Thursday, June 17, 2010

Connecting the Dots

Quick house progress: after two quiet days, the workers were back at floor installation yesterday. The noise of power saws and power guns, the pounding of rubber mallet on floorboard getting it into place, and their radio. The smell of sawdust, of burnt wood when they cut the bottoms off trim so the new floor would fit, and of varnish, where they were redoing the door jambs. It's not quite familiar enough to be background noise. But the cabinet people called, and they'll deliver the new cabinets for kitchen and bathrooms next week. It's rare that I'm lucky enough to get in on the early end of a window.

As for writing…

Every now and then, there's a scene that absolutely refuses to get from opening to closing in a straightforward fashion. I just got up close and personal with one of them—for over two days.

I had my starting plot points, there were only two characters in the scene (and one was asleep for most of it), and I had a reasonable idea of where it should end.

As I worked on it, however, it was more like a connect-the-dots picture, but without any numbers telling you what the next dot should be. Sort of like this one--with an entirely different way to get the right picture.

This scene happened to be one of my new ventures into the villain's POV. It's only the second time he's been on the page, so I wanted to show what kind of a man he was in a little more depth, as well as reveal some points that would heighten the tension. And, as I was writing, it turned out he was a lot nastier than I'd first thought. I haven't had much page time with him, so I don't know him as well as I know my hero and heroine.

Whether you're writing narrative or dialogue, there has to be a clear and steady flow from one sentence to the next, from one paragraph to the next. Just as you need transitions between scenes, you need transitions between individual paragraphs. And sentences. Consider dialogue: Normally, in conversation, if someone asks a question, we'll answer it. Whatever the person who asked the question happens to be doing or thinking is going on simultaneously with our hearing the question and giving our response.

But in writing, if you stick all those internal thoughts and gestures in, it's likely your reader will have forgotten the question. So, you cut and paste the answer so it follows in a more logical place.

When you start doing this with plot points, you might find that you've connected the wrong dot.

My plot points for this single-scene chapter:
Bad guy is having an affair. He's thinking about breaking it off. He's looking for something he thinks his wife (who's our heroine, and is supposed to be dead) took with her before she left him. He's hired someone to investigate. Bad Stuff will happen if he doesn't find it.

Seems simple enough, especially since the foundation for these points has already been established. But that creates other problems—like how much is adding depth, and how much is just plain repetitive. Since this guy's POV scenes will be several chapters apart, a few reminders to the reader might help.

The scene opens. He's in bed with his mistress in a hotel room.

Why a hotel room? Why not his own home, or hers? How much detail should I show for the mistress? How much back story is needed to explain the affair. I needed to show that it had started while he was still married. How much more? Why is he still in the room? Why doesn't he get dressed and leave?

How much is he thinking about the relationship, and how much about his dilemma? How much to reveal about exactly what it is he thinks his wife took? Do I try to layer in a red herring? Could someone else have taken it?

But for some reason, the details to expand each of those plot points kept hopping around. There was no flow. My system of asking "why?" seemed to create more questions. I couldn't find the next dot.

Eventually, I got all the information on the page exactly where it needed to be so it flowed smoothly. I think it works. But I had a few surprises along the way. In one of the first versions, this came in the opening paragraphs:

He stood in the doorway and watched her sleep, her red curls splayed over the pillow. Not a natural redhead, he'd discovered early on. One way or another, he figured he was paying for her hair color along with her wardrobe.

However, after two days of juggling plot points, this paragraph moved down to the end of the second page, and this is what happened to it:

He paced to the doorway and watched her sleep. A dim glow filtered through the curtains, highlighting her red curls splayed over the pillow. He stared, transfixed, at the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest. His gaze wandered to the pile of bed pillows strewn about the floor. How easy to creep in, pick one up, cover her face until her breathing stopped.

Surprise! I'll get more into transitions next week, I think. Tomorrow it's another Friday Field Trip


Mary Ricksen said...

Interesting post Terry, as usual makes us think!

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Mary -- glad I could make someone else think. I know I used up a lot of gray cells on that chapter.

Debra St. John said...

Ah, those dots do tend to get tangled sometimes. Who ever said the shortest distance between two points is a straight line? It never really seems to work that way in writing.

Terry Odell said...

Debra - yeah, going straight from A to B in the scene, while keeping twists and turns in the plotline--gets complicated, doesn't it.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Great surprise! Sometimes I think it just has to come when it's ready.

Terry Odell said...

TerryS - yep, sometimes those characters we're supposed to control surprise the heck out of us.

Jemi Fraser said...

Love the ending of the 2nd one! Definitely gives us a great insight into the character.

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - thanks. I was sort of caught by surprise myself. But that's the fun of writing sometimes, isn't it?

Annabelle Ambrosio said...

Interesting. It's a problem to connect the dots sometimes.

Gem Sivad said...

That was a great example Terry. Thanks.

gem sivad

Unknown said...

Gem, thank you!