Your First Act is not a plot device

By Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Lately I’ve read a few stories that had something not quite right about them. At first it was difficult to place the troubling gremlin – these stories had great characters, nice pacing, interesting conflict. It was only when I reached the end of these books that I realised I still had a lot of unanswered questions. And then I realised – most of these questions were the ones that were raised in the First Act.

It hit me: These stories were introducing tension in the First Act not as the central theme or core conflict, but as a plot device – a way to get the protagonist to where they needed to be in the Second Act. 

Imagine a story where all your protagonist wants is to protect her little sister – from their incapable mother, from a dangerous and unforgiving world, from nightmarish memories of their father’s death, from poverty and disease. Then imagine this character gets the ultimate opportunity to do this – by volunteering to take their little sister’s place in a macabre and brutal spectacle that pits child against child in mortal combat for the general entertainment of the masses. This act sends the protagonist away from their little sister and thrusts them into a entirely different world.

And then imagine that the ensuing conflict has absolutely no relevance or reference to that stated goal and tension – where the little sister is forgotten and thoughts of protecting her from the big bad world are no longer plaguing her. Where the central conflict of Act One was just a means to an end – a way to force the protagonist into this new world, and nothing else. Where the Third Act answers a completely different question to the one posed in the First.

questions

Thankfully, in Hunger Games, this is not the case. Katniss ‘adopts’ a surrogate sister, Rue – an action that helps to maintain her humanity in an inhumane situation. The need to protect her sister, Prim, also permeates throughout the series (to varying degrees) and eventually evolves in a need to protect/save everyone. Especially those closest to her.

There is something deeply satisfying, for a reader, in following the evolution and resolution of the core conflict established in the first act (and, indeed, the first book of a series). Stories that forget about this central question – will Katniss save her sister from the evils of Panem? (Hunger Games). Will Mark Watney be able to ‘science the shit’ out of his lonely and tenuous existence on Mars? (The Martian). Will Montag succumb to his Fireman role or break free from it? (Fahrenheit 451). Will Anaiya break free of her legacy and bring down the Resistance? (Resistance (Divided Elements #1)) – are in danger of ‘losing their soul’ and creating forgettable stories with no emotional resonance or connection.

 

What do you think? Have you read (or written) a story where the First Act conflict was forgotten by the time the Third Act rolled around?

 

Image courtesy of Emily via Flickr Creative Commons
Your First Act is not a plot device

Failing NaNoWriMo

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I had the best plans to really put some stream of consciousness writing down on my Elementals novel during NaNoWriMo. Instead, I found myself doing more thinking than writing. About a quarter of the way through November, I realised that I was falling into the same trap I had with other (unfinished, half-loved) novels that I had started before.

I love my novel concept and I think I will love my characters (once I give myself a chance to fully develop them and get to know them), but I found that I didn’t love the canvas on which I was presenting these two components.

As with other novels I have attempted to write, I was getting the feeling of 0.99c mediocrity (you know, that feeling that just because you can write, doesn’t mean you can write well or a write a great novel – despite almost unlimited opportunity to draft, publish and sell your novel at the perfect ‘let’s just have a look’ price point of 0.99c. Almost a literary version of Idol – you have a nice voice and can belt out a tune in the shower or in front of appreciative family and friends, but can you captivate an audience with a song that will transform their experience? Should you really be putting it out there on the international stage with just a ‘yeah, I can sing’ mentality? The number of 99c ebooks I have bought that suffer from this kind of purple prose, poor development and suffocating superficiality… A kind of paint by numbers approach – that’s what I mean by 0.99c mediocrity).

Now, I know this screams of that self-doubt that I have written about before – and flies in the face of the wisdom that advises one to just get the words on a page and refine later. But I think this is deeper. This is about ensuring you work with the best materials to begin with – akin to “don’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink” or “poor data in, means poor analysis out” or “prepare your canvas!“.

So, as indicated above, I spent the rest of NaNoWriMo learning about good writing – rather than indulging in bad writing. I learned from the masters – both classic and contemporary – by reading good books and watching good television. I fed myself with great stories and, in digesting them, came to a new (albeit, still undeveloped) understanding about what makes them good.

As part of the November reading challenge for Goodreads Group, Dystopia Land, I re-read Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451‘. Helpfully, Ray Bradbury himself tells us what makes his novel a great novel. In a discussion on the quality of books, Faber tells Montag:

This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are…The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

Life is hard, tough, overwhelming, underwhelming, transformative, unforgiving, challenging, redeeming, responsive, sublime. To capture this on a page or a collection of pages – that is to write a good book. It is not enough to have an interesting premise and great characters – these two components must be drawn together in a way that tells the story of life. That is what distinguishes between a novel and a fairytale. The relentless push of reality versus the saccharine musings of a dreamer.

Failing NaNoWriMo