“It’s the story of two women, a mother and a daughter, who are in love with the same man,” says my friend.
I say, “Oh good! So many conflicts, so much emotional mayhem, huh?”
“The man’s son is in love with the daughter, too.”
I say, “Wow.”
This guest post is by Jacquelyn Mitchard. Mitchard is the author of 20 books for adults, Young Adults and children, whose first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, (1996) was called by USA Today “one of the most influential books of the past 25 years.” Her subsequent novels and stories have been nominated for or won many awards, including the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, The Talkabout Prize, The Shirley Jackson Award, and the Bluebonnet Prize. Her work is set in contemporary times and her stories deal with ethically demanding issues, from biomedical science to crime to the challenges that face the family. The editor-in-chief of a Young Adult only imprint, Merit Press, she is a professor in the MFA program in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her husband and their nine children on Cape Cod. Her new book, Two If By Sea, is in bookstores now.
“And the man’s mother is an incredibly wealthy shut-in. She used to be a spy during the Cold War. Now, she can’t leave her room without being pushed in a wheelchair, but someone is trying to kill her. She keeps getting sicker. The man wants to hospitalize his mother, but his son insists that a journey would kill her. The man plots to get his mother out and thinks that his son just wants her condition to deteriorate, the sooner to get the money. As for the son, he thinks it’s his father who’s making the grandmother ill, and the daughter is pregnant.”
“The daughter’s who’s in love with the older man?”
“No, the man’s daughter is pregnant. She’s the same age as the daughter who’s in love with his father, the daughter of the woman who takes care of the gardens on the estate, the same older woman who’s in love with the man. She’s a Russian horticulturalist and an expert in poisonous plants. So, of course you know what comes next.” I don’t, and I start to say so, when my friend continues, “Then the horticulturalist’s daughter becomes pregnant, and she won’t reveal who the father is. I’m thinking of calling it that.”
“Who The Father Is?”
“No, The Horticulturalist’s Daughter. Of course, then the father of the horticulturist’s daughter starts coming back around, and it turns out that he was one of the intelligence officers who worked with the mother who’s disabled now…”
Before even reading the first page, I’m exhausted. I need a flow chart and a genealogy. My pal is an experienced novelist, completing her second book, and yet she has created a plot that makes Gravity’s Rainbow sound like Mary’s Little Lamb. So lost is she in the labyrinthine world she’s created that she can no longer see the reader. “Do you think there might be too much going on?” I venture.
“Well,” says my pal. “It’s a big story.”
“Maybe you could have one less pregnancy?” I say.
“No, that’s the whole thing,” she says. “The plants and the cycle of birth and death.”
“Maybe not have the grandma be a spy?”
“Well, I can’t take that out, because of the man who appears at the end, who makes sense of everything. I haven’t really told you about him yet …”
It can happen to anybody. The yearning to add just one more thing is a powerful flame. Nearly all the writers who do secretly know they’re guilty, and they’re ready to spring to the defense, like my pal. Writers who over-plot their stories (in the trade, this is sometimes called “kitchen sinking it,”) can get nearly frantic describing those stories, their voices growing louder and more intense as they limn the lineaments of the tale, its ins and outs, its ups and downs, its huge cast of characters – the professor, the thief, the priest, the nun, the gardener, the chef (and her lover). If you saw all the comings and goings of those characters from above, you’d think you were looking down on Grand Central Terminal and you’d be hard-pressed to keep everyone straight. The truth is, the writer is also hard-pressed to keep everything straight, and is prone to resort to phrases such as, “I forgot to tell you …” or “This makes more sense when you find out that …” Why are they flustered? I think people who keep pilling on plot are fearful, knowing they overloaded the boat, and that it could sink at any minute. It’s a desperate feeling. The suspicion is now that you’ve gone and put too many elements in the mix, if you subtract one, the whole structure could come crashing down. And what about the butterfly effect? If Jim is out of the picture on page 30, he never ruins Niobe’s coat with a spilled latte on page 117, and that sub-plot about meeting twenty years before in foster care disappears. The whole world of accidental love between the covers (hard covers!) is knocked off its axis. Hey, that was one sweet sub-plot!
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But no matter how sweet it is, making the reader fight through even the most fascinating excess to the essence of story just isn’t fair. And it isn’t smart, either. Too much plot accomplishes very last thing any writer wants – distancing the worried reader from the story you wanted the reader to love.
So why does any good writer kitchen-sink it? (Many, many good writers do, not just beginning writers, at least on the first draft.) Certainly, no one sets out to clutter up a keen concept. It just happens, in the way you find yourself standing in the checkout line with a grocery cart filled to the brim when you only dashed into the store to buy milk. Things feel too likely to pass up. We’re only human. It’s just really hard to give up a good twist (and you never should, but more about this later). There’s also the fear factor. What if you never write another book, and the trans-gender monk who’s a genius at playing the ponies dies with the music still inside him? What if you leave him out and the main plot feels like thin soup as a result? What if that secondary plot (not to mention the tertiary plot) is what elevates the story from smart mystery to literary suspense? Those are all legitimate concerns, certainly, and a story is such an important, fragile thing. Every writer wants to give it her all, every time, but too many plot points can make oatmeal out of a good story.
How do you stop it?
It isn’t easy, and it isn’t pleasant. But just as the reward for sit-ups can be a lean middle, the reward for plot discipline can be a lean, compelling narrative. Try these tips:
1. TELL THE PLOT TO SOMEONE WHO ISN’T A WRITER
You don’t need to state your plot in twenty words, but if you confuse a willing reader, you may have too much story.
2. ASK YOURSELF, WHAT IS LOST IN TAKING OUT A SUB PLOT? WHAT IS GAINED?
If clarity is the payoff, and the primary, strong story is not affected to the point that anything major needs to be changed, then trim.
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3. COULD YOU TELL ONE OF THE SUB-PLOTS AS A STAND-ALONE STORY?
If the answer to this is yes, maybe you should. Always keep your out-takes. This major sub-plot may be superfluous in this particular setting, but may be the divine engine in another book or collection.
4. WHAT ARE THE MOTIVES OF THE CHARACTERS INVOLVED AND HOW DO THEY HELP THE PLOT ALONG?
If those motives are murky, or if you can’t immediately explain them in one sentence, maybe you don’t know these characters well enough to include them. Or maybe they aren’t essential to the main story.
5. WHY IS THIS (ANY ELEMENT OF PLOT) INCLUDED IN YOUR BOOK OR SHORT STORY?
If you don’t have a compelling, ready answer, the real answer may be, cut it out.
6. DOES THIS STORY FEEL LONG?
There may be a good reason.
7. CLIP INSTEAD OF CUT
One solution to balance a story that’s sinking under the weight of its plot is to trim individual incidents and scenes rather than eliminating entire characters and incidents. Does the protagonist really have to go on six binges to prove she has a shopping problem, or will only two do the trick? How many dreams of foreboding makes an obsession? How many set fires makes an arsonist? How many confrontations over infidelity adds up to a divorce?
8. GO DEEP INSTEAD OF WIDE
Rather than building in more story, build more into the story you have. Explore setting and scene and the relationships between the characters in more revealing detail. Enliven those relationships with a few lines of enhancing dialogue. Readers will feel not only included, but empathetic, even enthralled – that irreplaceable sensation of being “in on it.”
As the writer of a story with a lean, precise, manageable plot peopled with authentic characters and alive event (but not too much event), you won’t feel cheated, any more than the reader will. Instead, you’ll feel in control of your universe – and finally free.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.