So I had a plan for the week that’s just ended. It was to go to New Zealand on Tuesday morning, spend the next three days conducting day-job-related meetings, spend the evenings working on Raven’s Blood in my hotel room and then to fly back on Saturday afternoon.
Instead, this happened:
Yes, my skull turned blue and transparent and a red light flashed in my jaw.
No, wait, I mean I got a toothache. A REALLY FUCKING BAD TOOTHACHE, YOU GUYS. So bad that I couldn’t sleep or focus on writing; so bad I had to cut the trip short and come back on Thursday night. Fortunately my doctor was able to fit me in on Friday morning and I got a root canal. Which are not very much fun, but better than losing your mind due to constant pain.
Ah well. Life goes on.
But this is a writing blog, not LiveJournal, so how can this experience be used in a story? Well, the obvious answer is a story about toothache, but BORING AND ALSO OUCH. I’m more interested in the derailing aspect – the idea of a story cruising along as intended until some outside influence comes into the narrative.
I mean, sure, you could just write it that way – a sudden interruption and then you return to the plot – but that’s not the way to go. As a reader and editor, I don’t like extraneous material in a story; if an event or character or situation doesn’t meaningfully contribute to the story, it doesn’t belong there. Real life has stuff that just happens, but the whole point of fiction is that it’s not real life, even when it pretends to be.
So what are some ways to make something like this work to improve the story?
Let’s say that you’re writing an urban fantasy story in which Con Johnstantine, Greek occult investigator, is looking into a case of crotch goblins manifesting in people’s pants.
…hmm. Possibly the painkillers are still fucking with me. But let’s roll with it.
Okay, so there are crotch goblins and Con is on the case, but in chapter 6 he gets a massive goddamn toothache and needs a root canal. Here are five ways to work that kind of left-field event into the story and make it feel not only relevant but meaningful to the overall narrative.
Con is on the case and close to a break-through, but then the toothache knocks him for a loop for three days/pages. When he recovers, it’s too late, and Shit Has Got Real – the crotch goblins are rampaging across the entire city! External distractions and problems can be good obstacles to put in a protagonist’s path to slow them down and raise the tension. They’re especially useful because they don’t damage the character’s perceived competence – Con didn’t let things escalate because he’s a bad occult detective, he just got sidelined by something that could happen to anyone.
Con goes to see the dentist, putting the case safely on hold for a while. He strikes up a friendship with a dental technician, and perhaps will learn to love again, but then she gets possessed by the crotch goblins and the tragedy renews his determination to rid the world’s underpants of evil. To be honest, I don’t love subplots – unless you’re working in a strongly compartmentalised milieu like TV or comics, I generally find them distracting. Stay focused on the core story, rather than noodling around the edges! But an exemption can be made for subplots that illustrate points of character or personality, or let them develop in ways that the main plot probably wouldn’t allow.
Better yet, have the subplot lead into plot points that directly impact the core storyline. Even dulled by anaesthetic, Con realises that novocaine would be a useful weapon against the crotch goblins. He grabs a case of it from the dentist’s after chatting up the dental technician and uses it to take out most of the goblins before fighting their king, David Bowie. This is more satisfying because the diversion means something concrete; on the other hand, you shouldn’t make the subplot an absolutely vital part of the story’s outcome. A secondary plot should help overcome a secondary obstacle, not the primary obstacle.
Con thought crotch goblins and toothache were problems enough – until he realised that the dental technician was in fact the Tooth Fairy, hidden in witness protection and being hunted by the Toothpaste Mafia! Now he has to protect his new love and the city while manoeuvring his two enemies into wiping each other out in a riot of mouthwash and underwear. This is the classic A-plot/B-plot structure used in many a book (including The Obituarist) and it’s a great way of adding depth to a story without muddying the waters of a single narrative. Swap from one to the other, using the moves to control pace and tension, and then bring them together at the end.
Hah! You thought this book was about crotch goblins! But no, it’s all about Con and the Tooth Fairy fighting King Colgate and his army of floss demons, ready to crack open the dentures of all reality! The goblins were just a fake-out, and Con can clean them up with a holy water douche in the denouement or epilogue or something. This kind of bait-and-switch can piss off readers who get invested in the fake-out early, but if you’re careful with it you can use it as a form of world-building; it gives the strong impression that there are many equally valid concerns in the world that the protagonist must deal with, rather than just one cah-RAZY problem.
So whether your story’s about crotch goblins or academic intrigues or just too many hot dudes wanting the protagonist’s number, there are ways to throw a wrench into the works and still make it feel organic and meaningful, rather than tacked on.
Just be sure not to hit me in the face when you throw that wrench. My gums are still pretty tender.
In other news, I turned 42 yesterday. Whoo! It was a somewhat muted celebration, as I’m still not in great shape from the root canal, but I’m having a proper party next weekend.
If you feel like giving me a present, consider the gift that keeps on giving – a positive review of one of my ebooks over on Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords or anywhere else that people might see it. Come on, folks, this dental work isn’t going to pay for itself!
…man, what if dental work could pay for itself somehow? There’s a story in that. A squicky one.