You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Two nights ago, I stared at my outline and thought to myself, “That is going to be the most boring chapter ever written.”

I’ve been looking askance at my outline more than usual on this novel, The Queen’s Tower, because I didn’t have time before NaNoWriMo began to indulge in the Extreme Outlining we typically do.  Now, I know a lot of WriMos who think we’re crazy for the amount of outlining we do, and some of them who have seen my current outline find it, oh, about a million times more detailed than anything they have ever done.  “Just write,” is the advice I hear so often, but I can’t write without a plan.  (Really, I can’t.  I once tried my hand at a short story and discovered I couldn’t manage 2,200 words without at least bullet points.)

So, to return to two nights ago, I glared at my outline, and it stuck its tongue out at me, as it were.  I mentioned to J that next on my agenda was the most boring chapter ever, and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to writing it.  He asked what I had in my outline, and I described it as a presentation of the suspects.  He then asked exactly how many characters and if the reader already knew them.  I assured him that even if the reader had not seen some of these people before, plenty had been written about all of them.  In other words, I wasn’t introducing seven new characters to the reader in one chapter, I was showing the POV character’s reaction to seven characters the reader was familiar with.

This is the point at which, bless him, J pointed me down the path of reduced boredom.  If what matters in the scene is the POV character’s reaction, then make that reaction as interesting as possible.  How does one do that, you might ask?  With the Diana Botsford Scene Gap.

At the end of September, J and I went to Context, and while there, we attended a workshop with Diana Botsford about plotting.  One of the many useful handouts she gave us was the Gap Chart.  It helps a writer plan what might happen to a character in a given scene and how what does occur moves the plot.  J and I frequently boil it down to just two questions: What does the character expect? and What actually happens?  As we learned at the workshop, the gap between expectation and reality is where the drama lives and where the plot can be propelled forward.

As I mentioned above, the POV character had thought about most of these suspects before the Chapter of Greatest Boredom, but she had not actually met all of them.  If there was ever a time for a scene to not live up to your character’s expectations, this seemed to be it.  So J and I went through each and every suspect, figuring out what the POV character expected and how reality subverted that expectation.  Yesterday, I wrote the chapter, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s not boring at all, even if I am the one saying it.

You often hear talk about subverting audience expectations, but that discussion usually revolves around freshening up an old trope or turning a stereotype on its head.  But subverting the expectations of your characters, I’ve found, can be its own subtle tool.  And it’s one I’m going to keep close at hand.



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