(Before you read this essay on plot, you might want to check out the story which it discusses first. That would be "Monsters" over on the fiction page.)
This essay isn't turning out quite the way I expected. I was going to begin with one of my favorite anecdotes about making art but, when I checked into it, I found out the story I'd heard was a myth. Well, almost.
It's about the film classic Casablanca. According to legend, the actors weren't told the ending -- mostly because the writers couldn't come up with one until almost two months after shooting started. Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid had to enact their wrenching love triangle so that it made emotional sense whether Ilsa stayed with Rick in Casablanca or flew off into the fog with Victor Laslow. In other words, the actors faced the same uncertainties as do we who muddle through real life. I've always found the idea immensely appealing. As yet, nobody has handed me those last few pages of the Jim Kelly Story -- those which reveal whether I am destined for a tragic fall or happy ever-aftering. I'm just making me up as I go along.
Unfortunately, there never was an Ilsa-stays-with-Rick option for Casablanca. Although Bergman claims in her autobiography that such an ending was discussed several times, the reality was that no censor in 1942 would pass a movie in which a woman deserted her war hero husband for her lover. Yes, the writers were still casting about for an ending late in the production, but their problem was not whether to send Ilsa off with Laslow, but just how to get her onto that plane. Does Rick persuade her to leave? Order her? Trick her? Slug her and then load her on? Why does he want her to go, anyway? And how could she ever agree?
To me, these questions point up the difficulty of discussing plot without sliding into character analysis. This is the wave/particle duality of fiction. In a story, things happen for reasons. It makes sense to say that what someone does falls for the most part in the domain of plot and why she does it is largely a matter of character, but I can't always make a hard distinction, nor do I see the profit in it.
Some writers are assiduous planners; I am not one of them. In fact, the outline is probably the rustiest tool in my kit. Of course, different projects require different strategies. I wouldn't launch into a novel without making notes, timelines and character sketches; complex, episodic stories sprawling over someone's entire lifetime might require a diagram. But in general, my approach to plotting is to procrastinate. I don't necessarily want to work out everything that's going to happen ahead of time. Whenever possible, I prefer to wait until I can collaborate with my characters. I ruefully acknowledge that this isn't the most efficient way to write, but it's what works for me. Procrastination serves two purposes. First, by keeping myself in the dark as long as possible, I'm better able to maintain my own interest in the story. The reader can sense when a writer is bored, so I try never to be. And without doubt, the most exhilarating moment in the creation of any story is when what I see on the screen surprises me. Second, I think that developing plot/character using the Casablanca model adds verisimilitude. Characters who navigate precisely through a storyline to some well known destination all too often turn out to be plot robots who never come alive on the page. Even if they do, I worry what they are missing along the way. I prefer to send my people out to discover the story. If, on the road to denouement, they chance across a cave which leads to a secret empire, I let them climb down for a look.
"Monsters" began with Henry. I wanted to write about a character on the day before he became a mass murderer. The conceit is that he feels possessed by some interior "monster," so that the infliction of pain on others gives him intense, almost sexual pleasure. The plot arises from his struggle to contain the monster within. To help him suppress his craving for violence, I gave him a strong religious impulse. However, as I considered what might happen to Henry, I doubted God would save him. I believed he would lose the struggle with his monster in a splatterpunk explosion.
Note that I decided to tell about the day before he became a killer. This was a important structural decision, since it dictated that "Monsters" have an organic plot which observed the unities of time and, to some extent, of place. This story could have been about how Henry got to be the way he was, in which case I could have ranged through his childhood, his sad careers at school and work and his non-existent love life, picking and choosing key moments to dramatize. This would have been a longer, more episodic story, possibly more complex but less immediate and therefore less scary.
All by himself, Henry doesn't necessarily suggest a plot. A plot arises out of conflict; the protagonist needs a strong antagonist. I wanted to put someone in Henry's way; a final obstacle to overcome before he began his killing spree. Celeste is a character I conceived of over twenty years ago. She is an oxymoron: at once a caterpillar and a butterfly, the ugly angel. Because she has what the world perceives as a deformity, it has brutalized her. Yet, she still clings to an unlikely dream of love. I made several pages of notes on Celeste when I first thought of her, but for some reason she never seemed to throw off any plot lines. I relegated her to the idea drawer with the dozens of other half- baked characters, openings, suggestive titles and snippets of dialog I had scrawled on scrap paper over the years. (The contents of the idea drawer have since migrated to a file in my computer.) Just as I was trying to figure out what to do with Henry, Celeste popped out of the drawer and volunteered to help.
The plot flows from their interactions. In her desperate attempt to get his attention, Celeste unwittingly puts Henry under the stress that will release his monster. She thinks she's in a romantic comedy; he's in a horror story. My first thought was that he would kill her, only to discover, too late, that she was the angel whom his God had sent to save him. Although I did not have a firm notion of everything that was going to occur in "Monsters," the plot did have a destination image which, when fully developed, was my intended climax: Celeste must be undressed so that her miraculous wings could unfold.
Most adults I know spend the greater part of their day on the job, yet surprisingly few genre stories take place in the workplace. Whenever possible I like to show what my characters do for a living. So Kaplan's Cleaners becomes the setting of much of what Robin Scott Wilson calls the involution of the plot, the purpose of which is to push Henry past his breaking point. The scene in St. Sebastian's, set outside Kaplan's, serves as a kind of gauge on which the reader can read Henry's rising tension. It is also a blunt foreshadowing of the violent climax I anticipated at the time I wrote it.
Foreshadowing is perhaps the most useful tool in my plot kit. It is a way to create expectations and to prepare the reader for what may come. To foreshadow is to parallel some climatic event at a strategic moment early on in the story. Foreshadowing can be as subtle as a passing, perhaps enigmatic reference; it can be as blatant as a pattern of repetition or a particularly striking image. All the monster's appearances foreshadow its final possession of Henry. When Henry imagines Celeste in a three piece bikini, it foreshadows the scene in which she reveals her wings. While overindulgence in foreshadowing can become affectation, the careful writer can use it to make even the most improbable twist believable. Foreshadowing can also be used like a magician's handkerchief to distract the reader from the author's true intentions, to create a seeming inevitability where none exists. More on misdirection in a moment.
I remember getting stuck as I approached the end of Henry's work day. This is the price one pays for plotting on the fly. Outliners have it easy; they always knows what comes next. I regard getting stuck as nature's way of telling me that what I am about to do is wrong; the problem crops up in almost every project.
The plot point I needed was for something very bad to happen to revive Henry's monster. But what? An obnoxious seatmate on the commute home? A fight at the bus stop? A burst pipe in the apartment? All these seemed either too tame or generic. The real problem was that I didn't know enough about Henry at that time to write a scene powerful enough to free his monster. Such a scene would have to be deeply personal. My early plot/character decision not to delve into Henry's psychopathology was now catching up with me. It was time to answer the question Damon Knight had taught me to ask twenty years ago at the Clarion Writer's Workshop: what mattered most to my character?
I had long since decided that Henry's parents would be conveniently dead; it almost always pays to economize on characters. However, if the reader was to understand my tortured loner, I needed to stage some of his history. A clumsy way to accomplish this would have been to have him gaze at a picture of himself and his dad, say standing on the dock at the lake, then cut to flashback. In fact, just such a picture was hanging in the story at the time. Or else that obnoxious seatmate on the bus might say or do something that jogged his memory ... nah! Eventually I got it. Henry's dad wasn't dead; he was dying.
This insight remade the plot of "Monsters" in a way I could never have imagined before I started writing. The hospital scene was perfect for scraping Henry's emotions raw -- and I was able to implicate Celeste in the disaster too. But I found the old man's rebuke so scarifying that my sympathies turned. It became clear that the emergence of the monster coincided with the onset of Roger West's long illness and his unfair, pain-wracked censure of Henry, who was trying as hard as he could. Pardon my hubris, but the god Henry was praying to was me; what kind of universe was I running here? By the time I finished the hospital scene, I no longer wanted Henry's monster to win, even though that had been the climax toward which I had been working for the previous 7,420 words.
Which brings us back to the craft of misdirection and the uses of the surprise. Did I now owe it to the reader to unforeshadow the murder ending? I believe I did not. After all, I hadn't changed the actual destination image of my plot: the unfolding of Celeste's wings. I'd simply changed its meaning. In no way had I made it impossible for Henry to beat the monster. Indeed, there are glimmerings of humanity in him. Certainly, he loves his father. He also refuses to crush Celeste emotionally when he has the chance. Building on that fragile foundation, Celeste might be able to save him. It would probably take a miracle, but then I was already committed to the miracle of Celeste's wings. If I wasted her, literally and figuratively, "Monsters" would have ended as one more splatter fest with an ironic twist. The potential for redemption had always been there, I had just never considered it.
There are reasons why science fiction and fantasy writers try so hard to inject surprise into their plots -- particularly into their endings. We're writing popular literature here; surprise may be the most special of our effects. And it's part of our heritage. After all, we're the folks who gave Western Civilization Amazing and Astounding. Surprises sustain and even enhance the reader's interest in a developing plot. Remember that when most critics use "predictable," it is as a pejorative. Nobody wants to hear, "I guessed how it all came out on page two," whereas a well-wrought twist ending can prolong the life of the story in the imagination. For some time after that last page is turned, the reader will still be thinking about what happened.
Surprise forms part of the philosophical underpinnings of the genre as well. If science fiction is about things that could happen but haven't yet, and fantasy is about impossible things, then astonishment is our natural condition. We deal in the shock of the new -- and the strange. Moreover, the genre has a proud history of subverting cultural assumptions and challenging the common wisdom. What if we didn't have to die? What if we're not the crown of creation? What if reality is a lie?
Up until the moment that Celeste undresses, "Monsters" can be read as a mainstream story; its many commonplaces invite the reader to map the real world onto it. For example, it's entirely possible that Henry has multiple personalities and his monster is one of them. If this is a "realistic" story, the reader's dread must soar when Celeste arrives at Henry's apartment, because in the real world Celeste would seem to be doomed. It would take a miracle to save her, and the common wisdom is that, in reality, there are no miracles, more's the pity. Actually, two miracles occur in the seduction scene and only one is fantastic. When Celeste kisses the monster, a disoriented Henry reappears; when Henry sees her wings, he finds the strength to banish the monster.
Which was more important?
I mentioned earlier that I attended Clarion. In the years since, I've become a workshop enthusiast; I've been to Milford, Philford, Sycamore Hill and am currently a member of the monthly Cambridge (Massachusetts) Science Fiction Workshop. While workshops are not for everyone, I find that listening to a group of very creative readers analyze and interpret my work it is always instructive. In particular, what workshops do best is scrutinize plot and character "Monsters" was the first manuscript I put through the Cambridge Workshop. Their comments helped me fix a number of problems, most related to the midcourse plot/character correction. The remains of the splatter ending were distorting the salvation ending. Henry was at times too bloody-minded and psychotic; he did not appear to be a good candidate for redemption. In part because I had intended to kill her off, I had drawn Celeste as an annoying and superficial chatterbox; she did not seem to have enough self-insight to deliver her tirade against the deity. These flaws in characterization undermined the climax of the plot. I made what I thought were the appropriate revisions and sent the story to Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.
Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams have published sixteen of my stories, including much of my best work thus far. When they make suggestions, I always pay attention. They wanted to buy "Monsters" but worried that the last few pages were too rushed. After all, Henry goes from crazed blood lust to peaceful post-coital sanity in a very short span. They wondered whether I'd lurched toward the happy ending too abruptly. My recollection is that they wanted me to provide more foundation for Henry's profound change -- perhaps by means of some pillow talk right before the denouement.
As Robin Scott Wilson points out, the ending of a work of fiction consists of climax and denouement. The climax, as the turning point of the plot and the moment of highest reader interest, gets the most attention, as well it should. However, the denouement, the sorting out and sending off, all too often is treated as an afterthought. A grievous mistake, in my opinion, because it's here the writer gets to make one last statement about the meaning of the story. It is also the perfect place to impart what politicians these days call spin.
A story I wrote once upon a time as a student at Clarion involved a woman scientist who, against her better judgment, participates in an unspeakable experiment. In the process she nearly wrecks her marriage. After much techno-mayhem, she alone is left of the research team; the experiment has succeeded but at a horrific cost. At the denouement, she retreats in a daze to her office, where she finds a dozen roses from her estranged husband -- a peace offering. In the version I workshopped, she decides impulsively to take the bouquet, go to him and leave everything else behind. It was the bland conclusion to a There Are Some Things We Are Not Meant To Know story. In her critique Kate Wilhelm taught me the importance of the denouement. After reading my manuscript, Kate suggested a change: what if my heroine tossed all but a single flower out, stuck that one into a bud vase and sat down to write up the experiment? All it took was two sentences and one red rose to transform the piece into a chilling and powerful Scientist Loses Her Soul story.
After mulling over Sheila and Gardner's criticism of "Monsters," what I decided was that rather than pad the climax, I'd put a new spin on the denouement. Here's the last paragraph of the version they read:
Much later, he eased out from under the covers so as not to wake her. He realized where the monster had gone when it left him. He pulled on his jeans, padded into the living room and felt under the cushion. It was in the Beretta. He stared at the gun without comprehension. Even though it was still as hard and black and cold as ever, it didn't seem real to him anymore. He stripped the magazine, picked the shells out one by one, and hid them under the sink. He stuffed the gun in the trash under the pizza box and went back to bed with his angel.
Compare this to the revised denouement, as published in Asimov's. There are several ways to interpret the penultimate sentence, but at least one valid reading is that the monster is not permanently defeated. As Henry vacillates and then decides not to get rid of the Beretta, the monster may once again be insinuating itself into his psyche. Henry has not yet been completely redeemed; however, he does seem to have mastered his madness -- for the time being. This is not necessarily a happy ending, although it is hopeful. Like so much of what I write, "Monsters" didn't turn out quite the way I expected.
Which comes as no surprise.
© 1996 by James Patrick Kelly. First published in PARAGONS, edited by Robin Wilson, St. Martin's Press