Yesterday's post on Kurt Vonnegut's list of the eight essential plot diagrams did not get as much play as I hoped. Readership was only around 500 instead of the usual 800, but maybe that was because it was Friday. Anyway, if you didn't work through those diagrams, please go back and do it now, because I need to talk about them some more.
I spent the month of January doing research for my next novel -- building character sketches, finding photos, drawing timelines -- all acting to conceal the harsh fact that I wasn't sure where my story was going. The book will be straight historical fiction -- a few real people popping up here and there, since it occurs during the Civil War and it's hard to talk about that period without including a few politicians and army generals. But my main characters this time are all fictional, although their lives contain echoes of some real people.
My main problem has been this: I have a good idea of the challenges they will face, and I know what happens to them along the way (thanks to my civil War timeline). But I don't know how they will react to those events, and I haven't a clue as to the ending of the story. In a nutshell that means I don't yet have a plot. And that's where Vonnegut's diagrams become important to me.
Look at the eight possible plot lines. Five of the eight have happy endings (Man in Hole, Boy Meets Girl, Creation Story, New Testament, and Cinderella). That's not surprising. Readers like happy endings, don't they? I suppose so, but they sometimes feel a little sappy and contrived to me.
Of the remaining three, two are crushingly sad (From Bad to Worse and Old Testament). One has a "fall of enormous proportions" and the other presents a scenario in which there is "No hope for improvement.." Sigh! Do readers want unrelenting gloom? Maybe some do, but I don't.
So what's left? "Which Way is Up" suggests a plot with a "lifelike ambiguity." I like that phrase! Now that I've had time to think about it, it feels very true to the genre of historical fiction. Could I write a Civil War novel in which everyone lives happily ever after? Not very realistic. That period had repercussions that echo through people's lives for generations. Few happy endings, there, other than a fleeting moment when Johnny comes marching home with all limbs attached. After than, he'll face all sorts of political turmoil, economic disaster, and lingering nightmares.
Could I write a Civil War novel that offers no hope for improvement, only a disastrous and never-ending fall? No, that's not historically accurate, either. So "Lifelike Ambiguity" it is. Now comes the hard part -- how to write a novel with a flat plot line? Ugh! How dull. No, I think that diagram needs to be redone to show not a flat line, as it is now, but a wavy one. One that contains hopeful moments and realistic failures coming one after another, but moving inexorably forward.