Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Little Something On The Side

Donis writing today. I learn a lot from the funnies page in the newspaper. I’m a puzzle aficionado, and start every day by reading the paper front to back, and then working all the puzzles. This is not quite the time consuming activity it used to be a few years ago, when the daily paper actually had news in it. But at least the puzzles get my brain revved up for the day. One of my favorite puzzles is the Jumble, which consists of an anagram of a quotation from a well-known person. Not long ago I deciphered a quotation by Truman Capote which, as a writer, I found quite insightful. It is as follows:

Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music.

Perspective is a sense of depth. It is a way to show things in their true relationship to one another, a way to make them seem real.

The characters who people a novel are what the majority of readers care about the most. Action and suspense and an intricate plot are all fantastic, but if we aren’t invested in the characters, we don’t much care if they get it all worked out, or if they escape the danger, or figure out who did the deed. And if the author can create a series with true and appealing characters, then the reader will want to read the next installment, and the next.

So, your characters are involved in the intricacies of the plot. The sleuth has to find out who committed the crime, or who is chasing him, and why. The red herrings have to prove they didn’t do it. The killer has to throw the hunters off his trail. But if the characters only exist to serve the plot, so what? If instead, the plot exists to reveal the characters ... now you’re talking.

What does this have to do with perspective, you ask? Well, have a seat, for I’m about to tell you.

A side story exists in a novel for the sole purpose of adding depth. It’s through a side story that the reader discovers why the sleuth is like she is. Why is she so obsessive about unravelling this particular crime, even though she’s been removed from the case, or fired by the client, or threatened with death if she perseveres? Could it be because the victim so reminds her of her own mother, who also was a battered woman? We find this out not because the author simply tells us, but because the sleuth goes home after a long day of detecting, and her mother is there, fixing dinner. We discover through successive scenes, actions and conversations, that her mother is physically and psychologically damaged from years of abuse. Perhaps she’s agoraphobic. Perhaps she finally shot her abuser and spent time in prison. Perhaps the sleuth was ten years old when this all happened, and to this day is riddled with guilt that she was not able to help her mother at the time.

None of this has to do with the major plot line, which concerns the discovery in an alley of a murdered woman whose body shows signs of years of trauma. Was she perhaps a professional show-jump rider, or a downhill skier? A roller derby skater? Or maybe she was a battered woman. Our sleuth cannot help her now, just as she couldn’t help her mother. But perhaps she can show the poor woman justice.*

The side story has given the sleuth a life apart from her job. Now the reader knows her as a person, and, we hope, cares about her and is rooting for her to succeed.


*The above scenario is not taken from any actual story, so don't go hunting for it. I made it up.


Irene Bennett Brown said...

Donis, you are one heck of a maker-upper! I'd order that novel in a heartbeat -- if it did exist.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I was about to ask what novel it was too. You had me with the mother with agoraphobia.

Donis Casey said...

Hmm! Maybe I'd better ponder this long and hard. I may have a standalone in the making.

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