“That’s the problem with all you readers. You know all the plots.”
That line jumped out of SUNSET BOULEVARD the other night. William Holden is speaking to a studio reader, a young woman who earns a living by reading books and scenarios for possible adaptation. But it gave me an idea for today’s entry, which is about plotting and recreational readers.
If anything can be learned, it’s plot. First of all, you already know more about plot than you realize. As a reader and a movie-goer and a television watcher, you have absorbed a lot of information about plot. Ask yourself this: How often does a book or film truly, truly, truly surprise you? How often do you not know how something is going to end? Oh, you might not know the particulars, especially if you’re reading a twisty guy like Harlan Coben or Jeffrey Deaver. But you know where things are headed. You know who’s going to get together at the end of the romantic comedy, who’s going to survive in the thriller. You know when a story has failed you, you can spot plot holes. You know when you can forgive plot holes. (GODFATHER PART II, I’m looking at you.) You know when you can’t. (DALLAS, Bobby in the shower.)
You really do know how to put a story together and if you don’t, you can always do what Harry Crews did with Graham Greene, according to the Francine Prose book, READING LIKE A WRITER. Just take apart a book you admire. Take it apart like children once took apart watches. There’s no risk. You can’t break the book, you won’t leave it in pieces.
And once you do all that, once you persuade yourself that plotting can be learned, that the crime genre, in particular, is about taking simple stories and making them complicated — know this: Your readers know all the stories, too. If you’re a writer, you are read by people who have more time to read than you do. They read more and probably more widely.
This information should be liberating. It freed me. Once I realized that there would always be readers who could suss out key elements of a story (assuming the writer plays fair), I started writing for that person. If you’re the kind of person who likes to figure out the end of a crime story, then I think: Okay, how do I keep you in the text once you’ve got it figured out?
My solution? I withhold the “why” of things. I try to create characters interesting enough so that the reader cares what happens when the characters finally realize what’s going on. And, within my feeble limits, I try to make the prose rewarding.
But, generally, I head into every novel, repeating this mantra, which I first heard Dennis Lehane utter ten years ago: “Chinatown is a very simple story”
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“if you know that Evelyn Mulwray was raped by her father and had his child.”
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Someone close to me, a voracious reader and a very smart guy, admitted to me recently that he has the plot for a novel, but he can’t find the characters. Another writer, hearing that confession, said to me later that it was gratifying that this smart guy realized what we do isn’t that easy.
Where do characters come from? I guess we’ll have that discussion tomorrow. Given that this is sort of like discussing where babies come from, be sure to bring your parental permission slips.