The Essential Equation: P = T2 (Plot equals trouble squared)
by James Thayer
Stephen King says, “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestseller.” When we find a plot, how can we know if it’s worth spending a year or two developing and writing? It’s a tough question.
But here is a key technique that will help our plotting: readers do not want true life. Someone who has paid for a novel does not want a replica of his or her own life presented in a novel. She wants an escape from her life. Excitement, not routine. The extraordinary, not the ordinary. Erica Jong says a novel “must make my so-called real world seem flimsy.” Kurt Vonnegut agrees: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.’’
No writing advice is as misguided as the airy bromide write what you know. Perhaps if we were in the French Foreign Legion during the Algerian rebellion or if we were Queen Mary’s confessor, fine. Most of us, though, try to plan our lives to avoid the relentless trouble that is the heart of all successful novels, and so if we write what we know—a reasonably trouble-free life lived on a tree-lined boulevard with successes wherever we could manage them—we end up with tepidity, the enemy of fiction.
E.M. Forster said that a story “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.” Trouble is the only thing that makes a reader want to know what happens next.
A novel isn’t real life, but rather is an amplification of life. It is more exciting, more fun, more romantic, more glamorous, and more dangerous. It is wittier, braver, courser, faster and bigger. A novel has more smell, more taste, and more sound. Friendships are closer, and enemies are crueler. Children are more mature, and old people more profound. Dogs don’t just lie around, and cats have a purpose. Everything is more. This is especially true for trouble. Protagonists in successful fiction have more trouble in the course of 350 pages than most real people have in a lifetime.
Adding trouble and then more trouble for our characters is a reliable and essential plotting technique. Trouble fills a successful novel’s pages. “Fiction is all about trouble,” novelist Richard Bausch says. “The more the better.” What’s better than trouble? More trouble. Lawrence Block says, “Pile on the miseries.”
Think back on the novels that have swept us up. Was anything ever easy? In Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Inman simply wants to walk from a military hospital in Raleigh to his home near Cold Mountain during the Civil War. A stroll through leafy forests. What could be hard about that? Everything, because only trouble awaits Inman. He has been wounded, and he is weak. He has to dissuade a preacher from murdering the preacher’s lover. When Inman butchers a dead cow, the cow’s owner alerts the Home Guard, and so Inman is captured. A Home Guard bullet wounds Inman, and he finds he has to dig himself out of a mass grave. He almost dies of his wounds. He almost starves. He arrives at Black Cove, but his great love Ada is missing. Then the Home Guard finds Inman again. The novel is a document of trouble.
Even successful novels that appear to be set in a peaceful location during uneventful times are filled with trouble. In A Painted House—which tells of a farm family’s summer in the rural south in the 1950s—John Grisham pours on the trouble; a hillbilly bully, a fire, a cranky grandfather, and a bully from Mexico. But that’s not enough trouble for Grisham, so trouble is added to the story from a lazy deputy sheriff, a beautiful young lady with wanderlust, a bully from the bottom country, and falling cotton prices. Still not enough trouble, so a terrible flood is thrown in.
Only trouble is interesting. This isn’t so in real life, when there are periods of comfort, peace, happiness and pleasure. These placid times are interesting and important to us as we live our lives. But comfort, peace, happiness and pleasure make for dull reading. And if we write about them, we end up with a bland story.
Here are two scenarios. Which makes better reading?
1. Lisa wants to start a restaurant business. She rents a storefront, designs a menu, hires a cook, places advertisements in the local paper, has a gala grand opening, and the business takes off, with tables filled to capacity each night.
Congratulations to Lisa for her successful career. We hope she’ll forgive our yawns.
2. Lisa wants to start a catering business. She has no money. Her father says he’ll loan her the money but only if she dumps her fiancé. Her fiancé’s lecherous father offers to loan her the money but only if she accepts his foul advances. She refuses. A girlfriend finally loans her the money. Lisa rents a building, then finds that termites have dangerously weakened the flooring. The building inspector finds tiny and imagined problems as Lisa tries to remodel the building, and the inspector clearly wants a bribe, which she refuses. The building inspector puts a stop-work order on the building remodel. Lisa’s leg falls through the floor, cutting her badly. While she is recovering, her fiancé meets someone new and dumps her. Nobody comes to the restaurant’s opening. Two days later, six customers come down with salmonella. Her girlfriend demands repayment of the loan. Her leg wound becomes infected, and she has to go to the hospital. Her ex-fiancé never mailed the medical insurance premium, so she has no insurance.
Preposterous? Ask Scarlett O’Hara, Oliver Twist, Charlotte Simmons, Richard Sharp, or Jane Eyre. Or Edmond Dantes, Huckleberry Finn or Kay Scarpetta. What did these famous protagonists—from many genres and many eras--have to deal with, again and again? Trouble, and plenty of it.
Charles Baxter in Burning Down the House puts it this way: “Say what you will about it. Hell is story-friendly. If you want a compelling story, put your protagonist among the damned. The mechanisms of hell are nicely attuned to the mechanisms of narrative. Not so the pleasures of Paradise. Paradise is not a story. It’s about what happens when the stories are over.”
When figuring out the trouble the protagonist will endure, keep a caution in mind; the trouble shouldn’t be goofy. Our heroine—an English princess walking across the pasture to secretly meet her true love, the handsome stable boy--shouldn’t be struck and terribly burned by lightning. Trouble should arise from the story, not drop out of the sky. In Grisham’s A Painted House, a Mexican bully arrives because Mexican crop hands come to the family farm every year. The hillbilly bully arrives because the mountain folk come down to pick cotton every season. The flood arises because cotton country rivers often flood, ruining crops. These are credible instances of trouble, arising naturally from the story.
Having difficulty plotting? Janet Burroway says, “In literature only trouble is interesting. It takes trouble to turn the great themes of life into a story: birth, love, sex, work, and death.” So add trouble, then square it.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service