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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Plotlines and Ideas
April 26, 2000


Question:

I am currently working on a novel with a very disjointed plotline, and I was wondering if you could pick out some 'red flags' I should look out for in flow and structure. Problems I am already trying to surmount include the fact that the five main characters do not know each other until the end of the book. Their stories occur on five different timelines which means that each chapter marks a shift forwards or backwards several years.

They interrelate because the story opens with an event, a legal ruling, and the stories are about how it affects the characters and causes them to find each other and bring an appeal. Friends reading the rough draft don't seem to have a problem with the disjointedness, but because they are friends and people who actually choose to read amateur science fiction in their non-existent free time (which shows somewhat questionable judgment!), I take their comments with a grain of salt.

-- Emily Mah

OSC Replies:

It seems to me that you're already aware of the cost that a disconnected set of plotlines can have, and that you're already compensating for that. So your friends are right, to a degree.

The problem with the structure you're using is

1. It calls attention to itself, drawing the reader out of the stories.

2. All the storylines have to be very interesting; if even one lags, it weakens the whole thing.

3. The reader is asked for a great deal of patience, since the reader will expect the characters to meet.

The compensations you're probably already using are: to make sure all the storylines are full of dramatic tension; To make the characters come close to meeting at several points throughout the story, or to have "degree of separation" involvement. That is, one drops a paper that has some words or a drawing on it; another character (from another storyline) picks up that paper and it causes him/her to go off on a train of thought that leads him/her to make a decision. That sort of thing. Near misses and indirect connections like that will make the reader feel little satisfactions along the way, before the big meeting at the end, and will help key up the reader's anticipation.

The only real rule is: You can break any rule, as long as you're willing to pay the price. The intricacy of the plot you've chosen for your first novel is a hard one to work with, but if you bring it off, it makes your novel all the more memorable and likely to make a splash. A gamble -- but potentially well worth it. Good luck!


Question:

I would like to know what you think about all day long and where these stories are coming from, if you don't mind answering this for me.

You see, I once wanted to be a writer but I had nothing to write. I have some very dark poetry that I wrote all throughout jr high and high school. It seems that I write in riddles better than anything else, and only when I'm extremely frustrated and/or depressed.

I was just wondering where you get the determination and discipline to spew out all these stories.

-- Anonymous

OSC Replies

Story ideas are happening around you all the time. But the storyteller has to look at events and scenes with a questioning mind. Why did this happen? Why else might it happen? What could be the result of this? What else? Things are this way now; how else might they be? What if this changed? What if that?

Without those questions (all of them about causation, by the way), there would be no stories; the scientist and historian and journalist generally try to come up with stories that fit the fact; the fiction writer alters the facts to fit the story that "feels right."

Wanting to "be a writer" never gets anyone anywhere. The only thing that works is actually wanting to write and then doing it!


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