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Change and Conflict in Fiction


Margaret L. Carter

{JL COMMENTARY inserted below at Margaret's request is marked at the beginning JL: and at the end as (end JL comment). THERE IS A HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT FROM JL buried deep in this discussion.  Here we are analyzing one of Margaret's published books which had a massive rewrite done by editorial request that totally changed the novel.  Some of you may want to read that novel before reading this discussion, in order not to be influenced by the opinions expressed below.  The novel is available on -- click the title Shadow of the Beast to go directly to the page where you may read Margaret's comments on the novel, plus any reviews that have been posted by readers.}

Jacqueline asked me to write a post dealing with the "Test for a Valid Conflict" in a novel. This is how she explained the concept:

"Take the beginning of each scene -- stick it in an outline (one line or a couple words). "Take the end of each scene. "Compare the situation at the beginning of the scene to that at the end. "If the situation has not changed . . . ." you don't have a "valid conflict." (More on the general principle of "changing the situation" later in this essay.)

She pointed out that most of the first half of my novel Shadow of the Beast fails this test: "The only thing happening in the first half is information-feed to the reader (who has not yet been made to ask the questions and so doesn't want the information)." I am briefly going to show the application of this test to the opening scenes from a story probably familiar to almost everyone on the list, the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles." I will then apply it to a few scenes from the beginning of my novel. Further, at Jacqueline's suggestion, I will discuss a little of my experience in revising this book to editorial specifications. As a reference for "The Trouble with Tribbles," I use David Gerrold's script as published in his book on the making of the episode (skipping over the teaser):

Act 1, Scene 1: Begins: The Enterprise answers a distress call from a space station. Ends: Kirk argues with the station head about the importance of the grain shipment and posts a guard over the storage bins.

JL here - restating the above: The Enterprise answers a distress call from a space station. Ends: AS A RESULT, the Enterprise must protect a grain shipment of dubious worth as if it were valuable. THE SITUATION at the beginning: the Enterprise is proceeding with business as usual. The SITUATION at the end: The Enterprise faces humiliation with appropriate bemusement. The Enterprise's SITUATION has changed from BUSINESS AS USUAL to A NON-SERIOUS-APPEARING CHALLENGE. The Enterprise SEES NO THREAT, but the audience does. Act 1, Scene 2: Begins: The Enterprise crew takes shore leave on the station. Ends: As a result, the first Tribble is brought onto the ship. JL restating: ENDS: As a result, the crew brings Tribbles aboard the Enterprise -- SEEING NO THREAT IN TRIBBLES. (but the audience does) -- The audience sees a CHANGE IN SITUATION that the ENTERPRISE does not yet see. That is suspense. THE CHANGE? At the beginning of the scene, there were no Tribbles aboard the Enterprise. At the end of the Scene, there were Tribbles aboard the Enterprise. (end JL comment)

Act 1, Scene 3: Begins: Kirk receives a message from Starfleet giving him responsibility for the safety of the grain. Ends: The Klingons arrive (a threat to what he is ordered to protect).

JL: THIS IS THE END of Act 1, and therefore has to have more intense and concentrated "rising action" (that's the visual writing term for "rate of change of situation" - the "action" (the pace of change of the Situation) must INCREASE, must "rise" to a creshendo. Every scene must have "rising action" or it must be cut.  Thus this scene CHANGES twice as fast as the preceding scenes. At the Beginning, Kirk is sure he'll be ordered to go back to his real work "out there" and there are no Klingons threatening the station. At the end, Kirk is stuck with the humiliating but amusing job, and there are Klingons. TWO CHANGES in Situation. (end JL comment)

Act 2, Scene 1: Begins: Kirk confronts the Klingon captain. Ends: It's decided that the Klingons will take liberty on the station at the same time as the Enterprise crew.

JL: Kirk's original humiliation at being called to protect a grain shipment, compounded by an official order to do so, is now exacerbated by his losing the fight to keep the Klingons off the station. THE PLOT THICKENS at the opening of Act 2 -- and again TWO ASPECTS of the Situation change. Kirk feels powerless but is still bemused by the irony of the Situation, AND THE KLINGONS WIN. (end JL comment)

Act 2, Scene 2: Begins: Uhura's baby Tribbles are revealed. Ends: Tribbles are distributed to other crew members, foreshadowing uncontrolled multiplication.

JL: At BEGINNING of the scene, the SITUATION is that Uhura has Tribbles aboard. At the END - the Situation has changed. Now a number of the crew have Tribbles. (end JL comment)

Note that the scenes involving the Klingon threat are interspersed with scenes about the Tribbles. The more serious dominant plot and the lighter subplot thus proceed at a similar pace; the two plot threads are tied together by the "McGuffin" of the grain shipment (although the audience doesn't know that until the climax). The mutual antipathy between Klingons and Tribbles is revealed fairly early in the story, however, hinting at a connection between the two plotlines.

JL: The Tribble scenes appear to be focused on characterizing the crew, but actually they advance the plot by changing the situation in ways that the crew regards as non-threatening and bemusing which attitude telegraphs to the viewer that the crew is in more trouble than they know. Meanwhile, the Grain/Klingon plot-thread focuses on Kirk's supposed "self-importance" (an "internal conflict" "I'm the youngest Starship Captain in Starfleet and I've got the best crew." Vs. "The Brass think all I'm good for is guarding a grain shipment that a ship a third our size could do just as well.")

Kirk displays that although this is in fact one of his INTERNAL CONFLICTS, his feeling of self-importance is a source of bemusement to him.  He makes it plain that to him, his own humiliation is funny and he refuses to take the Commodore "seriously" -- EXTERNAL CONFLICT: the station Commodore likewise has exactly the SAME INTERNAL CONFLICT but in him it is an unresolved conflict. The Commodore is fighting that internal battle, trying to make the galaxy see that he's MORE than a station-keeper. Kirk can't take the Commodore "seriously" because  because the Commodore is fighting an internal battle that can't be won, and doesn't have to be.

While Kirk is busy being bemused by the Commodore's antics, the Tribble threat that proves that the Commodore is correct and Kirk is wrong is sneaking up on Kirk inside his own ship. The audience sees this, but Kirk does not.

This is the suspense technique pioneered on television so successfully by I LOVE LUCY. Study that show if you want to learn to understand SUSPENSE MECHANISMS. It was ostensibly a sitcom -- the first on TV -- but actually, I LOVE LUCY is entirely driven by suspense based on the EFFECT of one person knowing something that another person does not know. David Gerrold's Classic Star Trek episode, "The Trouble With Tribbles" is actually an "I Love Lucy" episode recast in outer space. It's PLOT DRIVING MECHANISM is supsense and the issue under discussion is humiliation, which is humorous from a certain point of view.

Thus David Gerrold's "Trouble with Tribbles" is a very apt choice for comparison with this Werewolf Novel discussed below. However, in the werewolf novel, the suspense line is not focused on humiliation but on the horror of self-knowledge. The underlying MECHANISM though, is identical. The plot is designed to be driven by suspense. And that mechanism requires "rising action" -- i.e. an ever increasing pace of the rate of change of Situation. (end JL note)

Now I will apply the "test" to a few of the opening scenes of my novel:

Chapter 1: Begins: Heroine comes home after dark, having left her younger sister and twin brother alone together, and hears strange noises. Ends: She wakes up from a blackout to find her brother and sister slaughtered. Plenty of change there! (As I saw it, I started the story at the point where a major change occurs in the protagonist's life -- her family is devastated by two deaths -- and she first comes into conflict with the antagonist -- although she doesn't know it yet.)

JL Comment: This opening sets us up to follow a suspense line that has to do with finding out what slaughtered the brother and sister and making sure it never slaughters anything again. NOTICE: the ENDING of Chapter One is not a RESULT OF the beginning. The Heroine does not quit her job and dedicate her life to destroying whatever it was that destroyed her family. The destruction of her family in no way affects her SITUATION or her internal conflicts.

She keeps the same job, residence, career track, relationships, self-image, attitudes. Nothing in her SITUATION changes (except financially but she doesn't seem to care much about that -- no facts are given, no figures, no opportunities of a lifetime to seize or pass up).

In TRIBBLES above, A STARSHIP answering a MAJOR DISTRESS CALL (it was classed as the Galactic Emergency Call - reserved for invasions of the Borg or something like that) -- the kind of distress call ONLY A STARSHIP could answer -- finds that the problem they have been called to deal with is inane and trivial, far beneath their dignity as a starship. THAT is the conflict-line -- "beneath dignity vs. worthy-opponent". The distress call THROWS Kirk into a SITUATION which threatens his dignity.

In the werewolf novel, the Heroine (in Chapter One) does not have an INTERNAL CONFLICT that the reader can see or suspect that the Heroine does not know about.

The SITUATION of the Heroine has not changed in this chapter -- at least not the SITUATION that is on a conflict line that leads unbroken to the end of the novel.

The END of the novel is that she and her new S.O. come to calm acceptance of her werewolf habits. Since she didn't start out in internal conflict, or desperate fear of, becoming or being born a werewolf, the conflict that is resolved at the end of the novel does not happen as a result of the conflict at the beginning of the novel.

Thus Chapter One is not a chapter at all - but a flashback to an incident in her life, a determining and shaping incident, but ONLY an incident, not a plot-moving event. (end JL comment)

Chapter 2, Scene 1: Begins: Heroine wakes from a nightmare; the reader learns that she has recently been plagued by sleepwalking and nightmares. Ends: She forces herself to go back to sleep with pleasant thoughts of an attractive man at her workplace. No change in situation, just "information feed."

JL: Since she doesn't fear sleepwalking and nightmares are not anything more important to her than to you and me, and since her sleep-walking and nightmares are NOT THE RESULT OF anything she DID in Chapter One -- this scene should have been cut and the information provided in a different place where it wouldn't interrupt the changing of the Situation (i.e. the action). Since there was no SITUATION to CHANGE, the author didn't NOTICE this problem in time to cut the scene.  (end JL comment)

Chapter 2, Scene 2: Begins: She leaves home in the morning (minor characters -- neighbors -- introduced) and keeps an appointment with her therapist. Ends: She breaks off with the therapist, who isn't doing her any good, and resolves, instead, to ask her mother to fill in gaps in her knowledge of the family's past. A change in situation, but at this point the reader has no way of surmising how it ties into the main plotline.

JL: Changes in SITUATION should not "tie into" the main plotline. THEY ARE the main plotline. Nothing else counts until you've got that plotline moving from initial conflict to final resolution.

Once you've got that unbroken line laid out in events driven by the pov character's actions and decisions, then you go back and hang the flesh on that skeleton, you decorate your plot and make it look different from all the other similar plots. But you know it is not different. Just as TRIBBLES is an I LOVE LUCY episode, this novel should have been a werewolf novel, or a Romance, or an action-drama, or a horror-suspense -- or a something. It isn't ANYTHING because it has no articulated skeleton on which the events hang. It has no plot. And that happened because the POV character is not the plot-driving character - not the person whose decisions cause events to happen.

REMEMBER: you don't have to lay out your plot from beginning to middle to end before you start writing. (although it can save you months, even years, of wasted effort, fits of depression, and a house littered with unfinished or unsellable ms's if you do.)

But once you've finished a full first draft, you MUST test it by extracting that plot-line into a bare bones skeleton so you can SEE what Situation begins at the BEGINNING and resolves at the END. And then you throw away all the scenes that do not CHANGE that Situation. You take the discarded scenes, extract the tidbits of information you encoded into them and sprinkle that information into the plot-line putting them in right AFTER the reader becomes unbearably curious to know that tidbit. Then you run through it all again, adding in all the great stuff you find so interesting about this story. But always be sure each bit of "great stuff" changes the situation along a line leading directly to the resolution.

Once you've trained your mind to produce stories in this format, you can then proceed to doing harder, fancier structures with more dimensions and subplots. (end JL commentary)

Chapter 2, Scene 3: Begins: She goes to work; several secondary characters introduced. Ends: She acknowledges her own worry that she's mentally ill, but tries to squelch it. No change, just information feed. Chapter 3: Begins: A phone call from her potential office love interest interrupts a fragment of nightmare she experiences while dozing off at her desk. Ends: Their first real date concludes with a passionate kiss. This constitutes a change -- the evolution of their relationship from a friendly to a romantic one -- but it advances only the subplot (the love story), not the dominant plot.

JL: YES, this Chapter Three constitutes a CHANGE in a SITUATION that didn't exist in Chapter One -- it is OFF THE CONFLICT LINE and not NEATLY interwoven with it as in Tribbles. In TRIBBLES, the two plots appear to be unrelated at first, and then gradually converge scene by scene -- a convergence visible to the audience not to the characters, which builds suspense.

And in this case, the love story is not a genuine "subplot" because it is not derived from or illustrative of the main plot. Why? Because there is no main plot (yet). We have not yet arrived at this particular Heroine's OWN STORY -- the one point in her life that shapes her existence and fulfills it. Having finished reading the novel now, I see this entire book as a "backstory" which should have been used as flashbacks in this heroine's own personal story that will happen some years after the end of this novel. We never got TO her story in this book. (end JL comment)

Chapter 4, Scene 1: Begins: Heroine visits her mother, resolved to ask about the father she has never known. Ends: She has induced her mother to answer some of her questions and has learned that her mother has some worrisome health problems. Mainly information feed; however, the heroine's situation does change in that the extent of her knowledge about her heritage changes. The reader, though, still doesn't know where this self-exploration is going (at least, not from the text itself -- the cover blurb gives a fairly strong hint!).

JL: The Heroine's situation has in fact NOT CHANGED by the addition of this information from her mother. The acquisition information could have been TOLD rather than SHOWN because it does not advance the PLOT (because there isn't a plot, and the reason for that is that the heroine still is NOT IN CONFLICT against ANYTHING. She isn't even fighting her own fears. Her personality is such that she shrugs off all the "werewolf" hints.

She is REACTING not acting. She is not driving the plot -- which is actually happening offstage to her father. Her father is the one whose actions and decisions are driving this story, and we haven't met him yet. (end JL comment)

What I saw as my story in Shadow of the Beast was the progress of the heroine's self-discovery and self-mastery. This process in her life (within the chronological limits of the story) falls, however, into two parts. In the first half of the book, her problem, as she conceives it, is, "Something is wrong with me, possibly mental illness; I have to find out what it is." To that end, she questions her mother and aunt, examines documents left behind after her mother's death, and goes to a new therapist. In the second half, she has re-conceived her problem as, "I have a highly unusual inherited trait that I must learn to handle, while combating the antagonist's threats against people I care about." Until the halfway point, the reader (like the protagonist herself) has no way of knowing that the supposed "mental illness" is actually evidence of the unusual trait. To me, these two halves are tied together by the common theme of self-exploration. Clearly, however, it didn't work out quite the way I thought I was doing it.

JL: If the story you want to tell is self-discovery and self-mastery, then the opening scene, the beginning of that story is an aggressive act on the part of the POV character which CAUSES something to happen, which CLEARLY TELLS THE READER THAT the POV character does not know "who she is." -- The POV character looks at the results of her actions and either accepts or rejects the implication that she does not know who she is. As a result of accepting or rejecting, she does something that CAUSES something else to happen -- etc etc to the MIDDLE OF THE BOOK where she is finally, completely, ignominiously and totally defeated as a CLEAR AND OBVIOUS RESULT of her a)lack of knowledge or b)refusal to admit that lack of knowledge. She thereupon CHANGES her strategy and ACTS to a)gain knowledge or b)accept that she doesn't know and act accordingly. That is not a RESOLUTION of the conflict, it is the beginning of the resolution. The RESOLUTION happens at the moment when she a)gains the actual knowledge and knows it is true knowledge because now her actions produce appropriate results or b)her actions based on acceptance of lack of knowledge produce spiritually appropriate results and she is acknowledged as WISE by someone wiser.

Yes, "Journey of Self Discovery Novels" have a formula. Well, several formulae. I've given you just two of the wondrous variety of such novels. As rewritten for the horror market, this werewolf novel did not follow ANY of the self-discovery journeys. NOTE: self-discovery is not generally accepted as a werewolf novel theme, nor is it known to be successful in the horror market.

You can write and sell novels which break patterns, true, and often get rich doing it. HOWEVER, before you can succeed at that feat, you must know and understand and have mastery over the patterns.

And the successful novels that break patterns are the ones which argue with the elements and assumptions underlying the patterns -- such argument being embodied in the theme of the novel. (for example: in the Romance Novel, the PATTERN includes the assumption that "love conquers all" or "happiness is important in life" or "you can't have success if you're not happy". Write a novel that argues against one of those statements and wins that argument -- and you will not sell it TO the Romance Market. It could be very successful as mainstream though.)

This novel of "self-discovery" got ruined in rewrite for the horror genre market -- to which the novel was relegated because it contains a werewolf motif. You will notice that my early comment at the top of this discussion focused on "the horror of self-discovery" which was NOT the original intent of the author. (end JL comment)

One of many changes requested by the editor involved scenes told from the antagonist's viewpoint. In my original manuscript, there were quite a few of these, beginning early in the story, several of them juxtaposed with the protagonist's "nightmares." Aside from attempting to arouse some degree of sympathy for the "villain," the function of these scenes was to hint at an intimate connection between the protagonist and antagonist, unknown to her but implied for the reader. I wanted to give the reader a chance to see where the story was going long before the protagonist did, so that the reader would know her nightmares were symptoms of something more fundamental and sinister than a nervous breakdown. (Yes, the jacket copy gives it away anyhow, but that can't be considered an integral part of the novel.) The editor, however, thought that the antagonist should remain a distant, mysterious figure until the later part of the novel and strongly suggested that I delete most of the scenes from his viewpoint (including a sequence in which he hesitates on the verge of becoming romantically involved with a woman, then loses control and kills her).

JL: SCENES are not constructed to a)arouse sympathy for a character, or b)hint at any connection between characters.


All other purposes require OTHER TOOLS OF THE WRITING CRAFT.

Use the appropriate tool for the appropriate job and your resulting product will "work". (end JL comment)

This alteration, among others, relates to the difference between the "horror" world-view and its opposite, discussed by Jacqueline in her "Vampire with Muddy Boots."  The publisher that produced Shadow of the Beast is a new small press whose avowed mission is to promote traditional supernatural horror. (Please note that none of the remarks below should be construed as derogatory toward this publisher. Never before have I been treated so courteously and generously in the process of getting a book into print.) I'm a lifelong fan of the traditional horror motifs -- vampires, werewolves, ghosts, Lovecraftian entities -- but I am most interested in exploring them in non-"horror" contexts (vampire romance, for example). This editor has a preference for the "monster" whose supernatural origins place his or her soul in jeopardy (like the classic undead vampire mentioned by Jacqueline). To me, that traditional approach to the "monster" robs the character of free will and makes him or her less interesting; if a creature can't help doing evil deeds because he is essentially demonic, he can easily turn into a mindless killing machine except in the hands of a very skillful writer. (A disagreement over this point, in part, caused the publisher to turn down my "vampire as alien" novel, which was later accepted by the Hard Shell Word Factory.) Because of this bias on my part, I was more interested in exploring the experience of learning to live as a werewolf than in creating a terrifying reading experience. The editor remarked that the result was the "least scary werewolf" he'd ever met! He was probably right, and I have to admit that many of his proposed changes improved the story -- for example, making the heroine's thought processes, while in lupine form, less human actually facilitates my goal (to explore the mind of the "monster") as well as the editor's. Nevertheless, such changes also altered the overall feel of the story from the way I originally wrote it. My implicit model was Anthony Boucher's "The Compleat Werewolf," which is fantasy rather than horror.

JL: In a SITUATION like this, professional writers learn (as I think Margaret has just learned) that it is MUCH EASIER, faster, more efficient and more profitable to write the editor a WHOLE NEW BOOK that is exactly what that editor wants rather than destroy and distort an already written property.

Using the outlining techniques WorldCrafters Guild presents to you, the writing of the novel this editor described would have taken no more than six weeks, and the result would have had a plot, a beginning, a middle and an end with a nicely resolved conflict. After all, he already outlined the novel for you. (end JL comment)

Another philosophic difference between the editor and me centered around what I think of as "textural" elements. As a reader, I enjoy novels with a leisurely pace, plenty of dialogue, and incidental scenes and characters that serve to build up a picture of the protagonist's life and background. I tried to write a novel of that type. Most of the cuts requested by the editor focused on removing all extraneous elements to create a faster-moving story. Now, he may have been quite correct in stating that most of the scenes he wanted removed were not only unnecessary but boring. (I hope not, but I'm hardly the one to judge!) To me, these elements were needed to give the impression that the heroine had a life aside from going to work and struggling with lycanthropy (her church attendance, for example, which was reduced from two scenes to a couple of throwaway lines). Whether I succeeded in my goal with these kinds of scenes remains in doubt; however, whether those elements should have been there at all is a fundamental difference in preferred style. The suggested removal of all but a very few named secondary characters, in my view, gives the final result an almost novella-like "thinness," as if the fictional world were insufficiently populated. Given the primary goal of creating a streamlined, fast-moving narrative, however, these cuts make sense.

JL: the traditional horror market is an "action-action" market. If the action pace ever slacks off, the horror dissipates instantly because the characters have time to stop and think, to let their emotions settle and thus to arouse their innate heroism to confront and conquer the threat. If they don't rally emotionally, then the viewer/reader loses interest in them because they don't seem "real".  In a horror novel, the threat can never be conquered (which is what's horrible about it) -- but only fended off, put to rest for a time, or shoved out of awareness.

ALSO NOTE: If you apply the analytical tools emphasized in the WorldCrafters Guild approach to the leisurely novel with lots of background and texture, you will discover that NOT ONE DETAIL in such novels EVER DOES ANYTHING EXCEPT ADVANCE THE PLOT and that is why you can't put them down.

THERE ARE NO INCIDENTAL SCENES AND CHARACTERS. Each and every scene, character and background detail bespeaks the underlying conflicting arguments among the themes and thus CHANGES THE SITUATION of the main characters. Such novels are usually long and intricately plotted because they have several related themes.

Somewhere in the workshop section here (   ) I have a discussion of novel structure that details how Main Theme and Sub-Themes determine the length of a piece. That is the "magic" behind making such "leisurely and rich textured" novels "work". (end JL comment)

In addition to changes focused on altering the novel's pacing, which I didn't mind as long as the essential elements of the story remained intact, the editor requested several revisions that I had no trouble agreeing to. For example, he pointed out that my werewolves were insufficiently lupine, a problem I fixed to the best of my ability after reading a few books on real-life wolves. He asked for the deletion of some lines that I had intended as humorous but which struck him as simply silly, and I accepted his judgment. To his objection that my twenty-something characters talked and acted too much like people my age (gee, I wonder why? <G>), I submitted several passages of dialogue to my son and his fiancee, as well as asking their advice about clothes and drinking habits. The editor wanted me to remove all references to a cameo character, the psychiatrist's partner, who appeared onstage only in the final scene; since I had included this character -- the protagonist of my forthcoming vampire novel (mentioned above) -- out of pure self-indulgence, I readily agreed. These changes, I believe, did improve the novel. Concerning some of the other revision requests, I had reservations but complied with them. The removal of most of the antagonist's viewpoint scenes was one such area. I'm still not certain whether the absence of his slant on events through most of the novel is good or bad for the story, or whether the reader is thereby deprived of necessary information. The editor mentioned several times that I tended to over-explain and should trust the reader to understand what I'm getting at, a fault I struggle with in all my fiction (possibly a byproduct of being an academic writer for such a long time).

The editor disliked several elements of the attempted rape scene as I originally wrote it. In my opinion, the heroine's original reaction was plausible and far from unrealistic, but since the behavior the editor wanted her to display was also plausible (and didn't change the outcome of the scene), I made the changes. One element I was sorry to lose was the final chapter as originally written, a "decompressing" scene in which the hero and heroine go home and talk over what has happened. (This is my favorite part of many of my favorite novels.) The editor pointed out, quite rightly, that my "denouement" chapter gave no new information, and he saw it as a letdown rather than a necessary "wrapping up." So it was replaced by a half-page epilogue. He also remarked that the denouement as I'd written it placed too much stress on the love story subplot, as if I were winding up a romance. Therefore, the disagreement over the denouement/epilogue also reflected the editor's goal of publishing a novel that was clearly, straightforwardly horror.

JL: I have not read the original version of this werewolf novel, but it is my strong suspicion that the "antagonist" discussed above is actually the protagonist of this novel, and removing that antagonist left the result PLOTLESS since it was the antagonist who was driving the plot to begin with. The main pov character, called protagonist here, is actually just a "hung-hero" (someone you root for but who can only react, or can not act at all, to affect the course of events.)

In HORROR GENRE, the formula requires the main pov character to be unable to control the course of events and to find that situation to be scary. (Kirk, by contrast, could only find amusement in his Situation in Tribbles.) So this book editor (whose instincts are quite sound) asked that the character who was driving the plot with decision and action be set into the background as the antagonist, whose motives and personality were "unknown" (a horror genre requirement). Again, it has been may experience, that it's faster, easier, more efficient and more profitable to just write a whole new book to suit such a demand. You can still market the old book in other genres! (end JL comment)

The matter of "texture" brings up a question I have with regard to the "change in situation" criterion Jacqueline postulates, and I would like to propose it as a discussion topic. Every scene in a piece of fiction, as we all know, should ideally (1) advance the plot, (2) reveal character, and (3) impart necessary information to the reader. In a short story, because of the limited space available, every scene must advance the plot and should perform all three functions if applicable. But -- does every scene in a novel always have to advance the plot (in the sense of "changing the situation")?

JL: YES!!! Sometimes the change of Situation is by very small increments. But every scene to be a scene must advance the plot.  Otherwise the reader won't understand what they're reading or why, and will lose interest.  Interest of a reader is held by "what happens next."  That "happen" can be purely emotional or psychological, but it must be "next," and it must be on the conflict line -- or the reader will put the book aside and never pick it up again and not know why. 

Here is another judgement CRITERION for scenes:

In COMIC BOOK STORIES (or camp comedy such as the "Superman" movies) very large psychological changes in a character and thus in the character's perception of a situation happen as SINGLE SCENES, single events. In a novel of the leisurely, rich textured type described above, that exact change in a character would happen as a result of one or two dozen scenes scattered among other scenes that advance other branches of a complicated plot.

In a COMIC BOOK (and "traditional horror" is actually an outgrowth of that genre) a character undergoes epiphany the very first time he/she is presented with a triggering event. In a novel which is more literary and thus more like real life, the entire novel is an unbroken chain of scenes building and building and elaborating upon and building toward that final epiphany which then is followed by no more than one chapter. The epiphany is the resolution of the conflict. The rest is the unwinding of the tangle of events. (my novel UNTO ZEOR, FOREVER is a case in point. Digen's epiphany reveals to him that he must go back to the Tecton, and the rest of the events happen because he takes action on that decision. In fact, the entire course of human history pivots on that single, spiritual epiphany in the scene where he "Receives Zeor" on the astral plane.)

In a COMIC BOOK the protagonist's journey of self-discovery is but one step long. In the kind of novel this werewolf novel was originally intended to be, such a journey is a thousand steps long. The typical sf/f novel uses about 10 steps for a journey of discovery (10 chapters). 

NOTE: SCENES are not written TO PERFORM functions (2) and (3) above. Those two functions are performed by other tools used within the scenes -- such as dialogue (choice of word and phrase that characterizes -- bits of business) or description or narrative or exposition. Information Feed is another whole topic we will tackle at considerable length in the WorldCrafter's Guild. You can not master INFORMATION FEED TECHNIQUES until you have completely mastered the shifting between dialogue, exposition, narrative and description, making all four tools carry thematically unified details that bespeak an underlying unification between plot and theme. It is usually necessary for most people to learn each of these techniques, DIALOGUE, EXPOSITION, NARRATIVE and DESCRIPTION, THEME, PLOT, CONFLICT, BEGINNING, MIDDLE, END and RESOLUTION, one at a time, mastering each one separately. Then it is possible to start "integrating" sets of two, then sets of three, until all these tools flow through your hands in easily rippling sequences while you are paying no conscious attention to it whatsoever. Writing is best done by the subconscious mind, but most of us have to train our subconscious to present stories to us in structured form. 

It is PRACTICE, systematic, repetitive, boring, and productive of nothing you can show anyone, that eventually trains your subconscious mind to produce IDEAS already formulated to be handled by these tools. Once that level of mastery is reached, your true talent, artistic creativity will be unleashed in a powerful and never-to-be-blocked-by-anything stream.

HOMEWORK: To the end of mastering these skills to that level, STUDY the early novels of Andre Norton. Get a spare paperback, and use colored highlighter of different colors to mark DESCRIPTION, DIALOGUE, NARRATIVE, EXPOSITION throughout at least one whole novel by Andre Norton written in the 1950s or very early 1960's. Do the same with a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley written in the early 1970's. Then do the same with your all-time very most favorite novel that you want all your novels to be just like.

THE ORDER MATTERS. Do those novels in that order.

(I learned a lot doing this when I was a kid and had no trouble with the exercise when it was assigned by THE FAMOUS WRITERS SCHOOL. Also, the BEST learning exercise I know of is to take your all-time favorite novel and KEYBOARD it into your computer with your own fingers (no scanning mind you! Type every single word just as if you were writing them yourself, and be sure you type them accurately -- no going so fast you make mistakes.) (end JL comment)

With the extra wiggle room available at book length, isn't there a legitimate place for scenes that function purely to give the reader a deeper knowledge of the characters and background, without advancing the forward movement of the plot? Some of my favorite scenes in the novels I most enjoy rereading (for example, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander) consist purely of dialogue and "business" in the midst of a lull in the plot. The pleasure of getting to know the protagonist(s) more thoroughly is all the justification this kind of scene needs. I seem to recall Jacqueline's making the statement that "action" in a novel is measured by the "rate of change in the situation." In a more leisurely-paced novel, isn't it legitimate to have sections where the rate of change is, temporarily, zero? As a reader, I tend to feel "cheated" if I'm reading a largely character-driven novel and don't get to pause and enjoy a few scenes like that.

JL: NO IT IS NOT "legitimate" TO HAVE SECTIONS WHERE THE RATE OF CHANGE OF SITUATION GOES TO ZERO -- you lose your readers that way. They get bored.

If you analyze the novels you truly love as I describe above, you will notice that in the sections where the physical SITUATION ceases to change, the EMOTIONAL SITUATION is racing through change after change. In fact, it's possible to write an entire novel in which the physical situation never changes -- and keep the 'action' racing along on the emotional level.

NOTE MORE CLOSELY the way I restated some of your description of the David Gerrold scenes at the beginning of this piece. That difference in phrasing represents the analytical skill needed to detect A CHANGE IN SITUATION in a scene which might otherwise seem static.

Now Gabaldon is an example of a writer whose work I find massively flawed. I read some of her early novels, and found that my problem with those novels is that she assumes her reader is interested in her subject matter.

Marion Zimmer Bradley ENTICES and BEGUILES you into her Well Crafted Worlds, and explains carefully and in detail WHY you should be interested, WHY the subject matter is fascinating, AND WHAT IS SO VERY INTRIGUING ABOUT IT. Marion makes you an afficionado of the subject. Gabaldon demonstrates her expertise.

While she was teaching me this craft, MZB repeatedly drove me into a sweat with that question 'WHY' -- what is interesting about it? Why would this person do that? Who cares? Why do they care? Why should I (the reader) care? WHY SHOULD I CARE??? That is the question Gabaldon doesn't raise or answer. And in a historical that depends entirely on background, that question MUST be answered. And there is no dramatic way to answer a reader's question that the reader has not yet asked.  So you must first make the reader CURIOUS, and then answer the question.  The rest of that skill-set comes under the topic Information Feed.

CONTRAST/COMPARE any Gabaldon novel with MISTS OF AVALON. Mists is very long, but there isn't a single spare word, not one scene that does not ADVANCE THE PLOT and CHANGE THE SITUATION. It is fast paced the whole way, relentlessly fast paced and spare. That's why it works for me, and Gabaldon's novels don't -- though I have to admit I'm an Arthurian Legend fan who loathed the war-tactics recitations in most Arthurians and I'm not much interested in Gabaldon's chosen backgrounds. However, after reader MISTS, I loved Arthurian for a whole new and different reason!  Marion wrote a book that explains WHY anyone should be interested in Arthurian. 

Gabaldon's work is, to my way of thinking, self-indulgent. Marion Zimmer Bradley writes with her attention on the reader. Gabaldon's early work struck me as having been written with attention on the story she wanted to tell, not the story the reader wanted to read. As a result, her work is of interest only to those who are already sold on the subject matter.

CONTRAST Gabaldon's work with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint Germain novels. Yarbro is totally wrapped up in the subject matter, completely and unquestioningly devoted to the proposition that history is inherently interesting. To me, history is boring and uninteresting BECAUSE it is history. Who cares? You can't change it so it is not important. To me, only the present and future count, and the present is pretty uninteresting insofar as it is the result of the past, and thus can't be changed much. The interesting part of the present is the part that can be changed to generate a different future.

Nevertheless, Yarbro's Saint Germain novels "work" for me, because she is not self-indulgent about the history she presents. She tells you, shows you, and draws you into the matrix of the historical details through the eyes of a fascinating character who sees things differently than we do.

One of the things I didn't like about Gabaldon's OUTLANDER series is that the main characters do not take responsibility for the results of their time-traveling -- as Kirk or Spock would worry about "the time stream." They are not curious about how they time-travel or why, and spend no effort at all attempting to master the mechanism, or worrying about the philosophical implications. They are not on "journeys of self-discovery" but on journeys of self-gratification. Or at most the gratification of one lover. And not a thought or worry or action or sense of responsibility for the rest of all-humanity.

Gabaldon uses time-travel as a "vehicle" -- but to me it isn't the vehicle. The TIME TRAVEL is what's interesting about the story, and the way she's written it in the early novels, the love-interest is the vehicle.

In the Saint Germain novels, the story is, for me, Saint Germain's coping with the problems of immortality, and the exact same story happens to him over and over, independent of the historical background which is just window dressing and utterly irrelevant. How this same story plays out in ANY era exactly the same, THAT is what the series is about for me (not for Chelsea - we had a wonderful discussion on this on a panel at some Worldcon.  That's memorialized in one of my columns.)

The problem with the Vampire's plight is that the Vampire is UNDEAD, and thus not "alive" -- i.e. not CHANGING, not going through epiphanies and resolving internal conflicts and thus becoming a new and different person with every swing of Uranus around their "natal" chart. Saint Germain is a perfect example of what changes in the Undead, and what does not. He gets himself into trouble the same way every time - never learns. That's why he gets bored, gets depressed, and does crazy things.

There is a great deal more to be said on these subjects, and we'll get to all of it in other contexts. (end JL comment)

I will be interested in reading Jacqueline and Jean's responses to this question, as well as the reactions of other people on the writers-l list. -Margaret L. Carter, February, 1999

JL: When she gets around to it, no doubt Jean will disagree with much of what I've said here, and that may well illuminate the matter for a number of other writers. (end JL Comments)



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