Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Plot Threads in Grandma's Attic

To create a metaphor, fiction plot threads are like the things in grandma’s attic. They are the sought after surprise treasure, the unfulfilled dream, the neglected memory, and the meaningless clutter packed away in a close location seldom visited.
Let’s not get into a circular debate on how many plots exist nor trod again the ground of Aristotle.  Plot threads are not fully developed plots, but the idea with loose ends, the construct without the “struct.” They are the ideas scribbled on Post-it notes, in the margins of manuscripts, in the disjointed computer file, on the back of a used envelope. Once thought promising, they’ve languished in limbo. The trick upon discovery is to jog the memory to re-ignite the treat or magical journey once envisioned.
How do you evaluate?
  1. Remember your writing genre. A tidbit about Uncle Tom could fit well into a memoir, less likely to be crammed into a coming of age story if the thought highlighted his birthday party with seventy burning cake candles. If the thread drives a gruesome unhappy consequence, likely not destined for a romance with its required happy-ever-after required ending. Introspective thoughts not likely a suspense or action tale.
  2. How much setup is required? If the thought requires loads of explanation, that was probably the reason it lingered unused. Likewise, if the thought in the light of day is frilly, fluffy, and weighs less than a feather, give it a puff of air and send it on its way.
  3. Is its question banal, stupid or inane?  That should not disqualify it. There are many successful selling stories based on characters doing outlandish things. How else would there be comedy? The underlying question is not the outlandish nature, but reader believability that a person would do such a thing. How many stories are based on a misunderstanding? Several. And, what should be instantly cleared up is dragged out because a second outlandish circumstance is added, and then another, then another, until it’s hard to remember who or what started the eventual multi-car pileup.
  4. Can the idea be combined with another to give a new twist? This is not to be coy and create deception or false suspense. The reader hates deception and artificial manipulation by withholding information to keep the reader disorientated. Would your revisited thought require you to write artificially hiding relevant facts or parcel out information piece-by-piece staying true to the perspective of the protagonist? The latter definitely preferred. Great inventions came about because a thinker combined two existing familiar concepts into a third. A thought of a grandmother exhibiting at a county fair combined with a winning race car driver can morph into Formula One or stock car Grandmother using the race circuit to win money to pay for her granddaughter’s life saving operation. Envision the conflicts. A family who thinks it’s too dangerous. How does granny learn to drive? The values of yesterday that would keep women next to the stove versus becoming breadwinners. The chauvinistic racecar driver who thinks it a hoot to let Grandmother behind the wheel. Then there’s the competitor who doesn’t play fair and rigs the carburetor.
  5. Tossing out an ill-defined thought is the hardest part of evaluation. Besides wrong genre and other handicaps noted above, the best solution might be to consider the thought to be what would be classified as attic clutter. If it never had any usefulness, has become outdated, and/or now represents a fad that has run its course, get on to better ideas. Never chasing a fad is always good advice.
Should one have never begun to collect thoughts in the first place? No. While it may not be conscious, the thoughts can generate new growth in your mind, become the bridge to better and more complete ideas, and/or fertilize existing thoughts. Memory experts say that human beings remember things better if engaged by more than one sense. Thinking is one sense. Writing down a thought another. Speaking it out loud is a third. Reading it at a later date is a fourth.  Utilize the practice every day. Then on that one rainy day when the outside world doesn’t attract, rummage through the figurative Grandma’s attic. Who’s to say you didn’t pack away on a scrap the Pulitzer Prize winning idea?
 For murder/mystery not in Grandma's attic visit A Body To Bones

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