable. (They pulled this camera stunt so they wouldn’t have to either use another actor or attempt to alter beyond recognition Bogey  himself. It apparently did not occur to anyone that if we were going to have plastic surgery, we might question making ourselves look like Humphrey Bogart. Charming, yes. Powerful, yes. Charisma preceding him by five miles in all directions, yes. But that mug?)

Anyway, as soon as Vincent Parry breaks out of San Quentin, he’s in trouble. What has he done? He has chosen A over B and wound up with C. Now he has to avoid getting caught, which would not only endanger his life but also lengthen his prison sentence.

His choices are:

C: stick around where he is, or

D: get the heck out of there

So he starts getting the heck out of there. He gets an offer of a ride. Should he take it?

E: take the ride and risk being identified, or

F: keep walking and make slower progress

He decides yes. He’s taking E. He hops in, and in short order it turns out this driver is quite a Nosy Parker and is about to identify him according to police reports now being broadcast over the car radio.

He must choose to:

E: keep riding and take whatever comes of being identified, or

G: get the heck out of that ride

He decides on G, to get the heck out of the ride, but when he asks the driver to pull over, the man makes it clear he knows Parry’s the recent escapee and, what’s more, will turn him in.

He can:

E: keep riding, or

H: hurt the driver to get the heck out of that ride

He hurts the driver. (As well as being a necessary education on the mistake he made back with E and Fratcheting the tension on his next choicethis is also a fuse laid waiting to flare up again later when he can least afford it. One event playing more than one role in the story: that’s layering.) Then he’s back on the road, this time disguised in the driver’s clothes. He gets another offer of a ride. Should he take it?

The most important thing about making mistakes is the opportunity we have to learn from them. Has Parry learned from the last mistake? Does he now know better than to take a ride? Yes, he does. But does he also now know the police are announcing his break-out on the radio and asking local drivers to report him if they see him on the road? Yes, indeed.

What’s he going to choose?

I: refuse the ride and take his chances on the road, or

J: accept this second ride

He’s in a really bad bind now. This is worse than just sitting around waiting to die in prison! Making an impossible choice is so agonizing to the human animal we often choose not to choose, even if that means staying put and suffering the torments of hell.

Then the second character throws a twist into it—she not only insists he get in, she calls him by name.

His option paralysis has been too great, and when she tips the scales for him, he accepts her decision. He dives in.

And here Goodis gives him a little break. She’s nice! She tells him how to hide in the back of her car—very convenient, that tarp back there—and she smuggles him past the police guarding the entrance to San Francisco at the Golden Gate Bridge. She even takes him home with her, slips him into her building, and loans him her shower. She’s like his guardian angel.

So now he has another choice to make:

K: Take her at face value, or

L: find out what’s going on—who is this woman, why is she treating him this way?

Remember that characters always have powerful motivation for the things they do. They can’t just be nice to our protagonists because we want to be nice to them. Our characters are not us.

Parry chooses L and asks her, and lo-&-behold she’s got a clipping of a letter to the editor in his own defense, written at the time of his trial. It’s signed Irene Janney. She says she’s Irene Janney. Irene likes Vincent, and apparently she has liked him for a long time without his knowledge. But why?

Again: every character in fiction has enormous, overpowering reasons for doing the things they do. None of this is coincidence.

So he has another choice to make:

M: believe whatever she tells him, or

N: find out for himself

He chooses N. After he showers, he searches her room, and—what do you know?—there’s a whole scrapbook of clippings of the news reports of his arrest, trial, and imprisonment.

What’s going on here?

And so it goes.

We have two essential points to learn from Goodis:

1) Everything our protagonist does causes the next effect. That’s right—even in fueling momentum, it’s always cause-&-effect. While Parry doesn’t know it, he not only caused Janney to stop for him on the road, but he even caused her to be out on that road at the same time as him in the first place, conveniently beladen with a tarp under which a man could hide. How did he cause that? Oooh, that’s the Backstory! And it’s coming up next. It turns out she has extremely powerful reasons for being interested in his welfare, reasons rooted, it so happens, in her very natural love for her own father.

2) The more difficult we make our protagonist’s choices, the more complex the reasoning they must navigate in order to make the right choice, and the bigger the sword we hang over their head, the more intensely the reader is invested in reading all the way to the end to find out how our protagonist finally rids themself of this excruciating sequence of cause-&-effect.

As soon as Vincent Parry learns why Irene Janney is helping him, he realizes he has to find out who framed him, because that involves not only protecting himself from the law but also vindicating his guardian angel’s father. He’s basically honorable, and he has a need to believe in the justice behind laws, even more now for this woman who’s done so much for him.

Increase his need.

Also now that he’s spent some time with this adoring babe, he and Janney have begun falling in love, so he no longer just wants to live he wants to live for love.

Again—increase his need.

But he can’t find out who framed him so long as his face is on Wanted posters all over San Francisco. Unless, perhaps, he can choose to lose his face.

And the next thing we know, our protagonist is walking around San Francisco looking like Humphrey Bogart!

Jan again: You can find Victoria on Google+ ,  Twitter, or her own site, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, voted one of WritetoDone’s Top 10 Blogs for Writers. Thank you for being here, me Zesties, and I hope you’ll find this useful in your writing.

21 thoughts on “Guest Post: Victoria Mixon on Fueling Plot Momentum

  1. Okay, not only do I now feel energized about building momentum through character choices, but also compelled to see DARK PASSAGE–right away. Thanks to Victoria for the great illustration, and to Jan for handing over the reins!

    1. Oh, good, Vaughn!. It’s a classic of the noir genre, but in fact all those great noir movies can teach us about ratcheting tension and forcing characters into impossible decisions. (And don’t forget to be thrilled at Agnes Moorehead’s fabulous screen presence, all those years before Bewitched.)

  2. I’m with Vaughn — that movie will skidoo to the top of my netflix queue. Plot is something I constantly struggle with, so having a roadmap like this is extremely helpful. Thanks Victoria and Jan!

    1. Yes, Liz—plot is a complicated beast, and it takes a lot of intertwined layers to keep the reader intrigued for an entire novel. If you follow Dark Passage carefully all the way you’ll see just how intricately a great plot can be wound. Take notes! Tracking those intricacies will teach you how to plot better than any instructions.

      And the period shots of San Francisco are pretty impressive, too. 🙂

  3. I haven’t seen this movie either, guys, so it goes in my TBW pile.

    I really enjoy learning through plot dissection, Victoria, though I’m not sure my family appreciates it when we sit down to watch a show together.

    1. Yes, we have to learn to keep our watch-checking and note-taking to ourselves! I do almost involuntarily notice the climaxes to the Acts as I’m watching a movie with my family, especially toward the end when there’s a lot of fancy footwork to trick the audience into thinking the drama’s over when it’s really building to the Climax. However, I only mention it when I happen to have been working recently with my son teaching him how to structure story. Otherwise I’m sitting there with my hands over my mouth.

      Do read the book, Dark Passage, too. The movie is fun, but Goodis was quite a good writer, and it’s well worth learning from him!

  4. I’ve read that passage in your book several times and each time I do (like just now) it inspires me again. Thanks again for the reminder, Victoria.

    Needs and wants and choices, oh my! I’m heading back to the yellow brick road of a story I’m writing and add some more of them.

    1. You know you’re very welcome, Jeffrey. You’re doing beautiful work with your novels, with their intensely authentic settings and characters with all their dastardly difficult needs. 🙂

      There is so much that can be layered into an excellent story. That’s the work that makes it get up off the page and take over a reader’s life.

        1. Did I forget to mention that? Woops. 🙂 Yes, it’s a Bogie-&-Bacall vehicle. But truly—Agnes Moorehead steals every scene she’s in. She’s so on fire she makes the rest of them look like they’re rooted to the spot. I love her!

  5. Ah, Dark Passage. Love that film.
    And I must kindly disagree – I love Bogey’s mug. 🙂

    It’s definitely a great film, and one that is a great example of snowballing to avalanche in terms of conflict. Now, if I have time tonight, I’ll pull it down from the shelf and curl up on the sofa.

    1. 🙂

      Alyssa, I’m amazed you’re the first person who’s called me on that. I was really stunned when I finally saw a photo of him as a young man and saw how beautiful he was. But I do think all those years of smoking and drinking took their toll on the guy!

      And I have to admit my husband and I just watched it again the other night. It’s the only movie for which he has ever bought me the poster.

  6. I’m plot challenged, Victoria, so I love how you broke this story into these small steps. You make it seem so simple. Ah, but if only.

    Thanks for the story breakdown. I’m anxious to check out your blog and book now. 🙂

    1. 🙂 I get all embroiled in my plots too and eventually start wondering why I didn’t bring a machete. But it can be made logical!

      I think of it as what I call ‘holographic structure,’ meaning every story has a Hook, Conflicts, some kind of Faux Resolution—where it looks like the worst has been avoided—and a Climax; and then every one of those sections has its own hook, conflicts (no more than three!), faux resolution, climax; and even every scene has them. That structure makes it easier to analyze your story, so you can be sure you have all your ducks in a row.

      I use this analysis on clients’ manuscripts all the time, and it never fails me, particularly in diagnosing what’s going wrong someplace where we can both tell it’s not quite working yet. It’s such a relief!

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