This one paragraph transformed my fiction writing

Part Three of series

What is "character-first" writing? A mini-series

Part One: An Invisible Problem All Writers Face

Part Two: Why Structure Didn't Help

Part Three: The Power of the Two Plots

Part Four: The Power of a Victorian Narrator

Earlier in this series, I told you about a recurring problem I found in a lot of writers' fiction: the problem of readers not "getting" their stories. 

In other words: successful, famous novels create this vivid experience where we just seem to feel the plot developing page by page; we feel connected to the events faced by the characters. However, those of us who are trying to get better as writers frequently discover that re-creating this effect in our own work is harder than it seems. Our readers, strangely, often seem to miss clues, or they find our characters opaque, or they fail to be wowed by our plot twists. It's frustrating! 

Here is part three of the series -- the first piece of the solution. Maybe today's instalment will seem a bit abstract, a bit unexpected. 

What's even worse: I appear to have a certain amount of false memory attached to this moment. I had this epiphany during my PhD while reading a scholarly study of narrative, Reading for the Plot, by Peter Brooks. In my memory, Brooks wrote a single paragraph -- talking about Charles Dickens's Great Expectations -- which contained all the insights I am about to share, but now, when I go back to the book, I can't actually find that paragraph -- instead, the key lines are scattered through the chapter.

(This is my explanation of the false memory part: during a PhD, you get so used to reading, reading, reading -- and often reading highly dense, challenging work -- that your brain develops this outlandish ability to process complex stuff. This abnormal capacity, which has since subsided in me, seems to have woven together a long winding argument from Brooks and stored it in my head as a single statement.)

All right: here we go. I'm going to walk you through an idea that I find incredibly fascinating.

In the chapter, Brooks was making a point about the famous "recognition" scene in Great Expectations. This is the moment where Pip, the protagonist, finally figures out what is really going on. It comes late in the novel, when all the plot threads connect, and a number of elements in the story that had seemed random or just plain weird suddenly line up and become a coherent explanation of what Pip's life is really about. The moment is horrifying for Pip.

To put it simply, without giving too many spoilers: Pip has all along believed that he has "great expectations" because a strange rich woman near his home, Miss Havisham, has essentially made him her heir (he is unclear about the specifics and has been advised not to ask for details). He also believes that this deal might well include marriage to Estella, her adopted daughter, whom he is obsessed with. During the novel, Pip undertakes all kinds of education and training to try to become worthy of these great expectations, mostly becoming very miserable as a result.

The reader, however, has noted all kinds of strange moments in the novel that seem not to fit this simple storyline. There is Pip's encounter with the escaped convict, Magwitch, in the opening pages; Miss Havisham and Estella are both eerie, discomforting figures, ill-suited to a pleasant tale of rags to riches; Pip seems to see ghosts on his visit to their house; later, a succession of odd, threatening figures appear in his life with no clear explanation. 

In Brooks's language, there is just too much plot stuff in Great Expectations for the reader to really believe in Pip's version of his own story. Excess elements keep popping up. So, at last, when a figure from Pip's past returns, and reveals what is really going on -- no, Miss Havisham is not his beneficiary -- the reader feels a sense of relief, of clarity. Suddenly all those peculiar parts of the novel fall into place.

Brooks describes this plot twist as a collision between the "official" plot of Great Expectations and the "repressed" plot. In the official plot, Pip is meant to rise up in society and inherit Miss Havisham's wealth (and maybe also her daughter). Yes, he is surrounded by a strange cast of troubling, wounded, and sometimes grotesque figures. But he tells himself to ignore those warning signs. What he doesn't understand is that the repressed plot -- the truth about where his money is coming from and the explanation of how all these odd people know each other -- has been running alongside the "official" plot this whole time, appearing as hints and implications, just under the surface of hundreds of pages of drama, setting, and narration.

The moment where Magwitch, the convict from chapter one, returns to the story is the moment where the repressed plot steps into the light, and the official plot fades away.

The power of two plots

This description of Great Expectations changed everything for me. It was not, by itself, a solution to the problem I had identified at the start of this series -- more components would be needed for that. However, I now had much a deeper picture of plot in general. A novel like Great Expectations could have one protagonist, one storyline, but two plots: the protagonist's plot and the "real" plot. 

As a novel's reader, we start off inhabiting the protagonist's plot: they tell us what is going on and they share what they believe is important. But evidence and hints pile up that something more is going on. Slowly we discover, alongside the protagonist, what is really going on.

Therefore: what people like to call "foreshadowing" might not just be a writer giving out random sly clues about what is coming next, but rather it could be glimpses of the real plot -- before the protagonist is ready to accept that wider reality. 

Quickly: let me put this another way. Imagine you are riding a train. There is another track running close beside the one your train is on. You can see it, but you pay it no attention: after all, you have a destination in mind and the clock is ticking. At a certain point, you look again and notice that this other track has grown closer -- or you look ahead and see a coming junction, an intersection point. But you tell yourself not to worry: you know where you are heading. HOWEVER, at the junction, suddenly your train switches to the other track. What?? You are left staring at the route you thought you were on -- as it falls away, irrevocably. The worst part? The train was always headed in this other route -- the real route -- you just didn't know it.

This is what it's like to be a protagonist in a novel at the moment of a plot twist.

Okay. I'm going to stop here -- this email is already pretty long. 

Should I explain more about this idea of the two plots -- or does it already make sense? Should I add more details? Do you have questions about anything?

Or are we ready to go on to the next ingredient?



PS If you want to see a brilliant example of this story structure in a shorter form than Great Expectations, take a look at this story by Bernard Malamud, "The Magic Barrel." See how the two plots cross over at the very moment where the protagonist remarks, "...I came to God not because I love Him, but because I did not."

At that moment, the story switches from being about one goal -- getting a job -- to a very different goal...