The price of a half-bright idea

NORMA:  And you have written pictures, haven’t you?

GILLIS: Sure have. The last one I wrote was about cattle rustlers. Before they were through with it, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat. – Sunset Boulevard

Recently had an unfortunate revelation, whilst on a steam train in the Dandenong Mountains (don’t ask). The revelation was essentially about a dilemma I’ve been having in regards to my plot. I’ve reached a point where I need to get my characters to do things, to arrive at a particular destination, and the stations they arrive at along the way seem painfully contrived. My characters are where they are because I’ve needed them there, not because they want to go.

The initial introduction to my central character was written MANY years ago, and was essentially something I tossed off in the heat of the moment, rather than something that was carefully calibrated to serve as the initial “King’s Pawn to e4”. Part of the intent was comedic. In many ways my main character is luckless, and it was a good way to illustrate that the universe is endlessly creative in finding new ways to dump on him. Taken in isolation, I think it’s an excellent scene.

It was also written reasonably quickly, before I’d really bedded down where I wanted the story to go. What appeared to be a logical progression with characters moving from one situation towards another situation now looks like a self-contained one-gag short story that just happens to have a hook for the rest of the novel.

This has led to problems down the line, where the implications of this scene require an increasingly convoluted series of compromises in order to maintain basic plot integrity. Ockham’s Razor is generally an enemy to exciting writing, but in terms of writing coherent plots, I think it’s a helpful tool. I try not to generate too many opportunities for the reader to start channeling Scott Evil:

Given this, I’m contemplating the unthinkable, which is rewriting (pretty thoroughly) the scene introducing my major characters, the scene that sets the tone and starts the rolling stone for the entire rest of the book. This will also require rewriting of several other scenes as well as a really careful attention to make sure I don’t leave any traces of the previous regime. It’s actually quite a lot of work.

So why do it?

Well… several reasons.

The first reason is thematic. My character as previously established was very much a happy-go-lucky dabbler in many things. As the novel has developed, and I’ve had to develop an independent setting (see my initial post for more details on that), I’ve had to reassess it with a slightly harder edge, and come from a slightly darker place. This isn’t to say I’m going to change the essentials, or heavily modify the character’s essentially light nature. But the tone which was set by the initial sequence (essentially a gag plus some character work) no longer quite gels with the overall mood. There are most definitely novels where an opening scene incongruous to the rest of the novel is appropriate, but mine isn’t it.

The second is fluidity. The initial scene provided the kickstart for the plot, it got my characters out and doing things, allowing them to become enmeshed in the narrative I was trying to create. I created a rational incentive for my main characters to get involved in the plot (including a nice dollop of urgency). The way it’s framed, however, makes it an impediment to what the main characters can realistically do.

In short, the initial scene creates a rod for the back of our protagonists makes it hard for them to gambol across the narrative in a natural way, requiring multiple suspensions of disbelief and “let’s-just-not-mention-that”s. Eventually, I do manage to ditch the rod and develop more internal motivations, but the initial scene haunts the narrative all the way through.

Fortunately, I’ve managed to hit on a compromise that I think maintains some of the lightness, provides a launchpad for the protagonist’s narrative but also requires fewer compromises as the plot goes on. But the price of narrative freedom is eternal vigilance in copy-editing the rest of your second draft.

It’s become a very unsettling feeling to realise that the foundation stones of my book are a bit less well laid than I’d initially thought, and that the wonkiness of all the subsequently hung doorframes does NOT actually possess a rustic charm.

However, it has at least let me appreciate that despite the compromises I’ve made along the way, the basic structure is sound, there are some lovely scenes of character, humour and action and that modifying a few basic (early) issues, the whole thing will flow more smoothly and provide both the reader and the writer with a more seamless experience.

So although there’s a price for this half-baked idea, the investment will pay dividends I’m entirely sure are worth it.

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