Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Mysteries of Pacing Part 3 - Punctuated by Plot Twists

Mysteries of Pacing
Part 3
Punctuated by Plot Twists

Previous parts in the Mysteries of Pacing series:

Part 1

Part 2

We're going to talk a little about Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER series,

as I assume you've all read the novels. If not, you've seen the TV Series.  I prefer the TV Series, but the entire story hits a nerve.  So think about what it takes to create a series like Outlander, and how to turn it from Fantasy Romance to Science Fiction Romance -- or maybe use it to found a new genre.

When first drafting, often pacing is the last thing you think about.  First you just need to TELL THE STORY.  You need to "get it out" so you can look at it and see if it is marketable anywhere.  Before you know who would want to read this story, you need to know what the story is.

To get a grip on what the story is, you might have to write it all, or just a scene or maybe just a character sketch, a bit of dialogue in a bar weeping over drinks and telling the bar tender the tale of woe.

But that isn't where the NOVEL starts.

The novel that can sell to a specific imprint starts where the two forces that will conflict to generate the plot (the because-line; the "what happens next" ) first crash into each other and divert the life-paths of your protagonists -- and best of all, divert the life-path of the antagonist.

In other words, the novel BEGINS (and choosing a Beginning is the determining factor in the PACING) where the Plot kicks off the Story.

In these blogs, I stick to the following definitive difference between the terms Plot and Story.

Plot = External Conflict Resolved by sequence of deeds causing events which motivate deeds; the because line of what happens next

Story = Internal Conflict Resolved by the effect the events have on the Characters changing understanding of how the world works, and the emotional import of shifts in understanding

Plot and Story conflicts should RESOLVE in the same Plot Event.

In the opening, the plot kicks off the story, and in the ending the story absorbs the impact of that kick.

In the Ending of a novel, the "world" of the protagonists has changed for them, their perception of it, and the world's perception of them.

Conflict is the essence of story - and story is the essence of change.

Readers are captivated by what happens between the kick and the integration of that impact into lives.

In other words, the essence of real life is "How do you roll with the punches?"

People read to find out how other people deal with problems.

Watching real people, you only see the outside, and you can only interpret that outside by your own inside assumptions about reality.

Reading good novels gives you the chance to use an alien set of assumptions about reality to interpret Events, try different responses, and arrive at different destinations.

So to frame a novel to write, first find a kick, a punch that is common enough to be recognizable as a punch, yet at the same time different enough to be interesting.

That punch is the kick off of your plot.

The next pacing problem to tackle is "who" gets kicked.

"Who" the protagonist is determines the assumptions in place that the kick must call into question.  It's always the protagonist who gets kicked and the antagonist who does the kicking, but the novel always opens on the protagonist's action which triggers the kick.

In fact, that is the definition of "protagonist" or Main Character, or Hero.  The active force that aims and energizes the trajectory of the plot is the protagonist.

The reactive force that is driven by the protagonist's action is the antagonist (or obstacle which the main character must overcome to achieve a goal).

This setup of protagonist as "active" and antagonist as "passive" is the only one that leads, plausibly and inevitably, to a genuine HEA not an HFN, or happily for now.

Correctly identifying the protagonist (Hero we root for), the antagonist (Villain we root against) and the moment in their lives where they first clash, is the bit of world building that fabricates a reality in which an HEA is plausible and even inevitable.

In everyday reality, most people can't see their own lives from a perspective which allows for identification of the forces at work, shaping their lives by their own actions.  Real life is a stew of cross-currents and muddy waters, along with what seem like random events and overwhelming odds.  We look to fiction to clarify the muddy waters.

The Artist's job is to see life from a perspective that does reveal the forces and counter-forces that shape personal life, group life, and even the lives of Nations.  But seeing is not enough.  Writing is a Performing Art, as Alma Hill taught me.  The Artist's job is to see, and the Artist's job is not done until that Vision is transmitted.

The novelist paints in emotional colors.

But the Characters feelings are responses to the plot-kicks predicated on the Characters ideas of how the world works.

Story is the step-by-step change in the Characters understanding of how their world works.

Plot is the step-by-step response of the world to the Characters actions.

Mostly, humans (maybe not your Aliens) fuel their actions with emotion.

I've worked with many other professional writers and editors team teaching new writers who want to go professional, and every one of the professionals has had, and applied, this distinction between plot and story.  However, very seldom do such professionals agree on terminology.  Most have learned, or figured out, the distinction I've sketched here on their own, and invented their own terminology.

The terminology doesn't matter.  The underlying concepts do matter.

The core of PACING lies in the interaction between plot and story.

For example, if Characters too fast, too completely, without internal conflict wrestling with emotional matters, the reader will feel as if they are reading a Comic Book (not a graphic novel).  If a Character faces an Event that contradicts their entrenched world view, and just summarily (within minutes) adopts a different world view and suffers no consequence to the emotional-violence, no adult reader will believe that Character is a person.

As humans, we wrestle internally, resist to the death, and suffer (and inflict) pain to avoid changing our minds.

Faced with the impossible, we just don't see it, don't incorporate it into our next action.

In other words, in everyday reality, we dismiss anything that doesn't fit our entrenched world view.

Novels are about a Character who completes the process of changing an entrenched world view from first kick of Reality to final adoption of a new way of seeing the same thing.

In other words, beginning and ending are symmetric, and that symmetry is part of the Artist's toolkit for convincing the skeptical reader that these Characters have achieved the Happily Ever After, not just Happily For Now.

Misery, in fictional characters and real people, is caused by a mismatch between Objective Reality and Subjective Reality.

No human (that we know of) has a Subjective Reality identical to Objective Reality.  But each life-arc, if lived out to the full, has at least one, sometimes two, hard course corrections (kicks from an external source) that bring Subjective Reality perceptibly closer to Objective Reality.

We "live" in subjective reality, and so the philosophy that states there is no such thing as objective reality is very popular.  Objective just doesn't exist for most people.

Several times in ordinary life, we get kicked by objective reality, come face to face with the facts of life, and must change our subjective assumptions.

Story is about the successive steps in that shifting subjectivity that leads closer to objective reality (HEA) or farther from objective reality (HFN).

The Happily For Now ending implies another kick is gathering force to explode into this halcyon situation.

Happiness is not real.

For happiness to be real, there must be an element of certainty, of unchanging stability, of concrete reality.  That sense of rest on certainty comes from the AHA! moment when subjective reality shifts closer to objective reality.  That moment of SHIFT is the ENDING of that Character's story.

Whether that Character is the Hero of a single novel or a series of novels depends on how many steps the Character needs to transform from where she was at the Beginning to where she needs to be for the HEA Ending.

Sometimes, it takes ten novels to bring a Character to a new understanding.

It is possible to take too many tiny steps for a given audience, or too few large steps for a different audience.

In other words, how many steps and how large they are, as the protagonist adjusts his/her subjective reality to match objective reality, is entirely genre specific.

In Science Fiction, readers who are themselves professional scientists, tend to encounter an aberrant factoid, ask questions, fabricate experiments, observe results, try to get others to repeat the experiment with the same results, then just -- "Oh, well," accept the result and change their view.

So, to the science fiction readership, Romance genre does not seem plausible because the main characters don't accept proven results.

As Romance Characters suffer internal doubts and wring their hands, science fiction readers scoff and toss the book aside.

Plausibility, immersiveness, is a result of pacing.

How long does it take, how many steps, what size steps, does it take to get the Character to change perceived reality and act on the new perception.

In Romance, that's the final, "I love you," declaration in the Will You Marry Me ending.  What does it take to convince a Character of love?

In Alien Romance, what if your Alien has no cultural reference for Love, and no concept to which to relate "I love you?"  How does a human woman teach an Alien to understand reality as containing the dimension "love?"

Very likely, the answer is the human woman doesn't teach the Alien.  The Plot Twist does the teaching.

A plot twist is the sudden unexpected, highly improbable, Event that redirects the plot toward a new goal, or strategy.  The "that changes everything" event.  Such as, two lovers are marching into city hall to get married, and suddenly the radios are blaring WAR HAS BEEN DECLARED - and World War Two twists their lives into new directions.

A plot twist is sudden, shocking, immensely significant, and changes the reader's vision of what the ending will be.

A plot twist is not a new problem, an obstacle, detour, side-trip, or delay in the plot's development.  A plot twist is objective reality intruding into the subjective realities of the protagonists and becoming a major factor in decision making.

For example, as above, War is declared, or a key Character is assassinated, or a secret diary is discovered, or a long-lost family member turns up (an alternative heir, a dependent, or someone needing rescuing).  An expected pregnancy can become a plot twist.

A plot twist must hit the reader as a complete shock yet once it appears, the reader thinks, "I should have seen that coming."

So a good plot twist has to be foreshadowed, but never telegraphed.

When a plot twists, it must redirect the story.

The Characters have to draw upon their inner resources to meet the sudden new demand.  They must "do the right thing" (and bid a brave goodbye while marching off to war; give the family fortune to the new stranger-relative; have the baby anyhow).

To be a good plot twist, the event must pressure the Characters to adopt a new world view, to include something in their subjective reality that they previously rejected.

In modern Fantasy, that's often shapeshifters, demons, fae, or other supernatural beings.

In science fiction, it's often First Contact with an Alien from another solar system, or perhaps another dimension.

The foreshadowing that works best is built into the world that showcases the Characters.  A plot twist is usually what the Characters least expect, and have proceeded to plan and act as if it so unthinkable it was never thought of.

For example, in The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, the ghost haunting the house is not part of the Reality until he appears.  And then the whole plot twists to become about their Relationship.

Where in the plot your twist should appear depends on the audience you are aiming for.

If you're writing action oriented science fiction, the plot twist will likely be the mid-point of the novel.  This would be a discovery, or knowledge of a distant event arriving, right where the plot sags, where the characters pause to catch their breath and think things over, and causing the Characters to ditch their carefully crafted plans and race against time to the Ending.

The plot twist can, at the mid-point of a novel, serve as a "raise the stakes" moment, when more lives are suddenly at risk.

To craft an HEA ending, you need to craft a mid-point where all is lost, where the Characters decide to give up, if not in despair then in noble sacrifice.  But the Twist whirls them into a totally new calculation, they can't give up, must survive to save more lives.  At the 3/4 point, they're beaten, and at the end they triumph.

Plot twists can also be effective at the 3/4 point where decisions have been made and a point of no return passed.

Plot twists don't work well at the Ending, though, because either the reader sees it coming for too long, or to prevent that, you've left out the foreshadowing and the external event seems contrived, deus ex machina.

Wherever you place your plot twist, it is a vital part of the pacing.  After the twist, the Characters must redouble their efforts to achieve the goal.  That means the opposition, the antagonist redoubles efforts, too.

This increased effort increasing the pacing - makes the story go faster, makes the reader read faster.

Description and exposition slow pacing, so all the visuals of the settings you want to use and all the explanations of what is going on and why have to be sprinkled as tiny pieces into the narrative before the twist.

The plot twist has to reveal something about their reality that the Characters could not or would not encompass before this event.

The concept of Soul Mates presupposes the objective reality of the Soul.

Fate, Luck, Destiny, -- "we were destined to be together"  -- presupposes an objective property of Reality that interacts with, perhaps overrides, the Soul and individual will or free choice.

Luck, sourceless and random, without meaning, is often used as a Plot Twist.  For example, OUTLANDER, the Scottish historical romance by Diana Gabaldon, starts as World War ends allowing sundered marriages to rejoin. Claire's experiences have made her a different woman, and her man likewise has changed.  By accident, she touches a standing stone in the Highlands, and is wafted back in time a couple of centuries when the ancestor of her husband is an evil villain.

In a science fiction romance, the entire plot would be all about figuring out how that stone does time-travel, gaining control of the mechanism, and returning to her own time, very possibly as a twist, bringing her Scottish Laird husband with her.  The focus would not be on a modern woman's irritable response to being treated as chattel.  The focus would be on the physics driving the mechanism of time travel, while the romance would be a knotty complication.

The natural plot twist to a science plot about time travel would be the sudden, irrefutable discovery that the superstitious drivel spouted by the natives living near the standing stones had an actual basis in cold reality.

For example, the locals think there's a sprite, or pagan gods, or some entity playing havoc around those stones -- but Claire the Scientist from the future does an experiment to determine if that's true (maybe to bribe the sprite into returning her) and discovers that it is in fact an Archangel sent by the Creator of the Universe specifically to inculcate a Soul level lesson in her.  As she has resisted so successfully, the Archangel resorted to time travel to teach this lesson.

The Twist would be the introduction of real supernatural creatures to this Outlander world building.  As written, the supernatural is just religion, things people believe.  And that is underscored by the children's adventures visiting a ruin and eating a plant that appears to be the benign native plant, but is in fact an interloper, and poisonous.  In that adventure, Claire uses science to see through the illusion of superstition.

This establishes that in that world, the supernatural is not part of objective reality, but it is part of subjective reality.

This is the raw material of the Plot Twist.  The firm belief in the supernatural that is only subjective suddenly gains objective manifestation, proof positive.

In this case, the supernatural the locals believe in is what we call superstition, fairies.  But they also believe in the Christian God, in the Bible, and won't allow any challenges to that belief.

In Outlander, the series, the priest tries to exorcise the child who poisoned himself, thinking the poison is a possession acquired at the ruins.  Nobody dares challenge that priest.  Later, after Claire cures the poison, the priest apologizes publicly at her trial for being a witch, saying she was correct that the problem was no possession.  But he doesn't say possession is not a real thing.

In that world, Christianity and Superstition are inextricably mixed.

A plot twist can separate them, put a whole new frame around the concept of time-travel-via-standing-stone, and give your readers a new idea of what life and love are about.

To pull this kind of twist off, you need to establish the real elements of your world as you build it for the reader.  Gabaldon used "love" and "magic" to get readers to suspend disbelief long enough to plunge Claire into Scottish politics.

The opening sequences with her modern husband serve to answer the question "how did she, a nurse, know all this Scottish history and lore?"  In the course of showing, not telling, where she learned all she knows, we learn a lot about who she is.

Actually, a woman born about 1918 would not have had the spunky attitude toward her new Scottish husband when he whipped her bare bottom for disobeying him.  Men beating their wives into submission was common even in the USA at that time, even the women who won the war as nurses, pilots, riveters.  In the Appalachians, it has persisted as a common habit.

So Claire's 21st Century attitude in ancient Scotland just doesn't "work" dramatically.  It is too implausible.

What would make it plausible?

The introduction, by plot twist, of an Archangel sent by the Creator of the Universe to administer a soul-level-lesson to Claire.

Why would such an Archangel be sent?  Well, we've seen enough of Claire's personality that we could easily imagine that, had such an Angel been sent to teach her to be more compliant to her husband (maybe not to become a front lines trauma nurse?) but failed, and instead she acquired 21st Century attitudes (Angels don't fail like that, so we know there's more going on than meets the eye), the Archangel in charge that failed Angel would have to take a hand in schooling Claire.

Well, to pull off such a plot twist (the time-travel-stone is not magic, and not Alien science, but an Act of G-d), we need a Theory of Angelic Hosts Organization and Structure.

There are many extant, from all kinds of Christian, Pagan, and Jewish sources, and I expect the Muslim sources abound with great source material.  You can construct a plot twist using any of them, or one you make up.

If you make up a whole new theory of Angelic Hosts that you want readers to have the patience to pretend has credibility, you'd do best by learning a few of the theories people do know, or believe.

The Bible is full of source material for three major religions, so it is a good springboard for world building the majority of readers world-wide could understand.

Here is a short article on Archangels.


Note that, unlike people, angels cannot multitask. That’s why G‑d had to send three separate angels to visit Abraham—each one was tasked with a separate mission: one to bring Abraham the news of Isaac’s impending birth, one to overturn Sodom, and one to heal Abraham.2

And although people can have multiple modes of serving G‑d—love, awe, etc.—when it comes to angels, each one has its own specific form of Divine service that does not change.

Michael and Gabriel: Fire and Water
In the Midrash, Michael is called the “prince of kindness (chessed) and water” and Gabriel “the prince of severity (gevurah) and fire.3” Thus, Angel Michael is dispatched on missions that are expressions of G‑d's kindness, and Gabriel on those that are expressions of G‑d's severity and judgment.

However, as we explained earlier, angels don’t multitask. Therefore, although Michael may be the chief angel or “prince” of chessed, he has many underlings, angels that work under him and represent a service of chessed.

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So maybe the Angel who failed to impart the exact lesson to Claire worked for Michael, so it was up to Michael to repair the damage.

So maybe Michael's plan was to waft Claire back in time to meet a prior incarnation of her husband, and by comparison learn just how VAST a change can be wrought over a few lifetimes - from cruelty to gentleman.  She needs to make a Soul  level shift of that magnitude.  She is his Soul Mate, and needs to stay in step with him.

Or possibly, this novel would be about how Claire impacts the Soul of this prior-incarnation of her husband, and turns him into the gentleman he is in the 20th Century.

But of course Claire, being Claire, goes and marries the Fraser Laird.

Angels, even Archangels, it says in that article are not terribly flexible.

What would Michael do?

That deed is your Plot Twist - it would reveal the objective reality of Angel-kind to humankind, and thus upset the course of History.

Or would it?

Scots are famous for knowing things others around this planet don't know.

In other words, the Plot Twist is how the science behind the time-travel-stone is actually mysticism, or Soul Science - the science of the immortal soul.

The series would trace the journeys of several Souls through incarnations, shepherded by the extremely frustrated Archangel.

Using Angels as Characters is not new. It's been done often on TV, sometimes well.  So you need a new theory of what an Angel is, and how they become involved in individual Soul development.

You need a scientific theory of what a Soul is, and how (or if) it changes, reincarnates, etc.  You need a theory of what an Angel is, what an Archangel is, and what the limitations might be.

In addition to that bit of world building, you need a theory of what a human being is.  We make so many assumptions, thinking we know what we are. Do we?

And in addition to all that, you need a theory about what Life is, whether Destiny, Fate, etc is real, and whether free will is real or in any way free.

Gathering all those pieces, you can drop your Characters into the mix and let them discover what you have determined is objective reality.

Here is an item that meshes perfectly with the article on What Is An Archangel, called "What Is Divine Providence."  The Hebrew term for divine providence or supervision of this world is Hashgacha, and hashgacha pratit means the very personal and individualized involvement of the Divine in our individual lives.  Hashgacha implies a two-way interaction between Creator and Creation -- e.g. you can argue with your Creator and sometimes add a plot twist to your life's path.


This article barely scratches the surface, but does outline the argument (conflict) between whether the Creator leaves the creation to run like a machine, or keeps molding and re-designing as we go along.


Jewish philosophers, however, saw G‑d in a more passive role. To them, the degree of divine supervision corresponds directly to one’s transcendence of earthly matters. A tzaddik is wrapped up in G‑d’s supervision in every detail of his life, whereas a coarse, materialistic person is cast into a world of haphazard, natural causes along with animals and flora. In this lower realm, the philosophers see hashgacha applying only insofar as an event affects the divine plan. Yet, even according to this view, “chance circumstance has its source in Him, for everything stems from Him and is controlled by His supervision.”4

The Baal Shem Tov is credited with the reintroduction of the idea of hashgacha pratit—detailed divine supervision of every occurrence and every creature. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, one of the foremost early proponents of chassidic thought, articulated a rational basis for this view, linking hashgacha to another vital theme in Jewish thought, continuous creation.

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Other traditions put their own subjective twist on these ideas.

Think about the Time Travel By Love And Magic concept, and see if you can find a mechanism for Time Travel that would make a basis for Science Fiction Romance.  The plot would have to be driven by probing, exploring and conquering the mechanism of time travel, even if that means making friends with a frustrated Archangel whose purpose for existence is to be kind.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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