Did anyone else read this week's New York Times Sunday Book Review of John Grisham's new collection of short stories? The one that said, "This illuminates a central problem with Grisham’s fiction: plot rules. His novels promiscuously reverse the writerly adage “character is plot,” to the point that plot often becomes the main character, leading the human characters around by the nose when necessary."*
Next question: am I the only one who'd never heard this "writerly adage" before?
Because I'm thinking it could have saved me a decent amount of time.
The last big sticking point in revising my first novel was thinking that something else had to "happen" in Act 3. Thanks to a Novel Development class (taught by Audrey Beth Stein), I realized that the problem was in fact that I didn't know what my main character's final emotional arc was (although I knew where she had to end up). Once I got a better sense of what was going on in her head, I didn't need to contrive for anything major to "happen." Her voice guided me, and the action revealed itself.
And last night I went to a seminar called Plotting the Novel (taught by Michelle Hoover), that emphasized the philosophy that character determines plot. The classroom writing exercises included determining your protagonist's primary desire, primary strength and flaw... yep. Once again, I suspect that I've been stuck on my current work-in-progress largely because I don't have a good enough sense of what my (new) main character wants.
For someone who writes character-driven pieces, I can be quite obtuse about this.
I had previously heard the idea that every novel needs to have a "signature": a single sentence that shows the full arc of the novel. Popular examples include: madman goes hunting for a white whale (Moby Dick), poor boy tries to win heart of rich girl (The Great Gatsby), mother seeks to bring her family home for one last Christmas (The Corrections).
But, I'd read some rather weak signatures without realizing they were weak -- beautiful woman marries the wrong man (Anna Karenina) -- and as a result, I hadn't quite understood the full concept. Those first three examples reveal a driving force for a main character, whereas the last example is pretty static. It tells me what she did but not what she wants. Does she want to stay or leave? That's crucial. If you use that signature as your example, as I previously did, you can miss out on the whole point of the exercise.
But in last night's class, Michelle described the signature as the novel's river. Like the river in Huck Finn... when the characters step away from that river, the story falters. It is what leads them physically, and it is also representative of the freedom they seek... the driving force of the novel. It's not a state of being. It's in motion. It's going somewhere, and it can lead you.
And so, I think my six-word summary doesn't really cut it anymore. "Graphic designer is pregnant... now what?" It's cute and catchy, but it doesn't really tell you anything about who she is, or what she wants. The novel's river is this: young woman wants her life to go back to normal after accidental pregnancy. That's what she wants... although of course we all know that's not what she's going to get.
Now, let's go see what it is that my next character wants.
Tell me: WHAT DOES YOUR PROTAGONIST DESIRE?
* Please note that the review also had good things to say about Grisham's talent and potential.