Saturday, August 04, 2012

A Plot Excuse to Watch Out For: "But Then Where Would Have Been My Novel?"

A couple of weeks ago, in the course of work, I was thinking about the last line quoted here from Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers:

As she spoke she with difficulty restrained her tears; but she did restrain them. Had she given way and sobbed aloud, as in such cases a woman should do, he would have melted at once, implored her pardon, perhaps knelt at her feet and declared his love. Everything would have been explained, and Eleanor would have gone back to Barchester with a contented mind. How easily would she have forgiven and forgotten the archdeacon’s suspicions had she but heard the whole truth from Mr Arabin. But then where would have been my novel?
While I read Barchester Towers in college, "But then where would have been my novel?" has stuck with me through the years as a mark of a particular kind of book. Trollope means it in the sense of "What fools these mortals be!", I think, and also as a joke on himself and his characters:  If Eleanor had just been a slightly different kind of person, a little more melodramatic and a little less proper, then she would have acted in a way that would have allowed for the clearing-up of all misunderstandings, and there would have been no further drama for Trollope to write about. But because she IS eminently sensible and proper, the drama and the misunderstandings persist, and we have the pleasure of seeing them play out. This is fiction-writing of the highest order, when the particularities of highly specific and human characters drive the action, and then we readers don't mind having our attention drawn to the mechanics of the novel's continuation, because we believe so thoroughly in those characters and hence those mechanics.

But the phrase often enters my mind with a rather more negative connotation -- when writers have had to contrive a particular set of circumstances or made a character act in an out-of-character or frankly stupid way in order to keep the novel going or accomplish a particular plot point. Whenever there's a too-convenient conversation overheard at just the right moment; when a character refuses to have an obvious conversation with the person who could help him out or clear up all the mysteries, instead preferring to be silent, stew, or pout to a point beyond my readerly sympathy; when a writer introduces a new conflict or characters because clearly the original ones have been resolved too early or were just losing their luster, I think, Ah, you had to do that, Novelist, else Where Would Have Been Your Novel? What it means is that I don't believe in the characters' reality or I'm not charmed by the action enough to be pleased by this glimpse of the novel's mechanics. It can be a fairly easy thing to fix in editing:  Complicate the character or make me sympathize more with him/her, increase the obstacles or stakes (or invent better ones), integrate the new characters or plotline earlier and more smoothly, and the curtain will drop back over the Wizard and all will be well. But if WWHBMNism happens too often, or the situation it creates drags on for too long, then it becomes very easy for me to put the book or manuscript down. 

[The stewing-instead-of-the-obvious-conversation thing comes up a lot in children's and YA fiction especially, when the character believes something awful about him/herself or his/her mother or father or love interest, and there are various obstacles to asking or telling someone who knows the truth about it, and when he or she finally asks the question or reveals the truth at the climax, all is well -- and would have been half the novel ago if the protagonist had just spoken up then. Of course, psychologically, this is something that many of us do all the time in real life, preferring our warm familiar stewing to the possible shock of the cold truth. But it's such a common trope in children's and YA fiction that those characters and obstacles need to be really solid and believable if I recognize this is going on; and there needs to be some other interesting action besides this stewing carrying through the novel as well, so I have something to think about beyond "Talk to him already!"

Or alternatively -- and this would be interesting -- once that conversation finally occurs, it could turn out that all the protagonist's fears were justified, and the cold truth is truly freezing and awful and worth all the stewing the protagonist went through. Then he or she would be forced to rely on the other inner resources s/he gained during the novel to deal with that truth -- or collapse into a pile of fictional goo, I suppose (both of which might mess with the novel's structure, I admit). The additional thing that makes me impatient with situations where the protagonist doesn't speak up is my sense that I know already how that conversation will turn out, because children's fiction especially almost always goes for reassurance, for the idea that the monsters in the dark aren't real. If the book then surprises me and the monsters leap out, teeth bared, then clearly I'm the fool, which would be fresh and even delightful... Though I can't think of many books where this happens, adult or children's. (Can you?) And this may be my adult tastes and knowledge getting in the way of what would actually be satisfying to child readers, who don't have the same wide experience of fiction and might need the reassurance. That's always a predilection I have to watch out for as a children's book editor -- my adult know-it-allness vs. their newness to everything.]

In any case:  Writers, if someone challenges you on a plot or character point and you think plaintively, But I had to have that or the novel would have fallen apart, someone has seen through to your mechanics, which means that your novel is already falling apart . . . or its rivets are showing, at least, and straining with the machinery inside. Look hard at those joins and see what needs to be more real.


  1. Great post, but I'm not going to talk about it because I'm stewing about my MC stewing too much.

  2. I should probably append that the definition of too much stewing is in the eye of the beholder . . . so write what you need to write, and then don't worry about it unless your first readers say something like "Goodness, I wished she'd just talk to him already!" or something.

  3. Very good point, and a great way of remembering it. I think the same can apply to endings if they seem to come out of the blue - on the last page, suddenly, a big revelation, unconnected to anything else, brings about conclusion. It makes things seem forced, as if the author thought 'Well, this is how I want it to end. If it doesn't come naturally, it'll come all the same...!'

    Plot naturally needs one thing to follow on from another, but if removing a particularly awkward or out-of-character point would cause the whole thing to come tumbling down, what you actually have is 'block writing' - and like building blocks, removing one brings everything crashing. Maybe different plot points should be strong enough on their own to stand up to the test, while still being linked in a more natural, subtle way.

    Thanks for this post!

  4. I read somewhere that coincidence should never solve problems but you can get away with coincidences that make things more difficult - i suppose no one finds bad luck hard to believe. Good rule to write by, perhaps.
    But is it coincidence if it is truly character driven? Not so much. The trick is in the set up.

    For myself a lot of this streamlining is done in the rewriting stage... continuity editing, if you will.

  5. Useful, practical, to-the-point great post! Thank you.

  6. Oh, I agree! But, I can't help but remember when JK Rowling was on tour (either after Half Blood Prince or Deathly Hallows, I can't remember) and she ended up apologizing to librarians for Madame Pince, because, if she had been the helpful sort, then where would have been my novel?