Thursday, July 18, 2013

Whales and Plot and Peer Review

Yesterday's class was meant to cover plot... we sort of meandered through the idea, but here's much of what happened:

First of all, a young lady from my class came up afterwards to tell me about this: A whale who, apparently due to an accident at birth, sings at a frequency (52 hertz) that others of her kind can't hear. She's been alone her whole life and growing despondent. Just thinking about this whale makes me cry, but, as this person pointed out, it's another whale fact that could potentially wrap into the my story seed.

After the great involvement of the cliché discussion I was anticipating a bit of what I call the "Bejeweled Blitz" phenomenon. The Blitz phenomenon is this: I used to play this iPad game that I could, occasionally, through a combination of practice and luck, score crazy high scores on. I'd hit one awesome one and the next one was not only never as good, but so bad it was almost embarrassing.

Class wasn't that bad.  Because I've finally gotten the students willing to just talk to me (teenagers, think about this miracle, people!), we managed to wrestle out some thoughts about plot. Plot, according to them, is what they struggle with more than anything. So, we talked some basics. I reminded them that, while people like to say so, plot is NOT "the action of the story." If that were true there'd be no such thing as a "gratuitous fight scene." Yet we've all read them.  Plot is much, much more than "the things that happen."

Plot is forward motion on theme.  That last bit is critical. Plot has to answer the story's question, the what if? Or the 'will the alien invasion/zombie apocalypse be successful?' or 'will her boss find out about the affair?' Or whatever is the pressing question that reflects the story's main theme. 

Plot isn't always big. It isn't always the wham-bam action. Sometimes it's the idea that hits our heroine while she's brushing her teeth THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING.

So, while I'm not sure I left my students with any tools to achieve that, I tried to explain that pacing and plot are so intertwined that it's almost impossible to separate them. If your pacing is off, it means your characters aren't addressing plot. Yes, they need sleep and downtime, but that doesn't mean plot isn't happening. You can create plot with the sense of the shoe ready to drop. If your readers have the plot question hanging over their heads (with worry!) and the scenes you write expand on theme, your pacing will never lag, even if, as a writer, you're sure it is.

My friend Josey I talk about this all the time, because sometimes you have to slow down a story to explain a part of world-building in order for the action to make sense. It's easy to get bogged down in details of politics, economics, etc., particularly in SF/F since often that's the part of the story that really turns the WRITER on. My sense is that the trick to including those moments without losing precious pacing/reader's patience is remembering what the reader is worried about and putting in reminders that your characters haven't forgotten either. The thing that's looming (will anyone notice that our hero has slipped out into the night... coupled with worry as a reader, since the consequences for being caught are so huge...) you can do your travel or whatever needs explaining. Especially if (and this is heavy-handed example) our hero occasionally checks the time and does a risk analysis, ie. "I can spend ten more minutes, can't I?" Because the reader, if you've laid your groundwork properly, should be shouting at the screen/page, "NO YOU CAN'T, YOU MORON, HE'S RIGHT ON YOUR HEELS!!" and thus tension, plot and pacing are created/maintained.

At least that's one theory.

The majority of the class was taken up by critique, because I'm insane... no, the thing is I truly believe in the power of peer review. It's important for the authority figure (me) to doll out praise and advice, but it's rewarding, IMHO, for the students who are critiquing to hear how their opinions might differ from the teachers and for the student being critiqued to hear patterns--because when everyone to a person says, "needs more description here," most people figure out that's a good indication that more description is needed there.

My students made me proud by being civil and communicative. I've decided that everything people say about teenagers is a lie. Or maybe nerd/geek/otaku kids are just my people, no matter what age.

1 comment:

Eleanor said...