On Thickening the Plot

I expected that this summer I’d be able to read book after book of my own choosing, so much so that each week I’d have two or three to choose from for a weekly “book of the week” post here on the blog. But that, obviously, hasn’t happened. Luckily, I’m busy with a research assitantship plus a publishing internship, so I’ve had plenty to do, but because I’m busy reading unpublished manuscripts, I haven’t had so much time to read for fun.

So instead of a book of the week, here’s something I’ve learned from the manuscripts I’ve been reading: the climax needs to solve the central conflict of the novel. For example, let’s say you’re writing a romance and you start off with a woman meeting a man and a reason for why they can’t fall in love–maybe they work together and they want to maintain professionalism. This reason keeping them apart is the main conflict of the novel: it is not until the climax of the novel that they should overcome their reservations for good.

If the initial reason isn’t a very salient one, then it’s tempting to add to the characters’ problems. And additions that make the central problem more complicated are definitely good for a manuscript. You could add a company-wide policy forbidding office relationships, or one of the protagonists could start dating someone else. These twists will up the stakes for the characters so that when they make their choice in the climax, it causes more tension: not only will they be making themselves vulnerable because they are confessing their love for each other, but they could also lose their jobs because of it, so you know they mean it.

However, there are also additions that can take away from the novel. Rather than complicating the plot, it can be tempting to change it altogether: put a character in a coma, or have them get mugged. This, too, amps up the stakes, but more often than not, when a life-or-death complication is added to the plot, it changes the climax. Suddenly the characters aren’t dealing with an office romance anymore. Now they are confronting their beliefs about death or their issues with taking care of other people. The climax isn’t about the central problem set up at the beginning of the novel; it is about something else entirely.

Now, a story about a character confronting her issues with taking care of someone else is something I would read. But it doesn’t belong in a romance novel that is supposed to be about a relationship between coworkers. It’s not what I agreed to read when I started the book, and it’s not a satisfying ending because the climax is not related to the beginning.

This is not to say that there can’t be novels that are about office romances AND characters who have issues with taking care of other people. But the climax has to be solving the main problem of the novel, not a problem that popped up 2/3rds of the way through.

Hopefully I will get back to reading published books soon. Any recommendations?

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One thought on “On Thickening the Plot

  1. Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. This is little slow going, but fascinating at the same time.

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