ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in words or edit them out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is to diagnose troubled areas in your own work. Writing Diagnostic is a monthly post where I explore weak points in a specific work and suggest solutions to strengthen the story as a whole.
Writing Diagnostic #3: let’s explore how three plotting rules can strength the story in Late Eclipses.
Genre Fiction’s best strength is its searingly swift and twisty plot. We start with a protagonist we love and now we want to follow them on an exciting journey, where having fun and beating the villain is more important than what our hero learns. Because it’s all about plot when there are flaws they become super huge warts on the story. Here are three rules of plot to keep your readers faithful…
Fortunately, even if specific stories in a series have flaws readers will overlook these and will never-the-less seek out the next installment. This gives writers the opportunity to improve their plot mojo in their next story.
As a reader myself I expect in any book for there to be questions left unanswered. It’s best when these questions are to do with foreshadows developed for books later in the series. As a writer myself, I love finding these and noting them for the future. There is another sort of question though that nags at a reader and will not leave them in peace.
These are dangling concerns and questions to do with the present plot. Loose ends such as these are contrived to move plot along to the writer’s desired ending. If developed properly these would feel to the reader as certain and necessary happenings along the stories journey. Anything that keeps our readers reading is a good thing. Using Seanan McGuire’s October Daye’s series and specifically Late Eclipses, let’s explore three rules any writer can follow to develop believable and read-worthy plot.
#1 – COMPLICATE THEM
Develop each and every plot point fully with at least one complication.
Plot points need to be complicated in some way to keep the protagonist from solving their issues right off. It’s not enough that a character needs to go to point A and B to fix the problem. That’s just traveling. Some element of the plot point has to become a problem. An action on the part of the protagonist, preferably that takes some effort, must be needed to overcome that obstacle. As a writer, if you want the end result to be a certain outcome, the protagonist can’t reach that outcome until “such and such difficulty” is overcome. Complicating plot is as simple as that.
In her first book, Rosemary and Rue, Toby was exploring San Francisco’s faerie world after having lived as a fish for many years. This allowed the reader to learn about the world as she investigated her mystery. Complications in a brand new world are fairly easy to come up with, the readers don’t have much to go on so almost any complication to plot will work well. As we get to know the world more and more complications will be instrumental in keeping the reader guessing as to the means and motivations of the book’s villain.
For example, in Late Eclipses, when Tybalt’s people were poisoned all Toby (short for October) had to do is take the meat to Walther and voila a cure for all the cats.
Where’s the complication? What is keeping her from almost instantly healing the cats?
Not a thing.
To get around not having any real complications, Toby runs around doing each and every step herself even though anyone can carry the antidote. With more allies, comes a need for more complications. One of the least dangerous tasks a protagonist can do is deliver something, especially since nothing happens along the way. If a few complications had been thrown in then her squire could have been sent to deliver the meat and she could have been distracting the reader. Complications worry the reader and that’s a good thing.
As a writer if you can’t complicate a story element properly then perhaps it is an accessory best taken out of the story. Incorporate threat to the secondary character from a different angle. Utilize what the villain knows to cast doubt on allies. Each and every one of Toby’s friends didn’t need to be poisoned. After two poisonings Duke Torquill should have been willing to admit it had to be Oleander as poison is her weapon.
By complicating each story element from different angles you illustrate how devious a villain is and how real the story world is.
#2 – SUPPORT THEM
Support your plot points with foreshadow, conjecture or world knowledge.
A pet peeve of mine is when writers have a certain outcome they desire for their plot but don’t support that outcome. As a reader myself, I want to feel like I could have known that was going to happen if I’d remembered such and such detail. This helps convince those reading that the plot point was a forgone conclusion. A reader doesn’t want to think the protagonist is so stupid they couldn’t see something so obvious, but they also don’t want to think, ‘well that came out of nowhere!’
The most basic way a writer can support a plot point is through foreshadowing. A detail slipped into a previous scene goes a long way later when the plot clicks together for the protagonist later. It doesn’t need to be heavy-handed, we don’t actually want to guess what is going to happen. We simply want it supported in some concrete way that it could happen. A detail, comment, thought placed previous to the plot point accomplishes this support.
Now many writers want to be the next Agatha Christie, they want to write a story with a mystery but not present all the facts. The one flaw with this is that Agatha used detectives. A detective ties all the loose ends up at the end of her story. Every plot point is supported by the detective’s conjecture about how and why things happened in the murder. This can be adapted for modern stories but then you need to support your plot point with conjecture of some kind by your own protagonist. Conclusions and connections told through dialogue or thoughts can accomplish this.
A third way to support your plot point is done quite expertly by McGuire using knowledge told to us about the world. Oleander is a Peri, they aren’t illusionists on the level of the Gwragen, but they’re close, narrates Toby. In this way it is hinted to us, using knowledge of the Peri being illusionists, that Oleander is hiding in plain sight as someone most wouldn’t notice. McGuire is touch and go supporting her plot points. This time it worked. When it comes to how Oleander found Lily’s pearl it doesn’t.
Using foreshadow, conjecture or world knowledge a reader is kept guessing about how the plot will come together in the end.
#3 – MOTIVATE THEM
The way a character reacts to plot points and why they reacted that way must make sense.
Plot points are there for the protagonist and other characters to react to them. Reacting isn’t enough though, we have to understand why they reacted the way they did. And it all has to make sense with what we know or are shown later about that character. Isn’t this just a way to complicate a plot point? Yes it is but it’s also essential that the motivations behind a character’s reaction work with how the plot point develops. By back-loading your plot points with character driven motivations and sharing these motivations with the reader we believe that the plot point had to happen that specific way.
In Late Eclipses, one plot point that is really weak is the fact that Toby kept returning to Shadowed Hills even though she had been warned each and every time she showed up that if she returned she’d be hauled off to face the Queen. She knows the Queen wants any reason to throw her in jail or worse, kill her. Yet she kept testing her luck by repeatedly showing up at Shadowed Hills just to check on what is happening!! What?! Yes, the only time she showed up at Shadowed Hills with a good reason behind it is when she got arrested! She had to return and see if Luna really had been murdered too. I get that, but what about the 3 or 4 other times when she didn’t have a good reason to be there and had an even better reason not to be there?
The best thing about a whole slew of secondary characters is that each one provides an opportunity to further complicate the plot points with their own agendas and motivations. We have May, Toby’s fetch who is deliberately opposite to Toby in all things. Quentin also rates high up the list as her squire in training whom Toby is super protective toward. We have Luna, the super secretive wife of her liege who was able to remain sane while her daughter went total bonkers due to the same experiences. We have Lily, who didn’t need to kick the bucket quite as swiftly as she did. We have the Duke himself, Toby’s liege, Sylvester, who would go absolutely bonkers himself if he knew there was just a threat to Luna’s life. As well as Conner and Tybalt, the two love interests as well as the minor secondary characters such as Marcia, who takes tickets at the Tea Garden, or Danny, the bridge troll taxi driver. I haven’t even mentioned the handful of antagonists that could be mentioned.
The thing about secondary characters all writers need to remember is they have their own identities. No two people no matter how close share exactly the same thoughts and perspectives, the same is true for characters. Yes Toby’s friends are loyal, that doesn’t mean they always have to agree and see things the same way. Using secondary characters’ specific motivations and emotions plot can be filled with depth and feel oh so real.
By back-loading plot points with motivations a story can go in literally thousands of directions…well at least hundreds.
RULES IN ACTION
Plot wise, what does a club and Late Eclipses have in common?
At one point in my life, I had my car stolen from me by someone super close to me. The pertinence of this story to writing is that this person was able to drive off with said car, no breaking an entering needed. I have a sneaky suspicion where he got an extra set of car keys from but how in the world did he get off the club? Only I had a key to that. If your first question is what in the world is a club then here’s your answer: a metal bar that keeps the wheel from turning. The thing is this person had no skills with tools or super secret master keys. They didn’t have a wealth of cool friends who know how to get through such things. So the next natural question is how did he manage to make off with the car?
I’m sure there is a super logical way for this to have happened. It’s probably so simple I’d slap my forehead in disbelief. I even have a few theories that make sense to me. The thing is I still wonder today, over ten years later, how they managed it. I guess it’s all about not knowing for sure, not having the loose ends tied up. This is especially difficult for readers with burning questions left unanswered in their favorite paperbacks. While genre fiction isn’t filled with the deepest stories, they are all about plot. So plot questions especially grate.
In Late Eclipses, Lily’s pearl is found by Oleander de Merelands (the villain) and summarily poisoned through scrapes the assassin made on it’s surface. I appreciated how she managed the poisoning and it was supported well through world knowledge. It was also clever when Oleander was taunting Toby and slipped up, giving Toby the clue she needed to figure out she was looking at an illusion. Thanks to some great conjecture and a few moments of foreshadowing we realize she couldn’t be talking to herself because she never knew Lily’s real name. The burning question I have about the whole situation is how did Oleander know where the pearl had been hidden? No where did McGuire hint at or foreshadow Oleander’s means of obtaining the pearl.
This should be eating readers alive.
The poisoning of Lily was such a masterful plot point that if instead of being a quick and simple death of another friend, had been complicated further might have provided more depthful plot. For example, using the fealty issue (when she was made the next Countess of Goldengreen) the threat of taking the blame for her friends’ deaths would have arisen naturally from the two plot points colliding. In this way Toby could stay away from Shadowed Halls as long as possible even though it’s threatened that she would return. Then when she’s finally forced to return through another plot point, like Oleander hinting Luna was already dead, it makes sense when Toby is arrested. A reasonable way Oleander found the pearl could have been added to the added scenes.
I don’t have to like McGuire’s ideas about how things are complicated. To me they might not make sense or they might seem out of character. I do have to be given some thread, some detail satisfying me that the writer came up with an adequate means for the pearl to be found. Now to be honest, I can surmise ways I’d have a character find the pearl, but without some support found within the book itself all it can be is conjecture. By complicating simple plot points like Lily’s poisoning a writer has many opportunities to support and motivate all the major points of the story.
Sure, how I figure my brother got that club off is probably correct. Oleander is very capable and devious, I have no doubt she could find the pearl. What lingers in my mind, casting doubts over my satisfaction is how she managed it.
Late Eclipses isn’t exactly complicated, in fact if you break the story down it’s terribly simple. Too simple. To hide the very simplicity of her story McGuire added many disparate plot points. Since Toby is the protagonist I can see why McGuire went with this process. I don’t mind simplicity but if that’s the route you are going then you have to map out each point with skill and care so the reader is led one way while reality goes another. In this way complications give rise to natural action that in no way risks the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
As a writer myself I want to get better. As aspects of a book come together, the better a book the more obvious a flaw. The major flaw of the Toby Daye series in general has to do with plot. Late Eclipses’ strengths outweigh it’s weaknesses sure but the journey to a perfect book is only a few extra stops along the way. These three rules: complicate them, support them and motivate them strength plot and make for a better story.