I don’t have the words to describe how lazy I’m feeling today, so instead of writing a post, I’m just going to copy and paste the text of an email that I just sent to a writer friend (with maybe a few elaborations)
More generally with regards to my novel-writing, I’ve been realizing that I have some systemic issues regarding the way that I plot and handle character development. Basically, in books that aspire to be more character-based, the conflict should be driven by some kind of contradiction within the protagonist. They’re torn between two impulses. And events are important less for what they mean in terms of circumstances than for how they change the character. I think this is what E.M. Forster was getting at, in Aspects of the Novel, when, in talking about George Meredith’s plots, he writes:
A Meredithian plot is not a temple to the tragic or even to the comic Muse, but rather resembles a series of kiosks most artfully placed among wooded slopes, which his people reach by their own impetus, and from which they emerge with altered aspect. Incident springs out of character, and having occurred it alters that character. People and events are closely connected, and he does it by means of these contrivances.*
But I don’t think I’ve been as good about setting up that internal conflict as I could be. Basically, I haven’t thought deeply enough about how the events of the plot affect my characters, because the events are always important in themselves: they’re the result of some scheme that’s being enacted or unraveled.
The result is that my books are often a bit too busy, but the action can sometimes feel a little bit beside-the-point. It’s possible that part of the problem I’ve been having lately with writing is that I’ve been trying to write quieter and more introspective novels, but I haven’t really had the tools to tackle them, so I inevitably default to some kind of big event or setpiece, and then I get bored and wander away because that’s not really what I want to write about.
Anyway, I’ve spent the last few days taking apart some of my favorite literary novels (Nathaniel P, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, Revolutionary Road, and Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now) to look at how they handle plotting books that are more character- and relation-based. And I think I’m starting to see how to handle these internal conflicts a bit better. And I’m also starting to put together another novel that’s going to handle these issues a bit better: it’s about a Harry Potter-style world where the Dark Lord has been defeated, but this one kid–a guy who died in the final battle between good and evil–is still wandering around the battlefield as a ghost, because he’s still kind of holding out hope that someone will come by and bring him back to life. It’s a book that I spent a lot of time trying to write earlier in the year, and I’m hoping that this new understanding of plot will be the key that will get me past the areas where I used to get stymied.
Anyways, we’ll see. We will see.
*This quote is the part that wasn’t in the letter, obviously. It would be unbearably pedantic to quote E.M. Forster in a personal email.