Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Denouement and Narrative Pace

When you write serial stories like I do, the denouement can be the most difficult thing to accomplish.  The early books in the series have to resolve some facet of the plot while still perpetuating the overall main plot.  The final book has to tie up all the loose ends, including the subplots of the earlier books.  So getting to the resolution requires a lot of organization and planning.

Right now, I'm finishing up Theater of Cruelty.  As you know, I'm not an outliner.  I write by the seat of my pants save for one exception--I always know what the ultimate resolution of the plot is going to be before I ever write a word.  Other than that, I write organically.  Then, after the first draft is completed, I go through and outline the plot.  I usually set it out on long pieces of butcher paper, so I can have a linear chart above my desk that lets me see the plot points, the twists in it and ultimately, the resolution.

The reason I do this is to make sure I've addressed every single plot and subplot.  It's also good for watching the development of character arcs, tracking the changes in a character from beginning to end.  So honestly, I don't write to outline--I outline to writing. 

At any rate, Theater of Cruelty is the final book in a three-book series.  Therefore, I have to make sure that every plot point is resolved not only from that book, but the previous two as well as the theme for the whole series.  Right now, I have three strips of butcher paper over my desk.  They're probably pretty incomprehensible to anyone but me.  They don't look like outlines--they look like flow charts, with arrows going from one sheet to the other to indicate a thru-line. 

Definitely not the heights of elegant office decor.

I have about 25k left in which to wrap everything up.  The ultimate plot resolution--the BIG climax--will take up about 10k: setting up the situation, working through the resolution (and you just know it's a big old battle scene), and then dealing with the aftermath.  Ten thousand words sounds like a lot.  That's what? Forty pages roughly? But when you're wrapping up 1100 pages of plot, it's really not. 

And that's where a lot of writers run into trouble.  Here's the big payoff, the stage they've been setting throughout the whole darn story.  No one wants to rush the great moment. We want to savor it, to set the scene lovingly and in great detail and to describe every single blow and twist and turn of phrase.  And in doing so, we can forget the most important factor of any great denouement--pacing.

When I'm writing, I think of the story like a mountain.  The pace is always rising, always escalating.  And, just like most mountains, there are small plateaus--breaks in the action where the reader and the plot can catch their breaths.  Then, it's back to the precipitous increase of energy and pace.  But if a writer gets all caught up in the importance of the climax of the plot, setting all the details and getting ensnared by the urge for description, the denouement falls flat.  Instead of being the *steepest* part of the plot, the story plateaus and then the reader usually throws the book across the room.  I had a huge problem with that in an early novel of mine.  It took me months to figure out what the problem was.  I mean, I had all of the ingredients so why was the plot resolution...boring?

And then it hit me: the plot resolution was boring because I'd focused on the ingredients and not on the dish.  I'd plateaued my plot.  Instead of increasing the energy and pace, I'd slowed everything down because I was so caught up in getting everything set perfectly.

(Yes, I could name examples of books that do this--in my opinion--and no, I'm not going to.  I'm not going to use another author's work to prove my point.  Better to just use my own.)

If you find yourself in this situation, I've found the only thing that works for me.  I thought I'd share it with you, and this works for pantsers or outliners.  When you go through on your first draft to write the climax for the first time, skip right over the setting of the scene.  All of that is detail and can be added judiciously later.  I write the story to the natural point where the denouement would be set up, then skip straight to the meat of the resolution.  I start at the very beginning of the action and write straight through the resolution without stopping.  This is where my flow charts or your outline comes in handy, and the main reason I use something big to chart it out like butcher paper or posterboard. I can look up and instantly see what I have to resolve.  I get my protagonist and antagonist on the stage and get them going.  I don't give a fig about writing *well*--my first draft denouement is chock full of adverbs and dialogue tags and I'll admit it.  That's because I can go back later and rework all of that cleanly.  The tags and adverbs give me the mood of the scene, and since I'm writing quickly I don't have time for all the frills and furbelows I usually use.

I find, too, that when I write quickly through the resolution, the pace of the narrative increases.  This makes it easier for me to go back after the fact and determine exactly how much description I need.  I don't want to affect the pacing of the story, so my descriptions and internal dialogue tend to be streamlined--much as they would be in any real life situation where everything is on the line.  I mean, think about it: say your significiant other was rushed to the hospital from work.  You get a phone call at your work, telling you he's been taken by ambulance to the emergency room.  Now, what happens next?

You haul ass to the ER.  You don't notice the weather, or what some other person is weaing, or think about all the good times you and your lover have had in the past.  You grab your keys, get in your car, cuss at the old geezer driving 30 mph in the middle of the road, break the speed limit, park half in and half out of a parking space at the emergency room.  You run into the ER and head straight for the desk and the hospital staff sitting there, where you demand to know where he is and what's going on.  Right?  As you're running into the ER, are you thinking about how many people are there?  What the furniture looks like?  What's playing on TV?  No.  Your mind is focused on only one thing--getting to your spouse NOW.  In a crisis situation, your mind eliminates everything other than your goal and what you need to do to attain it.

That's what happens in a good denouement. You focus your narrative, your characters, on what they need to do to resolve their crisis.  Everything else is just fluff.  The first drafts of my plot resolutions are quite literally stripped down to action.  I find that the crudeness and starkness of that narrative suits the escalated pace of the narrative and enhances it.  And then--after a couple of days off to let the scene rest--I go back in.  I check my resolution to make sure every single loose end has been addressed.  Then, I can work in whatever extra details are needed to complete the scene without tampering with the energy.

As I said, this is what works for me when I'm writing a denouement.  Maybe this will work for you, too, but if not you'll be able to find your own path.  The main thing you have to remember is really important--don't let your pace plateau during the climax of your story.  Don't get so caught up in "sounding like a writer" that you indulge yourself with lavish descriptions, flashbacks, and sensory details.  Concentrate instead on creating a fast-paced, high energy escalation of the action so that when, at last, the plot is resolved everyone--especially the reader--has to sit back and take a deep breath.

After all, the last thing you want to have happen is a reader throwing your book against the wall in disgust.  I've done that three times in the past week, and it's hell on book spines.