What to Learn about Writing from: Age of Innocence, Things We Didn’t See Coming
How to fit in coincidence and outside action later in a story.
Or: how to get the outside inside.
Sometimes, in order to make things happen with passive protagonists, or in books/stories that feature setting or where set pieces play a big role (think: arctic exploration, apocalypse, floods, car crashes), we bring in an outside event/something happens by coincidence. This convenience to the story can easily turn off the reader, break them out of the magic spell the author is weaving, make them see the artifice. So how do we get these things in without the reader noticing they aren’t what Forester says is plot: caused by a previous action?
I think our accepted way as writers is to “plant the seeds.” To include, earlier in the text, hints that the outside event is coming, or even a flash forward so that the reader knows it will come and it isn’t a surprise. Sometimes, historical context is on our side, and the seeds are mostly planted for us, like the end of World War II in The English Patient, or the coming of the Ugandan civil war in The Gravity of Sunlight. If a flood will play a role in our story, we might show frequent rain and have the characters remark on the weather, or even show a forecast. If a ship is going to steer into an iceberg, we might see the iceberg off in the distance or hear a warning or a story of another collision. If a building must collapse, we might have our protagonist mean to seal up a crack in the wall or someone might say in passing that the building should probably be condemned.
Another (to me, less satisfying) technique is to explain the convenience after it happens. There is a moment in Snow, by Orhan Pamuck, when something crucial happens and then just afterward, the narrator explains why, that seriously reduced how much I could enjoy the (great) book thereafter. I won’t spoil the plot, but I felt as if, had a certain crucial character trait (which we only saw after it affected the plot) shown up as a trait all along, this moment would not have bothered me.
But with either method, I wonder if these moves we do are enough to convince the reader that what happened had to happen. That’s the effect a writer wants, after all. We can put up with coincidence as the reason a story starts, as a reason to start telling a story in the first place, but less so as a reason a story turns, and probably not at all as the reason a story resolves. Or at least not in literary fiction. We have certain expectations.
I just finished The Age of Innocence and Things We Didn’t See Coming for school. There is something in The Age of Innocence that is an outside action that helps move the book along to its conclusion (SPOILER ALERT): the financial crises of Beaufort. We pass right over this and accept it. In Things We Didn’t See Coming, each story (except the first) has a new post-apocalyptic or dystopian society, but the details of these societies are pretty much never really given. I mentioned in class that in some of the stories I felt cheated by not knowing why the world was the way it was, and in some I didn’t care, it wasn’t necessary. Then I wondered why that was. My thought is this: one (1), because in some stories, the society drove the plot, and in others, the effects of the society drove the plot. That is, new needs to be filled and/or the destruction of nature drove the plot. In the situation where the effects were more important than the society, I didn’t need to know so much about the post-apocalyptic infrastructure because I cared more about the people. But in the situation where the society was more important, caring about the people seemed incomplete if I couldn’t place them within that context and know why the society was the way it was and they within it. Two (2), I also think it was because of something I’m going to call thematic logic.
A good dystopian book has a lot to do, I think, with thematic logic. The world represents some failing in which the protagonist has the same failing or is the solution to it, the key that fits in that lock. The failing has caused all of the things in the dystopian government to be as they are. Which is why they can be resolved or have to be struggled with by the protagonist. In the stories that work for me in Things We Didn’t See Coming, the action seems to progress out of the same thematic logic that governs the character and the world. In a world (imagine the movie voice now) where it rains constantly and nature has taken over, people must be driven out, and the narrator, who hates himself but wants to survive, has to and chooses to drive those people out and then sneak back in and steal their belongings to sell in the cities where people do still live, and this type of behavior gets him shot. In a world where the border between city and country is the border between not having life and having life, a grandmother wakes from basically a coma for a day, full of life, trying to make something out of what is left, and then at night, goes to sleep and ends up back in her coma. There is a progression of thematic logic there that accepts the outside logic. In other stories, the world was rebuilding itself around personality and a man wanted to keep his wife by giving her away and yet drugs somehow blew his chances, or the world was rebuilding itself around some secret society and a man had to pass some test of morality vs. survival based on whether or not he takes some object from his past that suddenly appears, or so on.
In The Age of Innocence, Beaufort’s financial loss puts a ton of pressure on the protagonist’s potential losses in society. He, like Beaufort, might lose his position due to unacceptable decisions (he wants—SPOILER—to leave his wife for another woman). The entire book, Beaufort has been presented as a foil for Archer. Beaufort is the kind of man who holds loose the morals of his group yet enjoys the pleasures of it. As Archer chooses to go after the love of his life, Beaufort comes to ruin and that ruin pushes their society and Archer’s own law firm to cast him out. Meanwhile, his wife and he are also setting plans, as well as his lover, and he is about to make the choice real or not. Beaufort’s situation puts a lot of pressure on Archer by showing him what he will come to. This is a coincidence, with no obvious seeds, and little explanation afterward. So how does it work?
It works, I think, because of how Beaufort has always been the foil, and after his ruin, is even more the foil. He is Archer’s possible fate, possible path. And the outside event of his ruin is just a progression, in action, of that thematic logic. The story needs this ruin for various reasons, not the least of which is to do even more of what Beaufort has always been doing for the story. So though the event does not build causally, it does build thematically. This may be one way to get an outside event inside the spell of story.