By Rob Brunet
Two things floating around on social media have conspired to make me write this post. The first has to do with the well-worn refrain about truth being stranger than fiction, and it goes something like this:
With all the insanity in the world today—the daily raising of the bar when it comes to bizarre contemptuous behavior, headlines about whacked-out crime, the antics of the rich and famous and wannabes splayed on YouTube, the seeming upheaval of all we thought was stable—how the hell is an author supposed to come up with plot lines to compete?
Perhaps the truth is we needn’t rely on plot to tell our stories, but it’s got me thinking about my own writing. When I’m writing humor, plot plays a bigger role; often, I’m setting things up over time, scene-to-scene, for some kind of pay-off later on. But when the story is more serious, plot twists and surprises take a back seat to my characters’ motivation. Why they got here becomes more interesting to me than how. The shock or surprise may still be there, but it’s subtle.
The second bit of social media to trigger my thinking was a specific tweet. Given the likes and retweets it garnered, you may have seen it already, but in case you didn’t:
Here’s how the twin challenges of plot and self-doubt have landed together for me.
I’m writing the final chapters of a manuscript I’ve worked on for most of the past year. It’s a novel sprung from a short story that worked well enough on its own. The story tells how a death occurred and was kept secret—standard fare for a crime fiction writer. But the short story left the why hanging unanswered and I decided to write the novel to uncover the answer.
The problem is, the why in question is two decades old. Not wanting to bury myself in backstory, I’ve followed my protagonist through layered conversations with characters who knew part of what happened. Each reveals their own hand and filters their perception of the truth through their own lens. All of which was interesting to me, but the novel seemed to need a foothold in the present to give it immediacy. So, I gave it a parallel story that involved some of the same characters and hit upon the themes of love, fatherhood, and betrayal from a different angle.
And that brought me face-to-face with this question of plot.
Everything about this particular story is quiet, with little that’s jarring or explosive. Nothing pops out of closets or drops from the sky. It’s a straightforward revelation of how inaccurate truth can be when viewed from any one perspective.
The novel’s beginning has remained fairly stable through a couple of rewrites, but the middle has been thrashed to bits over and over, as I try to find the why. Each successive pass gets me closer—and the story seems to get cleaner—but at the heart of my story is some heavy deception, and while that’s laid out clearly in Chapter One, every time I go through a door in one character’s heart, it seems to open some chamber in another’s.
That’s what’s driving my interest as a writer. Not the present day peril or justice sought or denied. Rather, getting into my characters’ minds, understanding the way they view their own behavior, figuring out the why, and ideally, leaving it to the reader to judge. A person’s motivations are often far more interesting to me than their specific actions. Understanding the pressures someone feels and what causes them to act or react a certain way can hold my attention longer. Ultimately, I think that’s where story comes from.
I don’t often write about craft and that may not be what this post is about, but it’s been eating at me, causing that crippling self-doubt shared by every writer I know. It makes me want to slay the 3:00 a.m. beast with some plot twist that amps the tension in a story that won’t comply. I may do that, but for today at least, I’m willing to hope that if the story can hold my interest despite paling in the face of news headlines, it may work to grab someone else’s attention, too.
Rob Brunet writes character-driven crime fiction laced with dark humor. His debut novel STINKING RICH was listed on Crimespree Magazine’s Book Picks for 2014 and named one of the year’s top debuts by Mystery People. Brunet’s short crime fiction appears in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Crimespree, Noir Nation, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and numerous anthologies. He loves the bush, beaches, and bonfires, and teaches creative writing at George Brown College in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son.
To learn more about STINKING RICH, click on the cover below: