Friday, October 1, 2010

Busted!—Jordan Sonnenblick caught plot-flipping

Sometimes a conflict can carry you only so far into a story before thinning out and stopping shy of novel-length material.

Say you're writing about an Asian kid moving to a new school district. Let’s call him San Lee—author Jordan Sonnenblick did. San is your average American 8th grader with no special skills who is desperate to fit in, especially with this off-beat girl he’s met, Woody, who happens to be a really good guitar player. When his social studies teacher introduces a unit on Buddhism—the same unit San took at his last school—San finds a way to shine.

Woody takes San’s interpersonal reticence, his spare wardrobe, and his knowledge of Buddhism to mean that he is some sort of Zen master. She digs this identity and San wins her attention.

Problem solved! Except that novel has shrunk to nothing more than a fun little anecdote.

Sonnenblick found a way to extend this conflict in his young adult novel, Zen and the Art of Faking It (Scholastic), and we can emulate his process.

Set up misconceptions through backstory
Sonnenblick finds a way for each of Woody’s suppositions to be faulty:
San’s reticence is nothing more than fair Woody’s ability to take his powers of speech away. He wears sandals and no winter coat through the snow-slushed streets because his father is in jail and his mother can’t afford much. And he comes across as a Zen master because of some emergency research in the public library and some artfully staged meditation sessions.

Extend the conflict across a well-orchestrated cast of characters
Sonnenblick creates an imagined rival for Woody’s affections, a librarian who feeds him Zen literature thinking it’s for a class, a mother who offers San sweet yet untimely help, an overly protective brother for Woody, and a social studies teacher who tries to inspire San to end his charade.

Set up a fall by letting things go right for a while
San is learning a lot about life on his fabricated Zen quest, and gains popularity by helping others. Even the reader gets it—in pretending to be what we want to be, we can become it!

Flip the plot—let the solution become the problem
After all his effort, turns out Woody thinks that San’s Zen-like avoidance of earthly attachments means he won’t have a girlfriend. Oops. And since that secure identity she exudes is a façade—Woody aspires to be as self-assured as San is—she doesn’t take it so well when she finds out San’s mysticism is as adopted as he is. What San has been doing, although to his benefit as a human being, is a whole lot like lying.

John Irving, in his complex 600-page novel The Cider House Rules, employs a similar plot tactic. By spreading conflict surrounding abortion and adoption over his cast of characters, then flipping the plot to explore the darker side of pregnancy resulting from incest, Irving immerses the reader in all sides of a conflict so deeply philosophical we can’t help but have a new appreciation for the complexities of life.

What examples of plot-flipping have you employed or enjoyed?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."


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11 comments :

  1. Now you've done it.

    I'm going to have to read the book.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Haha, Holly. Jordan's a great writer. I love Notes From a Midnight Driver as well. And his first, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie made the rounds of our family on vacation one year. When the reader would laugh out loud the others who had already read converged: "What part are you reading now?"

    ReplyDelete
  3. I love this one, Kathryn! It really drives home the point that writing is an art—a skill that must be honed and polished. Many people can put words on a page, but fewer can weave a powerful story with the depths and complexities you discuss here. This is a great lesson in effective writing. Thank you for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Wow, who knew I'd done something so complicated?

    :)

    Thanks so much for writing so eloquently about my work -

    Jordan

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks, Linda.

    And Jordan: I was hoping you might hop on and comment today! Thanks for stopping by. You make a daunting task like writing a novel seem simple. It's one thing to be able to analyze what you did, and quite another to successfully transfer those skills to one's own project!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Sounds like a book to look into. Great post - always enlightening!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I would like to know the secret of extending a good 'long story' into a full length novel without it getting boring?
    Blessings, Star

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Star: I feel like you asked the question that was behind the very premise of this post. Review each of its steps and let us know how your revisions go!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks so much for sharing the tips on how to expand a story without just adding fluff. This helped me with my WIP.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "My dog Bingo loves to roam;
    one day Bingo left his home.
    He came back, quite unclean;
    Where, o, where has Bingo been?"

    As if we really cared. Silly spammer, next time, leave the WHOLE alphabet - preferably in order - or there will be no cookie for you!

    ReplyDelete

The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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