TLDR: Unraveling high-level problems in a novel is a mess. I do not understand it, but will share my thoughts on the process nonetheless.
Last Monday my critique group had a special meeting in which we discussed high-level writing concerns like plot and structure rather than our usual nose-in-the-dirt critique of individual scenes.
I came away with the realization that
- I had quietly locked one of my three main characters in the background for ten chapters of my novel just so he didn’t muck with the plot I had in mind. This character had been active, driven, and interesting, but I benched him in order to get to the ending.
- I give no opportunity for action to my most interesting character in the third act.
- And finally, my climax is inconsistent with the themes I’ve been setting up in the book so far.
Where do I even begin to make changes to fix these issues? I feel like I’m trying to untie a knot, but every time I pull on one thread, all the rest tighten.
Among my questions:
- What is the theme? (Is it consistent?)
- Do the characters have arcs? (Are they compelling?)
- Does the action and stakes rise toward a climax?
- Is the climax satisfying? (And does it make sense and fit with the theme?)
- Does the main character change?
- Does the main character have a flaw, weakness, or false belief to overcome?
- Does the main character have strength, conviction, drive, or some other reason for the reader to root for them?
- Is the character actively making choices that drive the action?
- Is the villain actively making choices that drive the action?
- Are the secondary characters consistent and active?
Building tunnels to sap the magnificent pillars of all these questions is the advice to “just write”.
I did just write! That’s how I ended up with one hundred thousand words that go off the rails in the second and third act.
I suppose the question boils down to pantsing (writing by the seat of one’s pants) or plotting (constructing an outline and plan before writing), but the real issue is when, and in what proportion to pants and plot.
Then when parts of the story are missing or insufficient, how should they be fixed?
There are too many degrees of freedom. Anything can be changed to make the structure work. What should be held constant so that everything else can be made sense of around it? What is the writer’s speed of light, our constant C, around which we can understand even time to be relative?
Perhaps no one knows the best answer for my particular story. It is an exploration.
So I wrote down the primary motivations of my three main characters: caution, compassion, and curiosity.
Next I listed what was holding back each character: guilt, fear, self-centeredness.
Then I threw my hands in the air because this is all too abstract.
Ok, scratch that. I came back and began listing possible events that don’t occur in the story as written, but could occur, and how they might occur, and what that would mean for each character. No idea was too silly or too outrageous.
Then I listed actions that each character could take, sifting and searching for which were most strongly motivated.
There is no a happy ending to this story of writing a story, not yet at least. I feel that my knot has been boiled to the point where every strand is sticky spaghetti, dissolving into a mush in my hands. My novel has become the analyzed joke; I understand it better, but it has died in the process.
Death is far too extreme of a metaphor. Nonetheless, I can’t see the way forward.
I’ll keep trying, keep writing, keep reading, keep trying. That’s all any of us can do.
So, if you are also struggling, I encourage you to keep writing, reading, doodling, bubble-diagramming, daydreaming, trying whatever it takes to move forward. And if you are not struggling then clue the rest of us in to how you are doing it!