THE ART OF PLOTTING A STORY LINE
THE HERO HAS ARRIVED,
JUST IN TIME to SAVE FAIR DAMSEL!
And he's an INTERESTING kinda GUY!
A good story, a PLOT, is like the perfume of a beautiful woman. It sucks you in, lures you into getting involved but while eventually, a man will leave even a fragrant woman, a reader will not leave a novel that is a 'page turner.'
PLOTTING is the art of MAPPING OUT the SPACES that CONNECT THE DOTS, beforehand so that the reader who enters the HAUNTED HOUSE will go through certain scares, fears, alarms and do it slowly, very tortuously. The author raises unanswered questions, makes the reader wonder, fear, gooseflesh, care. CARE means the reader CARES for the main character. Then, when he's into the people, the author puts those beloved characters in danger. Those are the dots and the reader pants to have the dots connected and can't put the book down and later, he remembers his own fever pitch and tells all his friends to buy it. THAT is a best seller!
The lack of a plot can destroy a brilliant' writer's work. Read the books of SARAH DUNANT, "In the Company of the Courtesan" and "Birth of Venus". She can create a living museum glittering with the reality of the antique period but she can't plot worth a damn. Cuz she's a girl, soulular, fascinated with brocade and pearls. Dunant is however not STRUCTURE oriented. Not brainy enough to make a map of the story first and chart the DOTS, and reckon the thrills that must connect them, then map a distance of THRILL for the reader, between them.
DOTS are like matter itself. They are the sumptuous props of the writer: the people, houses, wealth, status, things. We can see the LIFE our character lives in but the thrill factor is invisible ---like PHOTONS. Like energy, gravitation....not like MATTER. The writer has to be very GODLIKE TO STAND ABOVE THE STORY AND its people and TRACE THE GRAVITATIONAL PULL AT EACH INTERSECTION IN THE STORY. Plot is like a FAULT under a city, about to give and down the entire city and every person in it. The reader sees the danger and is screaming to the hero "See it! WATCH OUT!" And then the author places the baby in the stroller right on the boulevard built over the San Andreas fault so the reader is getting purple in the face!
Read Miss Sarah Dunant's works anyway, she is a great museum curator. She reminds me of an author, Patrick Suskind who wrote "PERFUME, (translated from German.) The anti-hero, GRENOUILLE, (French for Frog) is an incredibly weird, fascinating character which reminds me of JAVIER BARDIM in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. A real weirdo. But the author works out of satanic glee, as he's given birth to this mild-mannered little succubus and he's so entranced with his creation that he, like Miss Dunant, doesn't bother to plot.
Set those two aside then look at ANGELS AND DEMONS and DA VINCI CODE by DAN BROWN. This guy can plot. He's got horrors out there, headed our way, but not here yet, so reader's in suspense. He's got deadlines as villain will move very soon. He's got danger, --will the THREATENING event occur? Can the hero stop the HORRID EVENT? There's always a tremendous jeopardy at play. Now, BROWNs not the artist that Suskind and Dunant are, he's formulaic, but he gets your pulse going.
Now read KEN FOLLETT. His tenth book, EYE OF THE NEEDLE was a huge hit, having plot, a really weird central character, an interesting historical period. His next hit was KEY TO REBECCA, also very good. Follett is very into periods past, especially World War II, but he also liked ancient European Church architecture. He wanted to take on the Dark Ages. He isn't as MUSEUMY as Dunant or Suskin with the rustic detail of the period, but he can plot like a son of a gun so PILLARS OF THE EARTH is a hit. Oprah raved and Follett said on her TV show that it took him ONE YEAR just to do the story structure on cards.
That's a clue to what you as an author must do. The bones of a story must have the suspense junctures plotted in. When you sit down to write, you must know your map and calculate distances between points carefully. You can't just wander from moment to moment like a hippie on acid and hope to inject plot. Plot comes from careful planning. You 'load' the scale, then as one end sinks toward the floor, BOOM! RESCUE! You do this ten times over the course of a book.
PLOTTED BOOKS BECOME HITS. The energy between the molecules of matter excite the mind. That energy flusters the reader. Excitement is ENGINEERED into the story. A superbly plotted book which has you screaming at the end and turning pages quickly is the ODESSA FILE by Frederic Forsyth.
Not to piss on the MUSEUM TOUR led by an artist, like a Gabriel Marquez who's not much for plotting. So PLOT is only ONE of the elements that can get a book published. Marquez Hundred Years of Solitude is like a huge JACK's BEANSTALK growing toward the sky, built of thousands of improbable biographies or life stories, hanging like a thousand pods on the vine. That feat alone gets him his Nobel Prize. Try to work a little of that into your novel
Suskind's "Perfume" starts with one thing we all should have in our novel, ---, a character that is ultra weird, born of ultra weird. This story is set in pre Revolution France. This Javier Bardim character is born of a fish vendor who's at work skinning fishes. She reaches under her skirt and throws the newborn on a trash pile of fish guts, as she did 4 earlier babies. Third person Omniscent voice of narration can get a lot of about her own weird history thrown in there. Then, being post childbirth, she can't get back to scraping that carp, she faints into street. This alerts other vendors in market and the Flics come. They realize what she had done, haul her off and hang her. The newborn baby goes to church, the priest pays a wetnurse who after a week returns the baby complaining that "it's satan! The newborn eats like a pig and has no odor of baby, no smell at all on this child." Another wetnurse is called...finally he grows up, a little crooked but very sturdy person. GRENOUILLE which means frog --is his name.
We follow his infancy. He's so ugly that no nun or orphanage maid can do anything but put the food in front of him. He has no emotional ties to people -- he is as devoid of feelings as his mother was --but in compensation, nature has given him an amazing nose. He can distinguish aromas at a mile and the author goes on and on where/how/which. He can follow a scent in the air in a crowded public place & find the person its attached to. A REALLY GOOD scent (for HIM,) is the fragrant flower aroma of a teen girl, a human aroma, and when he finds it, he is nosing her all over and she doesn't like it so he kills her in order to possess the scent. So author's given Grenouille an amazing birth/story personage a weird specialty and then author starts exploiting it in thick prose reminiscent of Jorge luis Borges or Gabriel Marquez, very clotted prose, description thick, (if not event thick,) and oliferous. WHEN YOU HAVE a distinctive and unique character at the ctr of it, the actions/plot comes OFF that uniqueness. You can do that. It's not JOE NORMAL. So the writer right away has an advantage!
But this writer, PATRICK SUSKIND is already an alchemist who can turn dust motes into ideas, into architectural detail as solid as bricks. He's a spider spinning an endless thread off the character's weird gifts. And he has this ability to make you believe anything he notes or observes as 'the third person voice describing the character's reactions' And he as author chooses weird events, he makes you believe those too. The 'ficciones' work. They hold water. Absurdities, exaggerations. Paul Bunyan size plots. It works. Except as he has almost no PLOT......the book kind of has all the thrills of a walk through Madame Tussaud's was museum of horrors.
In acting class they used to tell us (when we did improvs,) we don't critique your choices, only how you executed them. He executes well, but the flaccid plot and the fact the central character is a MONSTER, kind of doesn't make us get SUPER INVOLVED. However, he does pass the DRAMA CLASS TEST of were his choices executed so that they were believeable. Yes, they are. So you can make yourself Bogart fleeing from the Electric chair, holing up and kidnapping a waitress....it's your call. But how you FLESH out that character, how believeably, how much energy, tension ---that's what the actor or writer can be critiqued on. And this guy is faultless there.
THE CHARACTER is, ---due to his nostril sensitivity, revolted by Paris. He has huge repugnance to human smells like about 99 and 44/100ths of them anyway. He lives in filthy Paris of 1750 and the place is a smell hellhole. Unless he gets that one little girl. Whom he sniffs he is in such bliss that he strangles her. Sniffing this type of girl is his only ecstasy. Well, this author is at this point loaded for bear. But he doesn't make the character a serial killer. He kills once and forgets about it. All he can do is cherish in memory the girl aroma. Then as his only talent is his nose, Grenouille apprentice himself to parfumiers and in that period, it was lovely work. Ever heard of GRASSE? He goes there! South of France.
The museum piece quality (after Paris in that period,) is this profession. The artisans, what/how. His first stint is to work humbly for an abusive s.o.b.played by DUSTIN HOFFMAN, a 2nd rate perfumer in PARIS. The way our boy (I can't believe I'm saying this,) invents superior aroma mixes is fascinating. The crumb boss is jotting down the recipes which his slave makes only with his nose, but the mixes are beyond belief. each better than the last. From second rate parfumier the boss climbs to be a millionaire. NUIT NAPOLITAIN is a sell out mix of bergamot, lilac, etc. and the crumbbum boss becomes rich. As soon as Grenouuille gets his three year journeyman license, he leaves. That very day, the entire quayside parfumerie bldg sinks into the river. Did the servant kick out a post? I'd have made it a plot point which author doesn't. That somehow he had noticed the staircase was rotting, the one down to the river seine. and he hired a mule to pull it or something. I wouldn't make it a coincidence. Cuz the boss and the wife sink beneath the bubbles, never heard from again. Very Grenouille thing to do but writer just makes it a hapchance event. Oh well, we learned in acting class, never criticize choices -- only execution.
Grenouille now walks free of all cities, climbs tallest mountain in the Camargue to be free of all smells, lives on mt 7 yrs. Is a bearded long hair to knees when he returns to civilization so he tells them he was kidnapped by pirates, thrown in a hole, fed by basket for 7 yrs. A bezerk posturing, aristocrat who's an amateur scientist with Pre-COPERNICAN concepts, something about FLUIDE ASTRAL vs FLUIDE TERRAIN concepts related to aging....seizes on GRENOUILLE as the ultimate lab hamster. He bathes/ dresses our 'hero' and hey, he looks good, cuz he's been eating raw bats and rats for 7 yrs. Lean mean machine. Scientist sez this NOW VERY GROOMED good looking little hunchback dwarf proves FLUIDE ASTRAL is the cure for aging. The aristocrat gets real famous off this, showing Grenouille to lecture audiences as a specimen. as PROOF.
The frog goes from ape man to beautiful coiffed, only slightly hunch backed, elegant aristocrat in silks. Well, Grenouille escapes this profiteering early Guru clone and goes to GRASSE to work for parfumiers again. So it's very BEYOND PAUL BUNYAN, beyond Voltaire's CANDIDE --It's a MODEL of what an author should do. And nobody does. I mean the PREMISE to start --the basic strategy of creating an outrageous central character, from birth on, and taking him on his own improbable odyssey, each stunt / action/ event being more OUTRAGEOUS than the one before it.... And occasonally having weird aristocrats poseurs with the vices of the day. (We always need bourgeois secondary characters that are PETIT VILLAINS, examples of the worst vices humanity has.)
GRENOUILLE, now having learned to make perfume, a method that takes THOUSANDS of flowers, wrapped in lard, left overnight, then pulled out, a new substance set in the same lard, repeating it dozens of times, then finally pulling the aroma out of the lard,) --well, he's nothing if not literal. He wants another kind of scent so he has to translate the method to finding a lot of girls bodies, freshly dead, to make his girl-perfume. He makes one bottle of scent (for himself,) out of about 28 girls.
The flics nail him with the bottle but don't know that it IS what it IS. So he wears the girl perfume in court and the jury won't convict him. He smells innocent. The author makes the pivotal story point believeable, weird though it is, that everyone reacts to others' aromas! The Bunyan factor. So Grenouille gets off. And believe it or not, this unusual novel is on the list of the ALL TIME best sellers of last l00 yrs.
Study the work of good ole Dan Brown who does DA VINCI and ANGELS AND DEMONS and wrote the book on plot. With reason he and Ken Follett write best sellers. They map it out beforehand, exactly. A step by step MAP. They don't jump down in the water and start swimming unknown waters. Those writers get meandering 5 inch thick novels that nobody wants to publish.
The whirly gig path of a Follett or Dan Brown story is a contrivance that engages the mind. It catches hold of the reader who is stunned into 'wanting to know' how it turns out. The Scheharazad factor at work. (Hmmm, I wonder whether beautiful single women could somehow use this plotting principle to engage men's minds? Come to think of it, my old boyfriend the screen writer fell in love with my back story, not me. I think he stayed around wanting to see how it all turned out! I was truly a weird character in plot jeopardy. I'm working on a novel about a girl with four kids on welfare living in Venice, I call the book.GETTING OUT OF VENICE...Heroine has 4 babies from a foreign marriage, has returned to USA, gets involved with this old stuffy elitist screenwriter. What was that Steven Birmingham book, OUR CROWD?" He was from that group, Jews who had THE RIGHT STUFF, an arrogant elitist headtrip, a New York raised ex OSS, screenwriter with two Oscars, snotty and posh. Exactly what a girl does not need when she has 4 fatherless toddlers in tow. NOW THAT BOOK HAS PLOT! Suspense. I should stop writing articles on writing and FINISH the damn thing. But I love analyzing books, plots, writers, gimmicks and earning a living with astrology which is fulltime to pay L.A rents...so here I am. A wannabe writer. They say, he who can't ... teaches. True.
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