Late last night, however, I set aside everything on my backed-up agenda* and wrote a couple of paragraphs, just for me. My long-term concentration is kind of shot right now, and there's no time to work myself into the flow of story anyway, so I just zeroed in on one emotion-laden action that takes place near the end of the book. I messed around with the words and structure, thinking the action through from various angles: what the MC is doing, what he sees, what he feels, what the reader needs to know. I ended up with a disturbing little pair of paragraphs that may not actually fit the ms or the character's journey.
It's interesting, though. This action--or rather, the character's realization of his action--is a key turning point that allows him to make his choice at the end. Only right now I don't see how it might do that, which is why I'm wondering if it even fits. It's possible that I need to rethink the entire sequence of events in the last quarter of the book (all of which exist only in my head right now)--or even the events themselves. Maybe the ending I'm heading toward is wrong? It's all part of the puzzle, and I'm looking forward to having a chance to figure it out.
Some of the puzzle's answers may lie in my separating the MC's inner and outer goals in my head. I need to think them all through individually--what they mean, what kinds of things might happen at the end to show whether a goal has been achieved, and if not, why that's okay. But I also need to be careful, because I can tell it's going to be very easy to focus on some aspect of the MC that's slightly beside the point, and if I do that it'll mess up the whole book. It's easy to ask yourself a question and think along the surface to arrive at an answer that makes complete sense, but isn't really the key emotional truth of the situation.
For example, I know that my MC wants to keep his "family" alive. At a glance, I could check that off (and I occasionally have) as a inner goal because it's about his feelings and desires. At a glance, his outer goal would seem to be about getting rid of a dangerous weapon and the people who threaten him. But this is all shallow thinking and not helpful to figuring out the story structure.
Actually, I need to stop thinking in limiting terms like inner goal and outer goal. A novel is more complex than that. When writer friends who read the first 50 pages noted that their goal for the MC was that he be relieved of some of his mental/emotional burdens, I immediately remembered: that's what I want for him, too.
Some of the things I'd like my MC to be able to do by the end:
- not hold himself so utterly responsible for everyone else's welfare
- accept that he's doing the best he can in a bad situation
- give himself credit for having good intentions; most people don't, as he knows
All of these tie into what's compelling me to write this ms: exploring the idea of mercy/empathy. I've been struggling a little with whether this guy admits to himself that he thinks mercy is positive quality. He clearly instinctively feels that it's good to have. I just haven't been sure whether he acknowledges this to himself, and if he does, how much.**
Other things I need to think about:
- When he goes back to his home in the very last scene, how is he different?
- In the final quarter of the book, how do events drive him to make the three changes above?
- Something has to happen in the climactic scene to force him to a knife-edge decision. That decision is the final dividing point between not-changed and changed.
- How do conversations and interactions in the book's middle increase the harshness with which he views himself?
- How do conversations and interactions in the book's middle allow him to relax the harshness for a few moments?
- How do all of these conversations and interactions add up to mean something to him at the crucial moment of choice?
- What are his choices?
- What happens at the climax that forces him to choose?***
- How do the events leading up to the climax (see "disturbing paragraphs," above) throw his options into sudden stark relief?
- Do the events leading up to the climax even fit? Do they need to be rethought, strung out earlier in the book, or cut completely?
Hmm, now I'm looking at that last point from the first list. Give himself credit for having good intentions. Why would he think that good intentions mean anything? He certainly has no reason to think they're of value. He'd have to come around to even considering that good intentions alone merit credit.
So...hmm, hmm. This speaks to the middle of the book (if it speaks to anything at all; it could just be a distracting detour). He'd have to see something that causes him to value good intentions. No, not just good intentions--good intentions devoid of practical payoff.
Triple hmm...and who is tailor-made to have a ton of good intentions with zero practical payoff? The inciting-incident of a character who made his appearance in the first line of the book, that's who. And who is also one of the three guys at the climactic confrontation.
The MC is the only one who can relieve himself of his mental/emotional burdens. He's surrounded himself with people who would willingly help him carry the weight. He hasn't purposely selected these people; the fact that they're with him now is a byproduct of his occasionally acting against practical benefit, but with good intentions.
The MC understands none of this when the book starts.
The new character is also tailor-made to cause the MC to unwittingly start shifting some of his (the MC's) worries away. The MC would be lessening the weight he carries just by talking about the decisions he has to make and the reasons he makes them.
Would the MC talk about any of this out loud? Yes, because the new guy is from a different culture; the MC would be explaining stuff and the guy would be asking lots of questions as well. I doubt the MC would even notice he was lessening his mental burdens by explaining stuff to the new guy.
Or...not until the big hassle with the messed-up love triangle and its misunderstandings. Then the MC would notice what he'd been doing, and that he'd come to rely on sharing some of his inner workings--because suddenly he couldn't, not anymore. Quadruple hmm. I've been wondering why the MC wouldn't just secretly kill the guy, post-messed-up-love-triangle, then hide his body in the woods and tell everybody he ran away. This may be why. I also knew my MC liked the new guy, but I couldn't quite verbalize the whys and wherefores thereof. Now I think I'm starting to get it.
This all seems promising, like it may very well be productive thinking, and therefore important to remember. However, I know I won't. (see "long-term concentration, lack of," above) By the time I'm able to pick up my ms again, I may not even remember that I need to look at this post. Perhaps a big ugly blog title will help.
*If you're reading this and you're waiting for something from me, sorry. I'm finding that if I try be a machine 24/7, what happens is that I work slower...and slower...and slower...and feel worse and worse and worse about it. Recent events compel me to cut myself some slack and quit trying to be a machine. Life is too short.
**The distinction is important, because if he doesn't acknowledge it to himself, the plot needs to drive him to learn it. Something needs to happen to open his eyes and make him decide, "I'm going to accept that this is how I feel, and quit berating myself for the few times I've gone 'soft.'" After he faces the fact that he values mercy/empathy even though they're pointless/dangerous, he needs to act on this self-knowledge at some point--and that tells me more about what happens in the plot. Whereas if he already knows he values mercy/empathy, most of the plot input probably comes from his figuring out how much weight he's going to give it as the stakes rise and change.
***I've got three guys at cross purposes in a high-stakes confrontation, and a gun with one bullet. I know something happens. I'm just not sure what, exactly.