Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Plotting Along

The most difficult thing about writing advice is not the lack of useful information but its application.
How and where to apply those admonitions to one's own work.
Most writers find the nitty-gritty easy enough - eliminating the -ings, the -ness, -ly, and -ize words, the passives, the excessive dialogue tags - small stuff is no sweat.
It gets harder when it gets bigger.
Agent Kristin - who is doing an excellent series on contracts at the moment and who in the past has made ladylike noises about portals and characters named Kate/Katie and Katherine - in a recent fit du jour complained about partials with passengers in airplanes as an opening scene.
I swallowed nervously when I read that, before I realized the plane ride is not my first scene, that there's a fair amount of dialogue and conflict in it, and that the travel motif is essential.
The obvious argument is that such a scene is a static setting, allowing little opportunity for a character to do more - as one commenter put it - than raise and lower his seat tray.
Too often a character's plane ticket is a third-class vehicle for the introduction of back story, solely by means of internal monologue and exposition.
In effect, the story begins with an interlude.
The obvious solution is to start at the destination - unless the plane itself is a necessary part of one's plot or motif.
It's not really the plane setting that is the problem.
Think, Agatha, of the number of mysteries that have been set on the precursor of the plane - the passenger, cattle car, hobo, troop train. Think of the times you've seen the hero leap from car to car to red caboose.
Think of the thrillers which involve planes about to crash or be hijacked.
One of the best examples of non-stop suspense I ever read was Runway Zero Eight (Arthur Hailey and John Castle) where the pilot is dead at 15,000 feet.
Novel plots tend to express current social anxieties.
As airlines proliferated, crashes and hijacks reflected societal unease with the expanding technology and its dangers.
Today, how many plots circle around computers?
But to get back to the static setting, is a plane ride all that different from an introduction where the protagonist sits down in a bar or at a table in some country inn?
Not much.
Over and over, it's what you do with it that counts.


Erik Ivan James said...

Sheeeit! I'm currently working on a romantic short where they meet on the plane. Maybe I'll have to put them in bed first, then on the plane. Um, I'll decide later if they'll board the plane dressed or naked. Note to self: don't forget security issues.

Scott said...

As long as the story is moving along, some action interspersed with back story, I don't think it matters where it starts. I haven't written a novel yet, but I would start it right in the middle of all the trouble.

Ric said...

erik is obviously enjoying the holiday. very funny.

I agree there is little opportunity for action in a plane - unless you're hijacking or some such. good grief, you can barely move most of the time.

Still, before air travel became so easy, there was the question of why would someone be flying? Going to something or coming from something? And what might it be? Must be important.

back to point Bernita is making. Opening scene should be action, not setting of scene or backstory.

ONly on my second cup here...

Bernita said...

A lot depends on the genre, Erik.Maybe he's happy to see the stewardess or the lovely seatmate...Wasn't there a news story a few months ago about a couple hot and heavy on a plane? Or was it a bus?

Agreed, Scott, but the story has to move, not take a time-out and drink tea, reminisce about secondary elements before dusting off the hands and getting down to basics.

Some of the trouble begins with a narrow definition of "action," Ric. Shouldn't just be restricted to large motor activity.
Maass, I think, points this out, admitting that at times a plot can demand a static setting.He suggests ways to liven it up.
To me, "action" means conflict, suspense resulting therefrom.
Let's say just before boarding you've been handed a certain document...Is anyone going to believe you put off reading it until you arrive at your destination?
On the other hand,
imagine you're on your way back from the washroom and you notice a neat bullet hole in another passenger's nape...

While agreeing that the story has to "start," on page one, one should not immediately eliminate planes - or any other form of conveyance - as automatic no-nos.
Not a crash and burn, if done right.

Robyn said...

No tea, Bernita, no tea!

In a character-driven story a plane could work. One of the very best episodes of the old Murphy Brown series had the main characters trapped in a car for the whole thirty minute show, carpooling to work. The insights into their personal issues were hysterical, engaging, and furthered character development.

Faith said...

I do a lot of those style posts on my blog as well. However, lately I've been playing catch-up with all my editing duties so I haven't had time to post the thoughtful well planned blogs. I was even up at 4 a.m. editing!

Thanks for stopping by and I hope you visit again sometime.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Robyn, for including the character point.

No tea, especially on planes. Caffine leads to jet lag.

Faith, thank you for the implied compliment.
Truth is, I stop by your blog every day, hopeful for some of those posts.
Don't know where you find the time...but glad when you do.

Jaye Wells said...


I posted a similar discussion on my site when Kristin did her Kate/Katie rant. I think agent and editor blogs are great resources. However, I think we have weigh the advice and decide what works for us. She is reporting about trends she's seeing in her own agency. She wouldn't mention them if any of those stories actually did their job effectively.

As for opening scenes, I have decided all of my books will begin in a museum with a murder and a cryptic clue written in blood. That seems to be effective. Why try to reinvent the wheel?

Bernita said...

Yup, Jaye, as Ric is wont to say, "Context, people, context."

You have reminded me of that scene in an Indiana Jones movie where he says in his role as an archaeology professor that "X never, never marks the spot..."

M.E Ellis said...

I've just read a novella with the first scene on a plane. Didn't bother me, first time I've read a book with that opening!


Bernita said...

I agree, Michelle,not any worse than trudging across the veld or riding a camel.
It isn't the plane, it's how it's flown.

S. W. Vaughn said...

You said it, Bernita: it's what you do with it that counts. I've read so many scenes that "break the rules" and still hold up as damned fine pieces of writing, and not just by bestselling authors.

It's unfortunate that so many publishing professionals refuse to believe that plane scenes or shower scenes or what-have-you may have merit in the hands of a skilled writer. It does seem they too often dismiss these things out of hand.

(BTW, I've just come back from a two-day party, so please forgive me if I'm not making sense! :-)

Shesawriter said...

It's not the plane, it's how it's written. No worries. :-) Everyone has their own likes and dislikes. Just write well.

Bernita said...

Yoy make sense to me, Sonia.
One does fear that - after seeing ms after ms with a plane( or whatever) as the setting for a half chapter of slow backstory - they automatically toss at first sight of the word "plane."

Because of that subjectivity, Tanya, the next bit of advice is to "query widely."

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