Courses I Teach
Gladys parked her new Super Streamer floating recliner in front of the reconstructed twenty-first century reconstruction of a 1900 store front. The full display windows and winsome partial-glassed in door welcomed her to Ye Olde Antique Shoppe, a store which ran side by side with a number of other reconstructed reconstructions of storefronts. They were all so cute, she couldn’t resist shopping ON HER OWN FEET instead of using her Easy-Shop clip on glasses with the instant delivery function. She felt she had discovered quite a unique hobby. Wouldn’t her international Creative Clam Cookery cyber club friends be jealous when she shared her replay of this adventure!
She pushed open the door and heard the tinkle of the bell announcing her entrance. All around her were racks of strange clothing items, actual glass and ceramic dishes, plus kitchen appliances she did not recognize. What was that silver item with the two slots in the top and the charmingly antiquated electrical cable coming out the back? She leaned over a black square item about a foot square with a label that read “George Foreman Classic Grill” and wondered if it was something she might hang on her wall. She could start a collection of obscure ancient appliances for this month’s wall decorations in her ninetieth story apartment. Her wall installations proved she was an artist; everyone said so. Good thing her Super Streamer came with large side pocket storage. She giggled. So many choices!
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a proprietor emerging from behind a curtain.
Mandy was everything her mother had hoped for in daughter. Mandy grew up with long blond curls and strikingly blue eyes. As a preteen, she was colt-like, long-legged and agile. The rest of her charmed life followed: Homecoming Queen, high grades earning her a scholarship to State, a four-year degree in Ecology, on to a Law Degree at a prestigious university, and marriage to her high school sweetheart, who worked hard to become Chief of Pediatrics at the University Hospital.
But this isn’t who Mandy really is. Who is she really?
Instead of assembling tricky items into a story or plot, I want you to connect a horribly predictable set of stock novel elements into a very unpredictable plot. It’s going to take a very tricky mind to avoid the easy connections and cliches!
When writing fiction, the writer is required to carve out the path forward. You have to deal with the fact that if Character X stops and looks back, it may mean that Character Y may have to shoot her or perhaps that Character Z will have to check his wallet to see if he has enough money. We sit at the forks of our plots over and over, deciding who to move where and what to have them do.
It’s even more fun when you’re not sure what the ending is going to be. Then you have to loose your arrow even though you’re in the fog and hope that somewhere out front there is a target with a well-defined bullseye on it. Given the restraints of making stories mean something and the responsibility to be credible, it happens that often the bullseye has a homing device on it, pulling your arrow in the right direction. Or not. Yes, we often have to backtrack, dig our way out of a dead end, or climb the brick wall that blocks our plot.
One of the biggest obstacles to plotting well seems to be the temptation to indulge in a cliché. For example, it’s easy to have Ariel’s husband divorce her so she can move to a small town in Arizona where handsome and artistically inclined Theo turns up to make her life full and rewarding. Or perhaps Dr. Zeno, the evil inventor, is thwarted by Josh, the crafty kid with no friends at school, but who does have special powers. Or take techno spy, retired CIA operative, Brett, who discovers the underground plot of a long hidden KGB cell that now has connections to terrorists. So easy. So predictable. Add a few plot twists and bake for two months. Voila! Predictable genre fiction.
Instead, I have found that the moment the easy cliché path pops into my head is also the time when I have the opportunity to turn the plot on its head. Ariel’s move to Arizona after her divorce includes neither a lovely new romance nor a new career. She’s going to spend all her time in the desert, fasting, and trying to find the meaning of life. Maybe Dr. Zeno is actually trying to invent a time machine to travel back to the past to visit his beloved mother who died when he was the same age as Josh. Maybe Josh’s special powers are that he has an extra strong sense of smell, which just makes him feel weirder than the other kids. Or maybe Brett, our techno spy, ends up in Arizona deciding to let the terrorists take care of themselves while he joins Ariel in the desert, fasting and searching for some other interpretation of life that doesn’t involve shooting people and keeping vital national secrets.
Or, maybe you have a better plot for our heroes Ariel, Josh, or Brett….
I don’t know about you, but it’s cold where I live, and the snow won’t be leaving for some months now. That means it’s time to dream by the fire. (No, I’m not going to ask you to describe a flame. Ack!) Life marches on, and most of us have picked our path or at least been handed one that we’ve had to follow. Even so, those dreamy flames encourage the fun of imagining all those paths we might have followed.
Let’s say you can command the forces of fate and pick a couple of other paths. What would have liked to try?
Would you have liked to be a trapeze artist named Regina Glorina? Or perhaps a world-famous environmental attorney, defending the preservation of pure water and clean air? How about an explorer who circled the globe in a boat you made in your garage?
What dreams (you are not limited to one!) lurk in your flames?
Bev sat on the metal lawn chair she kept on her front porch, bouncing a bit, idly swatting mosquitoes who were attracted to her fat arms, and considering her next snack, even though it pained her knees to pull herself to her feet. Her iced tea had gone watery, and her magazine was so boring that she nodded off.
In her dream she was young again. A yellow striped sundress blew against her shapely legs. As she walked down the sidewalk, her transistor radio played, “I Got You Babe” but for some reason Cher was out of tune and apparently traveling by at a fast clip.
Bev pried open her eyes. She thought she smelled smoke.