Plotted genre fiction follows certain conventions. If you don’t understand the conventions, you’ll flounder around and get nowhere, or at best produce novels that nobody but your friends will want to read.
While working on my first novel, an aphorism that I found useful was, “Put your hero’s ass in a meat grinder — and then keep turning the crank.” I don’t know if I read that somewhere, or if I made it up. Looking back 40+ years later, I know Walk the Moons Road wasn’t a very good novel, but Del Rey bought it and published it, so I guess I was doing something right.
Lately I’ve been thinking about plot in terms of The Trap. It’s when the jaws of the trap snap shut that I know I have a story I want to write. The trap is when the hero absolutely has to do something that is absolutely impossible. If the hero can just shrug and walk away, it’s not a trap. If it’s easy to get out of the trap, the story is trivial. A big iron bear trap is what a book needs.
The jaws of the trap don’t have to snap shut on page 1. In my most recent novel, Woven of Death and Starlight, the trap snaps shut on my young heroine in chapter 6. There’s a hook in chapter 1, for sure, because chapter 1 is a flash-forward, but it’s the dilemma that she is plunged into in chapter 6 that inspired the book. That dilemma, that impossible situation, was what convinced me I had to write the story.
The nature of the trap depends on the genre, of course. If you’re writing a romantic comedy, the trap may be that Betty loves Dave but Dave is married to Sue. That’s a gentle trap, but it qualifies. Fortunately for you all, I don’t write rom-com.
What inspired me to write While Caesar Sang of Hercules was the murder in the opening scene. It ended up in chapter 2, because I had to do a build-up, but I knew I had to write about it. The real trap snaps shut on a different character, and it kind of builds up over the course of a few chapters. The hero is a young man who is a slave. He’s in love with the heroine (she’s in the opening scene), but he knows his love for her is hopeless because she’s well-born and he’s a slave. And then she’s accused of murder — and swiftly convicted. He sets out to find the real murderer, even though he knows he’s risking horrible penalties (being flogged would be less awful than some of the other things that could happen) and has nothing at all to gain. And then things get complicated….
In The Wall at the Edge of the World, the trap snaps shut on Danlo before the first chapter. He’s in an impossible situation emotionally, living in a sort of nightmare utopia, and he knows there’s nothing he can possibly do to change it. But then he learns that maybe he can change the world he lives in, maybe just a tiny bit, and it’s still impossible, but he knows he has to try. That one got bought and published too (by Ace), and I’ve reissued it in a handsome new paperback, with a new cover but without changing more than half a dozen words.
Right now I’m developing a plot for the prequel of my Leafstone epic. Or trying to. And I don’t know what the trap is. The main exterior events in the story are pretty much fixed, and that’s a problem for the author. Two powerful cities are going to have a war (with lots of magic), and they’re going to destroy one another. One of the rulers of Garath is going to escape the devastation, and he’s going to be carrying two vital magical artifacts. This has to happen, because his great-great grandson is an important character in the main epic, and has one of the artifacts, and is questing for the other. But where’s the trap in the prequel? I have to find the trap.
I started thinking about this while reading Jennie Nash’s how-to-write book Blueprint for a Book. Her first step is the question, “Why write this book?” The only answer I know is, “Because the jaws of the trap have snapped shut.” The hero is in a dire situation that absolutely demands resolution. But when the exterior events are fixed — and fixed, what’s more, in a way that means the hero has failed to save his beloved city — the trap may have to be something internal to his character and his emotional predicament. He’s running away! Thousands of his loyal followers are dying horribly, and he’s running away! How can this possibly work within the conventions of plotted fiction?
It’s a tough nut to crack. But as I used to tell my cello students, “If it was easy, everybody would do it.” In the case of self-published fiction, of course, everybody is doing it, most of them badly, but that’s a topic I’ve already ground into the dirt. No need to dwell on it now.
Why write this book? Not just because it’s the prequel. It will be the first book in the series, and it has to stand on its own two legs. If the author is telling readers, implicitly, “Keep reading — the cool stuff starts 400 pages later,” that’s a fail.