Having to read my work aloud, even to someone close, makes me self-concious. It’s here — as the words are read to ears other than our own — that most of us question our writing’s adequacy.
I’ve been reading my manuscript (which I still refer to simply as Brisha) to someone at their request, and since we only have pieces of time here and there, I wonder about things like connectivity and plot complications, which lead to remarks on story arc and the strength of character development.
I ask openly if my audience of one is keeping track of everything and understanding characters, which only displays my self-concious attitude, because if she didn’t get what was happening, I would know that the shortcoming was mine and not hers.
But what about really complicated plots? Can I even describe the mood and conclusive themes I want readers or listeners will draw from my book without being too obvious? Sometimes I’m not sure I can describe them in full to myself, which could be a bad sign, but I suspect this is the case with many authors simply because we have a more complete and complicated picture in our heads. This picture is jumbled by drafts, links we’ve covered over, characters we’ve edited out, and other telltale and inevitable eraser marks of a sketch that only we (the author) can see.
To the mind of the author, the book he or she writes is much more full and complete than what get’s shown to the reader. Our worlds and characters can never be as complete or as flawed — full of switch-backed trails — to anyone so much as to us. The book that gets published is really just the backbone of the story; the story as it is to our imaginations is infinitely more.
So as the author, how do we stay on track? There are many ways and many facets, but let’s look at the most important point of a story: Character. More specifically, plot as it pertains to main characters.
How to track the trajectory of a character in a 650-page epic with a large cast? To keep me from jetting off course with a character, I’ve taken up Vladimir Nobokov’s famous quote as a motto:
“The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”
This has arguably been the thesis of “the novel” since The Odyssey. Anyone who’s read Game of Thrones is intimately aware of this plot design (George Martin throws very big rocks). But here is where writer and reader both keep tabs on the plot. With this quote in mind, we can almost graph the trajectory of our own plot. (That would be boring and stupid. Don’t do that).
My point is that a writer who doesn’t outline — which I think is a good idea for organic and inspired thoughts to flow — can easily get caught up in world, setting, atmosphere, style, any number of second tier novel-writing necessities, and lose the purposefulness. The drive.
I have and do. That’s why I worry my audience of one won’t be able to keep up. I’m concerned that I’ve laid out a labyrinth of a plot that’s actually too wild for anyone but myself to follow cleanly.
If I keep asking myself (and it’s a really fun question) “am I throwing rocks at my characters?” I can, in some ways, stay on track.
Why does this work?
Because at some point — author discretion on timing — that character is going to get hit. And when that character gets hit, he or she will either fall out of the tree or find a way to climb down to safety.
And that’s called story arc.