Counterculture of Novel Plot Development Episode 1
(Skip the plot diagrams and create storylines from your right brain.)
Writing Your Character’s Defining Moment – FIRST!
If you’ve never been thrilled to grateful tears while reviewing your latest plot diagram, this might be for you. Having fought my way through the development of seven novels, I have some observations about what works for me in finding story, character, and plot.
The human mind is a complex source of insight, understanding and mystery; most of its activities are completely hidden from us. This changes when one finds ways to truly listen.
We’ve all heard comparisons between left-brain and right-brain thinking, and this leads to my first observation in your development of story and search for plot.
I came upon this realization when discovering, late in the development of a manuscript, that several existing story elements made up a new thread and all I had to do was connect them; this provided surprising cohesion and dimension to the story. It revealed that within my subterranean right brain, my subconscious mind had been working in the background in a supportive way. It was then up to me to see this, which came through repeated readings of the full manuscript. (You might think of this as ‘tying up loose ends’, but it’s deeper than that.)
What I mean by the counterculture of plot development is a collection of means to avoid traditional structure devices – such as outlining acts and listing plot points. Instead I suggest a more right-brain activity, namely writing prose directly, to reveal story and plot. If you have a creative idea for a key scene, I feel it’s counterproductive to impose a structure on it immediately. There are three act, five act, eight act forms, plus fifteen beats and the formidable Story Grid. Which one would you pick? Which one best fits your creative idea?
Outlines and synopses and agent cover letters are completely unlike truly creative writing. I feel resistance when I try to impose those left-brain structures on a right-brain creative vision.
I can hear all you pantsers out there doing back flips out of your chairs. And maybe you should celebrate. So let’s move on.
The thing that thrills most of us about writing is exactly that… the process of writing and how the results sound to our ear. For me, the crafting of word and phrase which feed the reader’s dopamine receptors is the most absorbing activity of all. I’ve often said that writing fiction is the best quality time I can spend with myself.
So let’s do some writing.
I have to give credit here to James Scott Bell, and his book, The Last Fifty Pages, for his very canny suggestion that the place to begin your novel is your character’s ‘mirror moment’.
Bell’s mirror moment, which I think of as the character’s moment of absolute truth, or her defining moment, comes in two flavors. One type is the character being forced to look inside and perceive the raw truth about who she is, and accurately know her moral flaws.
The second type of defining moment is where the character does self-examine, but remains basically the same person. She realizes she’s probably finished, because her chances are too slim for any kind of hope. That she chooses to go forward in the face of doom therefore defines her.
These two types of truth moments are best suited for particular genres, but you’re probably way ahead of me on that. For example, the unchanging character is best suited to a series of books built around the same stalwart hero, whereas the character who allows herself to grow is best in stand-alone novels.
In your writing of the defining moment, I don’t mean you spend an afternoon coming up with a rough draft, but that you work at it over several days at least, through a number of re-writes, to arrive at a polished scene that gives you actual goose bumps. Thrill yourself! This will allow you to hear your own subconscious, and perhaps even see its tracks on the page.
In Bell’s next assertion, my mind was totally nuked. He suggests that once you’ve put down the chapter or scene of the character’s defining moment, you know enough about your story to write the final chapter. At least you’ll have a fairly good cut at it. Once you’ve worked out a satisfying ending, you’ll understand many facets of the story. You’ll likely be ready to get going on your first chapter.
Let’s stop and look at the story elements which plot development of any kind is supposed to reveal. These include initial conflict, rising action and story-worthy conflict, a climax of forces, falling action, and resolution of conflict. This activity will also develop your character and her character arc, a theme, the world, your point of view, person and tense… and guess what?
Your character’s defining moment not only reveals most of these elements, but can perfectly foreshadow the final chapter. And the truth moment is like any other scene, in that it requires something new to add value and propel the story. Your reader’s surprise at the character’s fresh self-knowledge will be that gift.
As you create and polish the defining moment, you’ll conjure how the lead’s life was interrupted, how she first refused the call, how she became afraid, then motivated, and then either resolute or resigned. I could go on with these comparisons but if you’ve spent any time studying the elements of fiction or writing it you’re sufficiently aware.
My sole point here is that creating a well-realized defining moment will identify or suggest many of the same things an extensive plotting exercise will give you, and this type of writing will be a lot more fun. When you see how your character changes in the defining scene, you’ll understand clearly who she was at the beginning and who she must become, because you’ve invented her transformation.
This moment is thus one of creation, since at the outset of your story you’ll introduce a lead who is at most partially capable of both revealing herself and achieving a satisfying finale. The defining moment is where your lead re-creates herself into someone who, if not fully capable, is willing to give the world everything she has in the attempt. And that says a lot about who we are as fallible and courageous human beings.
And check this: This is the pivot where your character achieves the agency suitable to overcoming her obstacles or failing in memorable and even teachable fashion.
The defining scene gives you enormous power in crafting the ending. The ending provides a point of view which you can picture in reverse in chapter one, so your character’s initial reality is clear to your reader. And with a little work, you’ll be ready to invent a scary-good and prophetic opening line.
So what are you doing? Are you writing the most riveting parts of the storyline first? Better believe it, and to me that sounds like fun. If you want to read a novel that was developed in just this way, let me refer you to my 2014 apocalyptic science fantasy, Next History.
I guarantee that when you do start to write your initial chapter, you’ll have a bunker full of explosive ideas which exactly lead to what must follow, and a mental diagram of how to get there. Your opening will no doubt hint at the coming conflict that’s sure to overwhelm the character if she doesn’t do things exactly right. She will find a story-worthy goal and a host of new obstacles.
My point here is that anything you can develop by reading five books on plot and watching fifty interminable YouTube vids will be contained in or illuminated by a well-polished truth moment which belongs somewhere in the middle of your book. Perhaps it’s the perfect rocket fuel to escape the second half of the second act, a chasm where many a story, even before recorded time, has wimped out. And if you can wake to discover them, your ever-dependable subconscious will be working to deliver useful elements that aren’t yet apparent to you.
The YouTube video is here, and thanks for spending some time in the world of INTENSELY FICTITIOUS. I’m Lee Baldwin, author of mystery and speculative fiction. I hope that in the fullness of time, we will meet again.