My wife and I had the pleasure of visiting a book club in Casey, Illinois, last week, just about an hour from where we grew up. Casey has taken it upon itself to be the capital of the largest things in the world. We saw the world’s largest wind chime, the world’s largest rocking chair, the world’s largest pencil, the world’s largest golf tee, the world’s largest mailbox. We skipped the world’s largest pitchfork and the world’s largest wooden shoes because, well, you know, you can only take in so much big stuff all at once and we wanted to save something for next time.
I love this book club, Bound By Books, comprised of women who are smart, interesting, and gracious. We were talking about my first novel, Quakertown, which is coming back into print this September. Rereading the novel before my visit—after all, it’s been over sixteen years since I wrote it—I was surprised to feel fairly good about the way I let the plot unfold. I’d imagined I’d cringe, knowing much more now than I did at the time I wrote that book, but for the most part, I didn’t. I noticed a few things I’d do differently such as taking a little more time to build toward some of the major plot moves. I believe I remember hearing one of the book club members say something about a lot happening in the book.
Which brings me back to the world’s largest pencil, and the saying, “Go big or go home.” I want things to happen in my novels, things that come organically from the situations the characters create. What will they do to try to get themselves out of trouble? What will the consequences be for them and for others? What will their efforts tell us about the mystery of being a human being on this earth? I want to go big in the sense that I want the plot to move along. I want my readers to get swept up by the worlds I create and the characters who populate them.
I worry that today’s young writers, for whatever reason, fear plot. I read a lot of stories that don’t have much narrative momentum. A number of characters sit and think, or walk and think, or lie down and think. Don’t get me wrong. I love the interiority of characters who are interesting. I love them even more if they create a plot that serves not only to keep the story or novel moving but also reveals more of the characters’ interior states of being.
Often all it takes to get a plot in motion as a piece of fiction opens is something out of the ordinary. When my wife and I got home from Illinois, I noticed that the door from our garage to our house was open. This was something I didn’t expect. This was mystery (how did the door get opened?). This was story. If I used this premise in a piece of fiction, I’d walk around it until I found the proper connection to character. What if that open door let in some lingering dissatisfaction in the marriage? What if each spouse blamed the other for the fact that the door had been left open? What if other strange events started to occur: lights left on, items lost, etc. How would this start a causal chain of events that would ultimately reveal something surprising about this relationship in particular, and, by extension, something true in general about the way people rub together as they move through this world.
Look for something out of the normal come-and-go. Let it connect to something deeply rooted in character. Let it put pressure on the character to act. Let each action create the need for another one until the chain is complete and something has shifted forever for this character and his or her world. Go big or go home. Give your characters something that’s just a little unusual, maybe a little mysterious—something that sets a narrative in motion.