Reading every day is one of the best things you can do to yourself, to develop as a writer. Someone said something along the lines of "writing is doing it, reading is learning it." It blows my mind each time I come across something new that I haven't seen before, especially if it's something unexpected. This time it happened while reading Moomin books by Tove Jansson. I grew up on these stories (they were popular in Russia), but have never read them in English. So I picked them up for a nostalgic reason and on the last book got pinned to the ground with an iron rod of an insight. Or something.
I saw all books and all plots in the mathematical pyramid of sorts and fainted.
Okay, I didn't faint, but I nearly fainted. Because it was so easy. Those of you who regularly read my blog will laugh, because not a week goes by without me shouting in your face, THIS IS IT! I HAVE FIGURED IT OUT!!! Whatever "IT" might be. It's irrelevant, because next week I figure out the next "IT' and so on. But, back to plots. What struck me is this.
BOOKS HAVE MULTIPLE PLOTS.
Okay, we all know this. But what exactly does it mean?
1 CHARACTER + 1 DESIRE = 1 PLOT
This is the basic formula as I saw it. A plot is simply a yearning, a desire, a want, a wish of the character. There is something they want to have. It could be anything, but it has to be strong enough for us to believe it. In the last Moomin book, MOOMINVALLEY IN NOVEMBER (which I suggest you read for character study), Snufkin wants to wander (he wants this throughout all Moomin books), Toft wants a mom, Fillyjonk wants to clean, Hemulen wants to sail, Grandpa-Grumble wants to hybernate, and Mymble wants to dance. Not all of them know from the beginning what they want, but we, readers, do (this is another layer to desires).
Now, there plots and subplots. On top of the subplots above, they all want a family, and that is the overarching main plot, plus underneath it is Tove Jansson's personal pain. A year before she published the book her mother died, and she wanted closure. I didn't know about it. I felt it from the book and it hit me so hard, I cried. Sure enough, when I looked it up, the dates matched.
So, for every single book this formula is true (according to my insight):
X DESIRES (OF Y CHARACTERS) = X PLOTS
And this is how every book is built. It really is just a number of characters and a number of their wants that make up the number of plots. For example, if you have 2 characters and one of them wants 3 things, and the other wants 4, the number of plots will be 7. Out of those 7 some may be more important and may become bigger plots, others may be less important and might not play a large role in the story, but here is another thing the struck me.
EVERY PLOT MUST BE CLOSED.
My early books suffer from this. My characters wanted too many things and I didn't give them all those things. I had trouble focusing on what they wanted and just piled it all in. Bad idea. It leaved readers dissatisfied, as they wanted closure. Closure is why we read books. We don't get closure in life. Shit happens and leaves us bewildered and upset. But in books the story follows rules, things are not chaotic, events are controlled, and for every plot there is an end. In good books. Notice how in books you set aside some things never get resolved. That's lazy writing. However, writers like Haruki Murakami, for example, can easily leave plots hanging without the sense of loss to the story. How he does it, I have yet to learn.
THE MORE EXPERIENCED YOU GET, THE MORE PLOTS YOU CAN HANDLE.
This is my very simple advice to all beginners. Start small. Have one character with one plot. Follow Aristotle's formula of the three act story:
- Pity. Have us feel pity for your character because something bad has happened to her/him.
- Fear. Have more awful stuff happen to your character to make us afraid for her/him and connect emotionally.
- Catharsis. Have your character overcome the hardships, meaning, close the bloody plot.
Now, with this formula in mind, everything makes perfect sense.
Can you handle a gazillion people with gazillion wants? WAR AND PEACE, anyone? Yes. Tolstoy was a fucking genius.
Can't handle much or want to dive deeper into one character? THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Hemingway was smart, he did lots with little.
Anything in between? Easy. You don't need to be a plotter to keep this in mind, simply record your characters' wishes as you draft and make sure to close the loops in the following drafts or cut them out.
This is what Chekhov meant by his famous rifle quote. If you have a rifle in your first act, it better fire in the last one. So there you go. Start out small and gradually increase your capacity for handling more and more complex stories. That is what I will do. Right now I'm at capacity with 4 characters in THE BADLINGS, and since I glimpsed this insight, I will focus on less characters in TUBE, to polish this idea. Namely, I will focus on 2: Olesya, the main ballerina, and the ballerina-eating train, like the beauty and the beast, the rest of the people will be secondary.
Okay, rant over. Tell me if it makes sense. Onward.