Category Archives: Story

Instant Plot! Just Add: Secrets!

Instant Plot! That’s right.  This month, I want to tell you how to construct a plot for your book with four easy story ideas.  Because I’m an expert.  Rather, I should say I’m an expert when it comes to all the ways that plots can go wrong, all the cliches that desperate authors default to when the plot is being rebellious, and all of the creative ways one can bang one’s head against a desk when the plot comes to a grinding halt and dies in the road.

So I’m an expert on plot problems.  But that’s basically the same thing, right?

Every Wednesday of this month, I’m going to focus on one common way that we make plots twist and turn and move forward.  They can often be cliche and can sometimes be clever, and as usual, I want input on the ones you’ve used and how you’ve used them and when you’ve seen them used well or poorly.  I always like hearing about a good bad cliche!

secret garden door

Secret Door

So this week’s plot twist is a very broad one and I don’t think any of us can claim not to have used it.  This one is called the “Big Secret” or the “Secret Revealed.”  This is one of the favorites of your average soap opera.  Because whenever a character keeps a secret, you know that the secret is going to come out and that when it does, it’s going to be in the worst possible place at the worst possible time.  Just because the soaps do it doesn’t mean that no one else should, but because the soaps do it, we know we need to be careful. Execution is everything.

And secret executions are even better.

Sorry.

Secrets are the sewage system of the plot.  They are there connecting everything together.  There are of course the big secrets that mean the difference between salvation and destruction (just who does have your ring, Mr. Sauron?) and the little secrets that add up into one big mess of secrets that somehow spontaneously regenerate into new secrets (this always happens to that enterprising girl who pretends to be a boy so she can be a warrior instead of a lady).

Why do we like using secrets in our stories, both on the grand and the small scale?  Well, the very obvious reason is that when you are combatting a great evil, you don’t want that great evil to know what you are up to.  Conversely, that great evil is probably being very coy about his/her plans as well.  There is always a grand game of secret-keeping in an epic tale.  

The second aspect of a secret – that which goes hand in hand with keeping a secret – is telling a lie.  If you withhold the truth, you often (not always, but often) simultaneously lie to the person to whom you choose not to share the information.  And so, when our characters are made to keep secrets, we are placing on them the burden of a lie.  This adds conflict within the character (How could I lie?!) or conflict in the plot (How could you lie?!) and certainly plenty of chances to build or deconstruct a character (It’s just a little secret…so what if I’m lying?  Am I a villain?  Oh well…).  So we use secrets to build plot and characters, to provide that much needed drama that keeps our reader’s interested.  Nothing stresses out a reader more than watching a character decide to keep a secret when s/he shouldn’t or waiting for the character to discover something that s/he needs to know.

hedgie hedgehog

This hedgehog is trying to be secretive.

What’s fascinating about secrets in stories is that it is up to the author whether the reader is aware of the secret.  While the character is keeping or seeking out a secret, the reader may or may not know the answer, and either method (letting the reader in on the secret or keeping him/her in the dark) can build up the tension in the telling.

Of course, every Instant Plot idea has its weaknesses.  We have to be sure that the secrets our characters keep or share make sense.  There is nothing so frustrating as reading about a character who makes a dumb decision for no better reason that we can determine than that the author needed the character to do it.  “Oh, I won’t tell my friend that I found out her father is the Dark Lord of All That is Evil because that sounds like an awkward conversation and I’m sure it won’t be a problem later on in our epic quest to save the world… from the Dark Lord…”

So as you look at your own writing, what secrets do your characters keep or tell or discover?  Is there a reason that they exist beyond the drama that you want to excite in your readers?  Do you let your readers in on it or not?

Next week, we’ll take a look at another Instant Plot solution.  Feel free to guess what you think it will be.

Storyteller as curator: St Luke the song catcher

St Luke’s two-volume history — which we know as Luke-Acts — has a grand scope. It runs from Jerusalem out to small-town Galilee, then back to Jerusalem, then from Jerusalem to all Rome’s empire, and ends in the great capital city of the empire itself. By structuring his grand narrative thus, Luke creates a brilliant apologetic concerning the kingdom of God — established through Jesus, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, for glory of his people Israel and for a light to lighten the Gentiles.

For a story of global ends and high apologetic ambitions, Luke’s gospel has quite provincial, and some might say unpromising, beginnings: an old priest with a barren post-menopausal wife, a virgin in a blink-and-you-miss-it town.  Mary visits Elizabeth in a town in the “hill country of Judah,” a town so small that it has no name.  Luke doesn’t scoff at these beginnings.  On the contrary, he narrates them with the utmost care and respect, without a whiff of condescension.  The humble beginnings appear neither as little obstacles to be razed by the global kingdom, nor as the small confines from which the story has to emerge before it can really get going.  The characters do not appear as blinkered, ignorant hicks who need to be educated after the manner of, say, Luke himself. Their knowledge of their nation, culture, theology and liturgy is so deep, when it’s stirred by a fresh promise of fulfillment, it bubbles over in songs of beguiling subtlety – and revolutionary power.

The visitationGiven the breadth of Luke’s narrative, it is striking that he, alone among the four evangelists, pauses to record the song Mary sings during her visit with Elizabeth, and the one Zechariah sings at the birth of John the Baptist.  It is doubly striking because Luke is the only Gentile evangelist, and the Magnificat and Benedictus are, in structure and symbol, thoroughly Jewish songs. There they are, two songs for the summing up of the old covenant and the dawn of the new.  We still sing them today, magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in God our Savior, in ancient words first heard in the remote hillsides of a faraway land. For that, we are indebted to a man who, like A. P. Carter and Lesley Riddle in Appalachia, did not regard transcribing the songs of the hill country as too light a thing for him.

Part Three of “Quincy and the Nano”

What I have discovered from writing this story about Quincy is that I am really only dipping a toe into the science fiction writing game.  I am avoiding space ships and aliens.  I am keeping things simple and keeping them Earthbound.  But that’s okay, right?  Because nanos are complicated enough. Click here to start at the beginning.

“Quincy and the Nano, Pt. 3″

            We cannot really hold it against Quincy that he passed out, all things considered.  A quick dose of a concoction created by the Nano-Breather had him awake again in moments with that same face, now worried, hovering over him.

“What’s wrong with you?  I tested your blood and you didn’t get into the Breather after all,” he said.  “What’s your name?  How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Quincy James.  Four.  And I seem to have sent myself exactly three hundred years into the future,” Quincy pronounced with great and sudden clarity.

The man was openly skeptical.  “Into the future?  Don’t be ridiculous.  Time travel isn’t possible now and it certainly wasn’t possible… whenever you are from.  When do you think you are from, Dr. James?”

“Not a doctor… yet,” said Quincy, and then sort of wished he’d let that mistake go.  Dr. James had a nice ring to it.  “I’m from 2013.  I was on a tour and I pushed some knobs and… turned some buttons… no, no, wait…”

“Yes, okay.  Well, my name is Dr. Harry Mildred and you are going to need a nanoscan, I think.”

“Nanoscan?” asked Quincy.  He always perked up when he heard “nano” and it began to dawn on him that he had been hearing it a lot.

“Well, yes.  To see if you are quite right in the head.  And everywhere else, for that matter.  Don’t worry.  We have one right here on site.  I’ll get you set up and then we’ll see about having you taken to a mental facility for some more detailed nano-readings.”

“Nano-readings!” exclaimed Quincy, feeling his strength returning to him.  “You are using nanos.  Nanos for body and brain scans and…”

Dr. Mildred looked at him quizzically.  “Well, yes, of course.  Nanos do everything for us.  Everyone knows… oh, but of course, you say you’re from three hundred years ago.  They could barely do anything with nanos back then.”

Suddenly, Dr. Mildred was very curious.  “So tell me, Mr. James, how did you – supposedly – teleport into the future.”

“Well, that’s just it.  I don’t know.  I found this machine and it looked so fascinating and there were these buttons and knobs and… well, you know how it is, don’t you?”

Finally, there was a look of sympathy and fellow-scientist camaraderie on Dr. Mildred’s face.  He smiled.  “Yes, I know.  I love adjusting dials.  And buttons are just… fabulous.  Come on, then.  To the scanner.”

The nanoscan proved two things to Dr. Mildred.  One, that Quincy James was perfectly healthy and had not experimented with the Nano-Breather in any unhealthy way.  And two, that Quincy James’s genetic makeup was exactly right for someone who had lived three hundred years ago.  In effect, Quincy was telling the truth.

Very well, thought Harry Mildred.  He’s from the past.  It’s not really all that hard to believe.  I mean, what is time but a bunch of wobbly-

            “What do I do now?” asked Quincy as he came out of the nanoscan chamber.

“Well… er.  I guess we’ll have to figure out what machine you used and try to recreate it and send you back to where you came from,” said Harry, experiencing a sudden, deep sensation of scientific adventurousness coming on him.  He hadn’t had a project this exciting since… well… not ever.

“But I don’t have the least idea what it was,” complained Quincy.  “Also, I’m hungry.”

“Oh, no trouble there.  Come on and I’ll get you something to eat.  What would you like?  A sandwich?  Here.”

Harry led him back into the round room with the pod chairs and walked over to a small countertop with a smooth, sleek blue metallic machine that looked, Quincy thought, like a futuristic coffee-maker.  There were buttons galore and Quincy scurried over to watch.  Harry pushed several buttons from a series of columns.  The machine made a gentle whirring sound, and a hot roast beef sandwich on whole wheat bread with cool, crisp lettuce and tomatoes and spicy mustard emerged on a little plate.

Quincy picked it up and examined it all over, awed beyond words. He took a bite.  Delicious!  Harry was watching him smugly.

“What is this machine?” Quincy asked Harry, inspecting the veritable bounty of buttons on the device.

“It’s a Nano-Nutriobot, of course,” said Harry, although he was well aware Quincy had no way of knowing that.  “We’ve had them for fifty years or more, now.  This is one of the latest models.  It does foods and drinks and even handles alcoholic beverages pretty well.  All with nanos.”

“I love nanos,” Quincy said raptly, consuming his nano-made sandwich with gusto.

He was given a full tour of the facilities by Harry Mildred, with whom he formed a fast friendship through Quincy’s willingness to hang on Harry’s every word and Harry’s enjoyment of being the one who knows everything.  That, of course, and their love of nanos.

Quincy fell immediately in love with the infamous Nano-Breather, which was capable of producing everything from perfumes to anesthetics to an injection used to cure asthma.  Quincy adored the Nano-cise room where the staff would start the morning by getting a full-body workout with their own personal nano-trainer.  Quincy couldn’t get enough of the nano-reality screen that created soothing, living landscapes on office walls or displayed videos of cute kittens playing in baskets of yarn or penguins in the Arctic Pockets.  Whatever you wanted to see.  It was magical.

“So how is Earth doing?” Quincy asked Harry .

“What do you mean?” asked Harry.  Then he understood and laughed. “Oh, you mean about the Earth being destroyed by humanity’s misuse of the environment?  Yes, I remember now.  Oh, the earth is fine.  Quite nice, actually.”

“How so?  What happened?  Did anything happen?” asked Quincy.  He felt that his professor Dr. Adamson would want to know when he got back.  She had always been terrified of melting ice caps.

“Oh, over the last two hundred years the earth got warmer, as expected. But it adapted surprisingly well and eventually the entire world turned into one great tropical paradise.  It’s nice and warm everywhere.  Food grows better.  Everyone’s happy – except the environmentalists, I guess, but they’re never happy.  I mean, there’s a few cold places left – we call them Arctic Pockets – where the polar bears and penguins live.  But everywhere else is pretty much the same. Scientists spent a few decades determined to find something wrong with the planet, but they finally had to give up.”

“Whoa,” was all Quincy could say.

“Yeah, for a while everyone wanted to vacation in the Arctic Pockets because they were the only place that wasn’t warm and pleasant and it was supposed to be some sort of ‘experience,’” Harry chuckled.  “But the environmentalists had to go crazy about something, so they went crazy about that and now the Arctic Pockets are protected.  You can only see them on the nano-reality screens.”

“Whoa,” said Quincy again.

Harry had more work to do on something nano-related, so he left Quincy in the break room with the pod chairs and the Nano-Nutriobot.  Quincy set to work.  He tried several combinations of buttons and produced a cherry limeade slushy, a corndog, a shrimp cocktail, a fruit salad, and a huge muffin that was every color of the rainbow, but tasted like chocolate.

Quincy was absently pushing another combination to try to create some sort of jelly donut when he suddenly heard a voice above his head.

Quincy James: I See You.

Part Four, next week!

The narrative significance of the body (part 1)

One of the most important, and trickiest, parts of telling a good story is figuring out how much detail ought to be given to physical descriptions of the characters, and, if so, what those descriptions ought to be like.  This is doubly tricky in our age – for we live in an age of body idolaters and body indifferentists.  If we follow the former, we may describe our characters’ physical characteristics in some detail, but those descriptions will go no deeper than the skin.  If we follow the latter, we will be Gnostics.

That isn’t to say that we must include detailed physical descriptions of characters, or be Gnostics.  The New Testament authors, for example, are quite emphatic that Jesus was and is a real Man, with real flesh, and that He trod upon and did not float over, the real earth (except on the rare occasions that He walked on water).  Yet nowhere in the New Testament do we get a physical portrait of Him.  The only physical detail of significance we get is a curious detail about the risen Jesus: He retained the five wounds of His passion.  That physical detail, though, has considerable narrative significance.  It demonstrates that the Man who walked out of the tomb Sunday morning was the same Man whose marked and lifeless body was laid to rest in the tomb on Friday afternoon.  The Man’s story was graven upon His hands, feet, and side.

We see that kind of sparing physical detail throughout the New Testament.  The only other instances of physical descriptions I can think of in the entire New Testament (excepting the Revelation) are the descriptions of Jesus at the transfiguration, and Luke’s statement in the Acts of the Apostles that in the moments immediately preceding St. Stephen’s martyrdom, his face “was like the face of an angel.”  And Stephen would soon be among the angels.

When we turn to the Old Testament, we get little more.  Meeting young David for the first time we hear three things about his appearance:  First, that he’s less impressive, physically, than his older brothers – for the Lord looks on the heart, not the outward appearance; second, that he’s ruddy from keeping the sheep; and third, that he has beautiful eyes.  The author does not explain that last detail in terms of the color, shape, or set of David’s eyes.  Yet it is significant that the author specially notes the eyes – the part of the outward appearance where the heart is most visible.

The point is that there are physical features that have peculiar narrative significance.  Some of these are common features: eyes and smiles[1], features common to all, have stories written all over them.  Some of the features of narrative importance are more unique: marks from pregnancies, scars from battle, surgical scars.  In marking these features out for particular attention, we avoid both body idolatry and Gnosticism.  Noting them, we preserve the evocative things written upon flesh that make characters.[2]


[1] As to smiles:

So much reads straight in a smile’s crooked lines:
One betrays care, fear of the enemy –
tough, big, or swindler — crouching at the door;
Another knows where the enemy hides,
And, that presently the bastard will be
Knocked out cold upon the doorstep.
If you smile, friend, follow that second line;
The first is to cast your pearls before swine.

[2] Character is a word of Greek origin.  In biblical usage, it may refer to an instrument used to make a mark upon something, or the mark impressed upon something by such an instrument.  It’s the word used of Christ by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews – that he bore the “express image” of God.

Part Two of “Quincy and the Nano”

The journey continues as I, a fantasy writer, attempt to write science fiction.  My greatest challenge so far with sci-fi is that I really just don’t know the language.  I don’t know science and technology.  More importantly, I’m not sure I know how to make it sound like I do. My solution thus far is to wield my ignorance in a sort of ironic manner and hopefully make do. Can nanos solve all of my problems? Let me know what you think of my  descriptions of time travel and Quincy’s first impressions of the future.  And what you think of the story thus far, of course. To read Part One, click here!

“Quincy and the Nano: Pt. 2″

            Now perhaps you are thinking that Quincy James is a rather silly hero for anyone’s story.  After all, he wandered away from a tour group at a scientific research facility (which anyone will tell you is a bad idea) and then he began pushing buttons and twisting knobs on a machine that was clearly not a machine he should be pushing and twisting at.

But Quincy is not really as stupid as he seems. After all, he is writing his dissertation on nanotechnology and he can use five syllable words in casual conversation without batting a lash.  Quincy also cannot really be blamed for the button-pushing, knob-twisting tendencies, since it is a known fact that all scientists have that predisposition, and that machine shouldn’t have been out where just any young scientist could wander up to it, anyway.

So now that we have exonerated poor Quincy, we will take a look at where he ended up.  Quincy did not really know what happened to him at first, which is understandable.  He pushed, he twisted, and then he felt as though he was being pulled inside out while simultaneously being forced through a sliding glass door that wasn’t opened far enough.  When he blinked again, he was in the future.  It was really all very simple (actually, the scientists of that unnamed research facility have been desperately trying to recreate his series of pushes and twists ever since, to no avail).

Quincy rubbed his eyes and looked around.  He was still in a research facility, but it was definitely not the same.  It was shinier, it had even more buttons and knobs, and there were frequent interruptions by a light, feminine, robotic voice speaking through an intercom on the ceiling saying things like: Nanofield: Activated. or Proceed With Nano-Infusion. or Activity Level: Eight Point Seven.

            He didn’t know what any of it meant, although his fingertips immediately tingled with the need to push some of those buttons.  They were glossier and more beautiful than any buttons he had ever seen.

“Hey, there, you!  What are you doing?” came a voice from his left.

A young man, about his age, came striding over. He was wearing a white lab coat, much like the one Quincy himself wore, except this man’s coat had a sort of shimmer to the fabric and a gray metallic inner lining.  There was also a black pad on each sleeve, sort of like an iPhone set into the cuff, Quincy thought.

“Do you belong up here?” challenged the man, looking very ferocious and territorial, as most scientists will when someone gets too close to their knobs and buttons.

Quincy, who was holding up remarkably well considering the fact that he had just been hurtled several centuries into the future, said, “Uhhh….”

“Let me see your ID badge,” said the man, curtly.  He reached over and grabbed Quincy’s right wrist.  He turned the sleeve over, seemed very confused by it, then grabbed his left wrist and inspected it.

“Where’s your nanoreader?” he demanded.  “What sort of rubbish coat is this?”

Quincy managed a garbled shrug, which is difficult to describe – sort of a twitchy series of shoulder movements.  His eyes were having trouble focusing and he thought his large toes might both be numb, though he wasn’t sure.

The man pursed his lips and finally said, “You must have inhaled something from the Nano-Breather, so we’ll sit you down over here until you can talk.”

Quincy allowed himself to be led to a large room with softly rounded walls and a large window on one side.  The chairs were pod-shaped with very hard cushions.  Not comfortable.  Quincy made a face.

The man rolled his eyes.  “Clearly, you did something very stupid with the Breather.  Here, let me.”  He leaned over, pushed a bunch of buttons on the arm of the pod-chair, and it suddenly became inexpressibly squishy and comfortable, conforming to Quincy’s shape.  He let out an oomph – but it was a happy oomph.

“There,” said the man.  “Now, I’ll come back and check on you in fifteen minutes.  That should give the effects of the Breather a chance to wear off.  And then I expect a few answers, okay?”

Quincy nodded, a gesture he now found himself capable of, and snuggled deeper into the chair to wait.

When Quincy woke up (he hadn’t even realized he’d dozed off), it was to see the face of that man again, very close to his, scrutinizing him the way scientists so enjoy scrutinizing strange, new specimens.

“There you are,” the man said, with a sudden smile that was much more pleasant than the constant frowning from before.

Quincy tested his ability to speak.  “Where… am I?”

“Don’t know where you are?” the man frowned.  “That’s a new side effect.  We’re going to have to log your results.  You don’t mind if I take some blood, do you?”

Quincy did mind, but the tiny blood-extracting device that the man attached to his finger had done its vampiric deed before he could object.

“I was at the lab… on a tour,” Quincy said.  “And I pushed some buttons.  Turned a knob.  And then I was here.  And it’s different.  Is this the same lab?”

The man told Quincy where they were.  Quincy stared.  He told the man where he thought he was.  The man stared back.

“Why, it hasn’t been called that in, oh, over two hundred years!” he exclaimed.

“What year is it?” Quincy suddenly asked, feeling numb in his large toes again.

“It’s 2313 A.D.  Obviously,” stated the man.

At which point, Quincy passed out.

Part Three coming next week!