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!
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.
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.
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 F—ratcheting the tension on his next choice—this 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.