The F Words: A Stranger Comes to Town

In literature the stranger-comes-to-town motif is quite common. In films, for example, there’s In the Heat of the Night. There’s Shane. There’s The Brother from Another Planet.

Stranger-comes-to-town is a type of plot, just as seeking revenge is a type, and going on a journey is a type. It’s the skeletal structure on which a writer hangs a story.

The stranger coming to town changes everything. For better or for worse. Definitely for the town, and sometimes for the stranger. In In the Heat of the Night the Virgil Tibbs character, a Black detective from Philadelphia, tracks down and unveils the truth about who murdered Phillip Colbert. The suggestion is that Tibbs has changed the minds of some of the townspeople about racism.

In Shane the stranger is the title character, who comes to “town” (Wyoming territory) and stands up against land robbers, killing three of them in a gun battle. The movie shows that, without Shane, the Starrett family would have been victims of the land robbers. Shane changed the outcome.

The Brother from Another Planet takes “stranger” to a new level: an alien from outer space. The mute alien changes things for those he encounters by repairing things and healing people, suggesting that there is a far better way of living than we on Earth have found.

The three strangers I’ve mentioned change thinking and outcomes in one way or another.

The F Words structure is not hung on the stranger-comes-to-town motif — but there is a stranger who comes to August Mersy High School. That stranger is Treva Soldat, who comes from Portland, Oregon, where, as a student, she has participated in protests against standardized testing and especially against rote teaching for standardized testing. Treva brings that experience of political struggle with her.

Situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago calls itself the “Third Coast,” probably because it feels so hopelessly Midwestern compared to the East Coast and the West Coast, which hog all the glory. Dressed all in black, Treva comes from the West Coast, with an anarchist tattoo on her wrist. She comes ready to judge liars, cheaters, racists, and self-seekers. And she does not hesitate to speak out.

Treva is a catalyst to the situation Cole and Felipe find themselves in. While they are still angry over Jillian’s racism, Treva is already suggesting battle plans. Cole and Felipe not only understand that battle plans are important, they’re impressed with Treva’s commitment. In no time at all, the three of them have formed a team that will fight for Felipe’s election.

In no time at all, the three of them are fighting for Cole’s re-instatement.

And then they are fighting for the future of one of the characters in the book.

In each case, Cole and Felipe would have and could have fought alone. But in each case, Treva helps make the battle easier by having already been through such a struggle in Portland, or by suggesting alternatives. The difference she makes when she comes to town is that she becomes the third person on the team. (In fact, it’s hard to say if, without a third person, there even is such a thing as a team.) And, a triangle, with three points, is the strongest architectural figure that exists. Treva helps change things at August Mersy High by transforming a very strong two-point relationship into a stronger-still three-point team. 

Unlike Virgil Tibbs, she doesn’t introduce a new way of thinking or looking at the problem: Cole and Felipe already know and understand the problem. Unlike Shane, she doesn’t change the outcome of [most of] the situations. Of the three film examples I’ve given, Treva is most like The Brother in that her knowledge and experience suggest better possibilities.

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The F Words: Circular Ending

Generally a work of fiction has one of two kinds of endings: circular or linear. You can think of a circular ending as one in which the hero returns home: back to where he started from. You can think of a linear ending as one in which the story conflicts come to a climax and then the story ends: nobody returns home. 

Two of my favorite classic novels are Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The ending of the first is circular, that of the second, linear.

“Returning home” doesn’t mean to the exact same place with the exact same attitude. Time and events change us all, and they especially change the hero of a novel. Because somebody or something has changed, “spiral ending” is probably a better name than is “circular ending.” In a circular ending, the hero would end up at the very same point on the circle from which she started. But in a spiral ending, the hero ends up at the same spot (literal or metaphorical), but on a different plane. She could be on a spiral above where she started, or below where she started. In other words: there are similarities between the hero’s position at the beginning and her position at the end — but there are also profound differences. When, at the end of Great Expectations, Pip returns to the place he grew up, he is a very different person than the one who left that home to fulfill his expectations.

Most action and adventure stories have linear endings rather than circular ones. Moby Dick is sort of an adventure story, chasing the Great White Whale around the world. Its ending is a linear one. It ends in the middle of the Pacific Ocean rather than in New Bedford (where it began), so Ishmael does not “return home.”

When I’m reading a novel, I don’t consciously think about what kind of ending I would prefer, circular or linear. What I think is: I want the ending to be satisfying. I want it to be decisive. Please don’t let this be a book in which the author doesn’t know where to end, and so seems to end the book several times. Please let the ending be true to the story. And not trite. Please, please, PLEASE don’t let the author preach to me as the book ends. Please don’t let the author wrap up the “meaning” of the book by having characters state the obvious.

As you can infer, endings are important to me: I want them to be wholly satisfying. That’s the bottom line. I don’t care if they’re linear or circular, as long as they’re satisfying.

That’s me as a reader. Me as a writer thinks pretty much the same way. Before I start writing a book, I have lived with the characters and plot for months and months. And I know what the ending will be. I don’t know the middle, but I do know the way the story should end for these characters in this situation. And in choosing that ending, I never think, “Hmmm. Circle? Line? Which shall it be?”

But when it comes to rewriting and everything is up for consideration, that’s when I examine the ending and ask myself if it’s circular or linear. And, more importantly, I ask myself if that type of ending is good for that particular story.

The end reflects the promise of the beginning.

Linear endings are more apt to end with a bang: they head uphill, with the conflicts getting stronger and stronger, until they reach a climax. Then, a brief denouement, and the story is over with. Adventure stories are usually linear, and since detective stories are adventures of a sort, it makes sense that their ending is linear: onward to the  next adventure. Each of my two mysteries, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, has a linear ending. This makes great sense for detective stories: the case begins, the case is solved, the case is closed. 1-2-3. End of story.

A circular ending, on the other hand, is one of contrast between the main character at  the beginning and the main character at the end. The circular ending establishes a new “norm.” In The F Words, for example, Cole Renner at the book’s ending is a more formidable opponent of injustice than he is at the beginning. Circular endings have been called endings of quiet strength: that seems to describe Cole’s character at the end of The F Words.

She’s on First, my first novel, also  has a circular ending. In She’s on First, it is not the main character (Linda Sunshine, the baseball player) who comes back to the beginning: it is one of the other point-of-view characters. The character who started the story is the character who ends it. You could say that the situation is the same: scout and player in conflict. But an awfully lot is different, and that difference gives hope to the reader.

In The F Words, it’s both situation and character who are the same. Cole was “speaking” in the very first scene, and he is speaking in the last scene. But what he speaks, and how he speaks it, and to whom he speaks it — all these things have changed. And those changes give hope to the reader.

Which isn’t to say that all circular endings give hope. Some do not. I’ve never felt hope at the ending of Great Expectations. Only sorrow. But circle endings do give a sense of solidity to a story: a feeling that “home” matters — home being not a house or family necessarily, but a place, feeling, or stance that is vital to the main character.

Linear or circular — the ending must fulfill reader expectations. Which I hope The F Words does.

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The F Words: Inciting Incident

In fiction the main character experiences an “inciting incident.” The inciting incident is an event — not just any event, but one that propels the main character into the actions that will constitute the story. To state it another way, the inciting incident  (which need not be the first event in the book) triggers the primary actions of the story. 

In The F Words the inciting incident, which thrusts Cole into the actions of the story, is his spray-painting the f word on the brick wall of his high school (not just once, but fifteen times) — and getting caught by Mr. Nachman, his tenth-grade English teacher.

The inciting incident should occur early in the story: within the first three minutes of a movie, and within the first twenty pages of a novel. The inciting incident of The F Words starts on page one. (My attitude is, if you’re going to incite, don’t delay!)

In some novels there is backstory before you get to the inciting incident. But it’s the incident, not the backstory, that propels the main character forward into the conflict/journey/struggle. 

When I first started to write fiction I didn’t put my inciting incident on page one. In She’s on First, I think the inciting incident is in Chapter 2 — when Al Mowerinski signs Linda to play for the Chicago Eagles. Chapter 2 is a long way into the story for an inciting incident. I might have sensed that, because I began the novel with a strong hint of what the inciting incident would be. I then continued with backstory, and in Chapter 2 fulfilled the expectations of the inciting incident.

But by the time I was writing my second novel, Dirty Proof, I had somehow or other decided that the inciting incident should go on the first page of that particular story.

And speaking of page, it’s important for a writer to understand that the best inciting incidents are events/actions that take place on the page (not in summary or narrative or flashback). Not only should the main character experience the inciting incident, but so should the reader. The reader should be able to feel everything the main character feels about that incident, be it fear, surprise, anger, befuddlement.

A writer must make certain that the inciting incident makes the main character act in a way he or she would not have normally acted. Consider the incident of Cole being caught by his English teacher. When he catches Cole in the act of tagging the high school wall with the f word, Mr. Nachman tells Cole he will not report him to the principal if Cole fulfills two conditions. First, he must volunteer to clean the words off the wall. Second, he must, for every week of the school year, write two poems, each about a word that begins with f, and he must hand these in to Mr. Nachman every Friday morning. 

You can see that, had Cole not been caught, he would not have volunteered to clean the spray-painted words off the school wall. Nor would he have volunteered to write two poems a week for his English teacher. The inciting incident pushes Cole into a different set of actions than he would have taken without that incident. Because the inciting incident causes the main character to take actions he wouldn’t have taken otherwise, it causes the character to change — and change is important in fiction. The character on the last page of the story is different from that character as he appears on the first page of the story. He (or she) has undergone a journey and has changed.

At the end of a novel, the reader should be able to see the arc of the journey the main character has undergone. And, it is always rewarding to a reader when she can see the first step of that journey and the inevitable link between the first step and the conclusion.

The importance of the inciting incident can’t be overestimated. Yes, it grabs reader attention and kicks off the story. But more than that, it draws a line between the character’s previous life and this moment: Now. In fiction the inciting incident and its results change the character’s life forever.

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Rising Action

In fiction rising action need not be action itself, and that’s because the term “rising action” includes not only character actions, but also character decisions, as well as events within the setting or plot (an economic depression, for example, or an earthquake). Taken together, all these incidents help build interest, suspense, and tension — and lead to the novel’s climax.

The individual events that constitute the rising action are important because they help lead the story to its climax. To put it another way, the climax is the ultimate, logical outcome of the rising action. If a writer doesn’t plan the rising action so that it’s believable and so that the cause-and-effect is very strong, the climax may not satisfy the reader.

Rising action is created when a writer throws obstacles in his hero’s path. These obstacles stand between the hero and her goal. The obstacles can be other people . . . or the character’s own doubts or hesitations . . . or society . . . or the natural world.

All action is, in a way, change. Rising action, then, is escalating change — to a character, to a relationship, to a plan, to a mission, to a town, country, or world. Again, this change need not be action: it could be something as simple as a character making a discovery, or being told a secret. Much of the rising action in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca consists of the protagonist (the second wife) learning things that change her perception of and understanding of Rebecca.

In Building Better Plots, Robert Kernen encourages writers to think about the arc of their story: the plot events that curve upward from the first incident to the climax. Kernen believes that as you outline or list these story elements, you should “naturally feel the level of tension, anticipation, and your characters’ stakes rising.” I agree. Rising action is something you can feel as you think about your story’s plot. And you can especially feel it as you’re writing the escalating events.

Many months ago I wrote about Rewriting: Macro. If the story in manuscript form doesn’t contain rising action, the writer must rewrite the entire story so that it does contain rising action. That’s a major  (macro) rewrite. So it pays for the writer to pay attention to rising action from the first page onward.

Rising action is often depicted as a set of stairs, with each step an escalation (increase in intensity or seriousness) of the protagonist’s situation and choices. I prefer to think of rising action as a series of bridges that get burned behind the protagonist due to each choice she makes. Or as a tunnel of increasing narrowness, with no retreat possible: the only way out is through bold action.

Recently I wrote my first YA novel (publication date not yet set)and in plotting it I tried hard to make certain there was one bridge crossed and burned toward the end of the first 20% of the manuscript, maybe two additional bridges crossed and burned in the next 60%, and the final bridge crossed in the last 20%. I knew that if I plotted the novel with rising action embedded in the story, I wouldn’t have to worry that my first rewrite would require the insertion of rising action. What I chose as my steps of rising action were there from the beginning, pulling the story forward.

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, contains a chapter titled “Rising Action and Pace.”