Recently, a Korean American woman, the mother of an acquaintance, asked if I had gone to one of these “culture camps.” She had sent her younger half-white daughter with an adoptee friend, and later that daughter had moved to Korea. It sounds strange, but when I met this mother, my first thought was surprise at her lack of accent. When my acquaintance had said her mother was Korean, I had imagined a Korean like my wife’s mother, or like my birth mother might be. I have to realize constantly that I have my own prejudices. I was telling another writer that as a child, I never assumed an accent when I met a fellow Asian American, but that changed after my first trip to Korea. I said: somehow, I became a little more racist in my birth country. The other writer said this change had to do with expectations. It is true that as a boy, my experience with Koreans was an experience of self, and my experience in Korea was of actual other people. That may have been the difference between thinking of myself as Asian, and Asian American. I was telling the Korean American woman about the culture camps as a way to talk about the disconnect I felt from who I was. She was asking about the camps, however, because she wanted reassurance. She hadn’t been able to impart the language or much of the culture to her kids, and she wanted to know that her daughter had gotten something out of the camps. I didn’t realize what she was looking for until after I answered, though, and saw her reaction. I was trying to answer honestly, about myself, but maybe I was also trying to make an impression on the mother I had thought this mother to be. I told her about how I had manufactured an identity in which I felt safest, a white identity, an identity that erased my past and made me part of the family I knew, and about how, when my parents took me with their good intentions to this camp, I felt as if they were pushing me out of the nest they’d built me. I hated to see myself as separate. Then the woman told me about her daughter and I tried to backtrack, so she wouldn’t feel as if she had put her daughter in a similar situation. I am glad that these camps can be helpful to other children. I wasn’t ready for one. Maybe if someone like my adult self had been there, to handle the fragile egg of my denial, someone who might have seen what I was doing and the stage I was in, and taken me aside to say that I could be everything, not one thing exclusive of others? But you can see in this anecdote that I am still so much inside of a made-up life. I am still struggling to see myself from the outside in, to peck through a crack I’ve tried for most of my Americanhood to seal.
I probably live about 50% in my head, so that is why it is hard for me to connect with people I didn’t make up.
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.
I wanted to write a novel that had the momentum of the Korean dramas I was watching. I had agreed to write a serialized novel for an adoptee magazine, Gazillion Voices, because I was an idiot and thought that would be a nice short easy project. My idea was to structure it like a kdrama, which would allow me to keep watching them as “research” and to write the thing that felt most compelling to me—that is, if I’m honest: magical romance, with a little mystery thrown in.
But I couldn’t make that happen on the page.
My most successful stories had always been stories with almost no sense of scene, and good kdramas, like most good TV, thrive on big (often cliffhanger) scenes, on getting you *emotionally* invested in what happens next, not only wanting to know plot-wise, but wanting to feel the emotional build-up and anticipating a point where all those emotions will get some release. What can I say, I like to feel the feels.
I had a good sense of stakes and arc, how get the reader involved, how to push the story forward, and frankly, how to write a nice sentence, but these were general things that all seemed more useful once I could get everything set up and in moving everything forward from there to a big payoff.
This is why it worked fine in stories, and in my novel of tiny sentence-driven parts, and even, perhaps, in the novella (though I think what helped me there was writing it first as a screenplay). It meant a small set up, a quick drive to the end, and a satisfying finish that carried most of the emotional weight.
You can’t write the kind of novel I wanted to write like that. The kind of novel that is like a TV show, that is based on scenes and action and drama and keeps the reader/viewer on edge with what is going to happen for a long time, even while many things are actually happening.
I was submitting this novel to a workshop run by Mat Johnson. One of the simple things Mat said that changed how I was thinking was: just put in only the information that you need to make a particular scene work. I was struggling to get in all the stuff that would make the novel good later on. Like, this character likes that character but that character likes another character, and if the wrong relationship happens, this and that and this other thing will be lost forever, and it represents this struggle in his past and so on. Instead of, for one scene: this character likes that character but that character doesn’t like him. That was all I needed to make that scene go, and that scene would build the information in for later scenes, where the information was actually needed.
Another little piece of advice Mat dropped in one day as I was leaving the classroom. He said something like, “You need a symbolic action.” I nodded and left without much thought. Later, at home, I considered what he had said and then what I thought that meant to me, realizing that I both kind of knew but didn’t know at all. I watched another episode of a kdrama. I analyzed how those scenes worked, what a symbolic action was in them. Like how a man might wait all night in the cold without a coat for a woman to show up, late. Or record a video for a woman to play after he might die. Or follow her all the way home without revealing himself.
The symbolic action, to me, meant an action that would represent the emotion of the character. In the first example (Boys Over Flowers), it shows the feelings of the character before he or the love interest really realize themselves. It shows that he would go through something difficult for her. It shows that he has changed a little in his feelings toward her, and it changes our esteem for him a little. It also changes the woman’s, whether or not she is ready to admit it yet.
In the second example (The Greatest Love), it shows how much he would give up, a man whose heart malfunctions (literally). These are actors, so it’s also representing the movie he really wants to make (okay, sappy). He has gone, at this point, from someone completely about himself to someone who thinks that what he should leave when he dies is something for one other person.
In the third example (every kdrama ever), it shows, usually by this point, that the man is in love with the woman but can’t admit it, or feels he can’t act on his love, or is protecting the woman and protecting the woman from it, though also that it’s inevitable that eventually she will turn and they will face each other again. Etc.
A good symbolic action, I started to think, is more than often present in effective scenes, real scenes that actually do the things I was told a scene does a long time ago and had forgotten: change the character, change the situation, start in one place (emotionally and/or physically) and end in another. It also does or leads to the kind of things we love about drama: gets your heart beating, reaches or displays some emotion, gets both the reader and the character emotionally involved, sometimes in the same direction and sometimes in opposite directions, makes the reader want to go on and find out how this has affected what’s to come.
I jotted down a little list of things to note for each scene in the “Scratch Pad” of Scrivener, starting with the symbolic action and going from there, thinking about advice I had stored away and internalized (hopefully) or even given to students and failed to keep well enough in mind. And then I looked at the scenes I had and answered the questions with either what was there or what should be there, and revised the scene accordingly. This helped immensely. Before I wrote each scene from then on, I would answer these questions. They were a guide to me. Maybe they will help others, either in planning or in revision.
What to remember for each scene:
What is the symbolic ACTION?
How does the character change (even a little)?
How does the situation change (even a little)?
What is the high point/what gets heart beating? (Get out of the scene here or at least very soon after.)
How does this scene affect the reader’s emotions?
What emotion is at play for the character?
What is this scene about? I.e. what is its purpose, and why do I need it (here)?