There are some who would say this isn’t in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, and certainly not in line with advice I have often given people who are stuck: to just write the next word and keep moving. Since each time I have redone a scene I started from scratch, I think this counts as legitimate first draft activity. I’m not revising, see. And if someone thinks this is a form of cheating, well for years I was a member of the NaNoWriMo Rebels. The original rules specified that you not write a single word of the story before the stroke of midnight on October 31. So I was a rebel because I was usually trying to finish one of more works already in progress. So if my multiple tellings of the same (or substantially similar) scenes is cheating, I guess I’m a rebel again.On the other hand, there is a scene that is told twice which I intend to go into the book that way. The reader will first seen the end of a battle from the point of view of the main villain of the story, as he arrives when most of the fight is over and tries to figure out what’s happening. Then in the next chapter the reader will see the beginning of the battle from the point of view of one of the protagonists and learn quite a bit more. And I think it works quite well.
We’ll see what the readers think.
I first encountered Neil Gaiman’s writing back in the late 80s and early 90s while he was writing The Sandman for DC Comics. Sandman was not a superhero comic, it was the story of the incarnation/personification of Dreams, and over the course of the series Gaiman told tales crossing many genres: myth, mystery, horror, and a lot of things that are difficult to classify. It won a bunch of awards. One issue won a World Fantasy Award for short story–a thing which shocked some people so much they changed the rules so that no graphic novel or graphic story could ever be nominated in a World Fantasy Award writing category again.
Anyway, over the years after I would encounter some of Gaiman’s short stories and novels. Some I liked, some I didn’t. But the ones I liked were always so good that I would always at least give a new story a try.
When I first saw reviews of his 2001 novel, American Gods it sounded like something that would be right up my alley. A combination of fantasy and Americana that looks at the question, if ancient mythological creatures were all real, where are they now and what are they doing? Admittedly themes Gaiman had already explored in Sandman, but it’s an area of fantasy of which am an enamored. So I expected to love the novel.
It would not be fair to say I hated the novel simply because I have never been able to make myself finish it. I got bogged down maybe a quarter of the way through. Since I’m often reading multiple books at any given time, I set it aside with a bookmark in place and grabbed another book on one of my shelves with a bookmark and read it. Months later I happened across American Gods on one of my shelves, and I picked it up read some more. And I still wasn’t feeling it.
A few years later I headed into the computer room at our old house intending to copy some files from my desktop computer to take back to my laptop and my comfy chair in the living room and get some writing done. We used to have a small stereo in the computer room that one or the other of us could plug our iPods into. When my husband was playing video games on his computer, he often listened to audiobooks on the stereo. He was in the middle of one such book when I entered the computer room that day.
And during the few minutes it took me to find the files I needed and copy them, I found myself sucked into the book he was listening to. I sat there for more than a half hour listening. I only stopped because my husband paused his game for a bathroom break, and also paused the book. I asked him if, as I suspected, the book he had been listening to was Anansi Boys. It is sort of a sequel to American Gods, though Gaiman said he thought of the second book first. Anyway, it shares one important character, and essentially happens in the same world.
I asked my husband if we had a hardcopy of the book. He said he thought his copy was on the shelf next to his side of the bed. So I went, found the book, and spent the rest of the night reading Anansi Boys from the beginning, instead of writing. I quite enjoyed the book.
So not long after, I figured that maybe, now that I had finished the sort-of-sequel and really liked it, I should give American Gods another chance. After all, I had disliked and not finished the first three or four Discworld books people had tried to get me to read years before. Then a friend convinced me to read Wyrd Sisters and, well, it wasn’t long before I owned a copy of every single Discworld book there was.
I still found it impossible to become interested in American Gods or its main characters.
There are many people whose opinions I respect who really like American Gods. There are many people whose opinions I respect who don’t like it—I can think of at least one friend who hates it with a passion. I don’t hate it, I just can’t get into it. On the other hand, there is the related book I love, and a number of other things by the same author I love.
The lesson to be learned here is: not every story is for every reader.
If someone reads your story and doesn’t seem to be interested—even if they come out and say they hate it—that doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. It doesn’t mean you are a bad writer. All we can know from that data point is that that particular story is not for that person.
So don’t let the fact that anyone has ever reacted poorly to something you wrote stop you from writing something else. Don’t listen to that voice that says that no one will be interested in this story. Or that says you shouldn’t try. And so on.
There is someone out there who needs the story you are trying to tell. I am confident of that. But they will never know they need it until they find it. And they will never find it if you don’t write it.
So, go! Write! Tell that story! Now!
This reminded me of another conversation I was part of online elsewhere in which another NaNoWriMo participant commented that they had gotten bogged down because they reached a part of the tale where some characters needed to explain something that had happened off screen to other characters. Since NaNoWriMo is a first draft, experienced writers go into it knowing that a bunch of what we write isn’t going to remain in the final story. Sometimes we know that we’re just writing a scene to figure something out. Other times we don’t realize that all or most of a scene isn’t needed until much later, while we’re editing revising.
It is true that sometimes you need to give the reader information to understand a character’s motives and relationships. The trick is to do it without a lot of exposition. One of my favorite instances of giving the viewer such back story happened in the pilot episode of Teen Wolf the series. There’s a lot of bad story telling (contradictions, nonsensical villain plots, queer-baiting by the metric tonne, et cetera) that happened in that series, but sometimes they got things right. In that first episode, the two teen best friends, Stiles and Scott, are trying to figure out what bit Scott the night before, and whether it has anything to do with the mysterious body found be authorities the previous day. They are in the woods and are confronted by a slightly older, very gruff man who tells them they are trespassing and to go away. As they leave, Stiles whispers to Scott, “Don’t you remember who that is? It’s Derek Hale, he was a couple years ahead of in school? His entire family died in a fire several years back.”
It’s a whole lot of backstory, packed into a couple of sentences that set up a number of more mysteries and reveals that come up over the rest of the season. And having Stiles be the one who says it helps you learn a bit more about his personality traits that become important later: he notices things, he obsessively researches things, and no matter how many times his father, the Sheriff, tells him not to snoop, his curiosity just can’t be restrained.
Anyway, I’ve written about this topic a few times. But rather than paraphrase, I’m just going to quote one of the shorter posts on that topic from some years ago:
In order to write a character’s dialog correctly, I have to have a good image in my head of who he or she is. That doesn’t mean I need to know eye color and hair length and how they dress, necessarily—I’m using image metaphorically. I mean that part of the process of giving a character a personality is imagining their life and how they got to be who they are now.
This is for everyone, even walk-on characters who may have only one or two lines of dialog out of an entire novel. I’m not one of those authors who has to write all of that down before I can use the character. Walk-ons usually just pop up when I need them. I’ve put my protagonist in jail, let’s say, and I’d planned who his cellmate would be before I got to the scene, but I hadn’t thought much about any other prisoners. As I start writing the scene between the protagonist and his cellmate, the other prisoners just chimed in at appropriate parts. While I don’t know the names of any of them, I have a small sketch in my mind of each one’s personality and a bit of his or her history, too. It just blossomed as soon as I needed someone to make a humorous interjection.
That’s just the walk-ons. Supporting characters that are planned as parts of subplots have quite a bit more than that, while the main characters have even more.
Most of the backstory remains in my head and my notes. My stories tend to be character- and dialog- driven, so usually the only details about a character’s background that come up are the ones that would normally occur in conversation:
“You always have to be smarter than everyone else, don’t you?”
“There was a time when you found that endearing.”
“I grew up!”
Even without any description or names, reading that dialog tells you that these two have known each other a long time, that they used to be close (perhaps even romanticaly involved), and now they are less friendly. I may never reveal more about the past experiences between these two characters, but I know how they met, how long they were close, how they spent their time together, and how they had their falling out.
Usually I’m pretty good about not letting the backstory over shadow the current action. But not always. Especially if I get some characters together in a scene who are very talkative. The dialog can go on and on for a while, if I let them.
During re-write I always find some scenes like this, filled with a lot of interesting banter, but that I need to trim. When reading the scenes aloud, even just by myself, I can tell when they’re going on too long. Fortunately, usually it only takes a little pruning to punch up the scene and get things moving.
But sometimes that backstory includes information the reader needs, and it isn’t always clear until I get a reader’s perspective that some details I thought could be inferred weren’t obivous.
I have a couple of supporting characters I’m working with right now whose scenes I was trimming the last couple of nights. They’re both intresting characters. I’ve gotten feedback indicating readers like them. (Even though in the current novel they don’t have any scenes together, one of them had a short story of his own published a few years ago, and the other happened to be a supporting chracter in it.) But they’re only supporting characters in this tale, and the parts they have to play in the current story aren’t big enough to justify all that information.
Even though I saved the removed dialog elsewhere, it still hurts to trim it.
But when it’s too much, it has to go!
I’ve discussed this topic many times both on my various blogs, on convention panels, and in personal conversations. The person thinks they can’t write because the idea they have isn’t perfect, or they aren’t being creative/original enough, and so forth. One very specific form of this issue I’ve heard many times goes something like this: “I’ve read about how plotting and so forth works, and when I’m analyzing a book or show or something I can often see where the tale went wrong, but I’m not able to apply that skill to writing something new.”
At which point I usually launch into my rant about how writing is not the inverse of literary criticism?
What do I mean by inverse? Well, let’s first consult the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. The relevant definition is: “ Of two operations, relations, etc.: such that the starting point or antecedent of the one is the result or conclusion of the other, and vice versa; (of one such operation, relation, etc.) opposite in nature or effect (to the other).” So, for instance, untying a shoelace is the inverse of tying it, while tying the shoelace is likewise the inverse of untying, right?
So, what do I mean when I say that literary criticism isn’t the inverse of writing? I mean that if one imagined the process of analyzing and deconstructing a story as a series of tasks, performing those tasks in reverse doesn’t produce a story. And when you compare your ability to find flaws in a story as being a necessary skill to creating a story, you are misunderstanding the creative process. Also, knowing how to perform literary deconstruction doesn’t guarantee that one understands stories—it means one understands paradigms that some authorities have proclaimed about stories.
Another way to understand it is to think about music: literary criticism and the like can be looked at as similar to understanding the mathematical equations that describe sound waves. Understanding those equations doesn’t mean you can think up a catchy tune. Which doesn’t mean that studying music theory might not improve your music making, but it doesn’t guarantee you will make compelling, or even mildly interesting music.
So, for instance, when a story teller begins working on a story, they don’t make lists of the metaphors they intend to use. Likewise, we don’t usually think about what the theme of the tale is and so on. I, personally, virtually never know what any of my metaphors are in a story unless someone points them out to me.
Everyone’s process is different. Most of my stories begin as a question, and the process of writing is how I try to find the answer to that question, and to the subsequent questions I uncover while working on the first.
Analysis is very useful during the editing and revising. Studying some of the things we can quantify about how stories work isn’t a waste of time. But don’t focus on that. Certainly not when you’re at the first draft stage.
Or, as Gandalf observed: “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
In just a couple of days November will be here and that means National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! In case you aren’t familiar with NaNoWriMo, let me first quote from their website:
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.
On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.
There are rules, but for years I participated as a Rebel, until a few years ago when they dropped the one rule that kept making me a rebel.
- Write one 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.
Start from scratch.
- Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction.
- Be the sole author of your novel.
- Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.
That second bullet is the rule that they changed. Most years I use NaNoWriMo as a motivation to work on some stalled or otherwise unfinished projects rather than starting from scratch, which is why I was always over in the Rebel category. NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun, and I find that having a few friends participating and mutually cheering each other on (and in a couple of cases to try to race against, word-count wise) helps me get a lot of work done.
NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone. But I’ve seen people who didn’t think they’d like it come out happy that they’d given it a go.
If you’ve ever wanted to write and have trouble finishing, give it a try. Particularly if the thing that is holding you back is a feeling that whatever you’re writing isn’t good enough, there is something freeing about just focusing on getting the word count up. Leave editing for later. you can revise and correct a horrible draft, but you can’t do that to a blank page.
And it is supposed to be fun, not a chore.
I think I know what I’m going to work on this year. But I’m leaving myself the option to change my mind at the last minute.
Let’s make some fiction!
Neil Simon is probably most famous for writing The Odd Couple in 1965. The original production won 5 Tony awards (including one for Simon). It was adapted into a very successful movie (Simon was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay), three different television series (one of which was nominated three times for an Emmy and won three Emmys and one Golden Globe for the leads), and a cartoon. Simon reworked the play twice over the next several decades: once with gender bent characters, and one just to update the dialogue and situations which had become a bit dated.But he wrote a lot of other plays and movies. A few were autobigraphical (The trio of Bright Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound, for instance, which were all later turned into movies). Most of his plays and movies were comedies, yes, but many dealt with serious interpersonal issues, sometimes in heart-wrenching ways. On the other hand, he could write incredibly zany comedy. For example, the 1965 movie After the Fox was an over-the-top parody of every caper/heist film ever. While 1976’s Murder By Death is an equally mad parody of every murder mystery movie and novel ever.
As Playbill noted:
‘Simon also made his mark as a creator of original screenplays, writing the scripts for the 1972 critical hit The Heartbreak Kid, which was directed by Elaine May; The Out-of-Towners, starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis as hapless visitors comically victimized by New York City; Murder By Death, a spoof of the detective genre; and the 1977 romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl, which starred his then-wife Marsha Mason and helped to make Richard Dreyfuss a star. He was nominated for an Oscar for the latter, as well as for the films of California Suite, The Sunshine Boys, and The Odd Couple. He won a Golden Globe for The Goodbye Girl, and was nominated for The Sunshine Boys and The Heartbreak Kid.’
I’ve only gotten to see stage versions of two of Simon’s plays (The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, both by community theatre companies), but because he wrote many original film screenplays and adapted a lot of his plays to movies, I’ve seen a lot of his work. And one thing that I have always envied about his writing is how much he could convey with just dialog. The dialog is always witty and sharp. When it’s funny, it is hilariously so. But he also had a knack for placing a dagger of human frailty into the dialog, so that you are laughing, and then brought up short as a character’s pain or fear is laid bare.
For a few decades, Simon really ruled the American theatre stage in comedy. Don’t believe me? The promotional campaigns of most movies focus on the lead actors or the director, right? When movies were made from Simon’s plays and screenplays, the promo’s led with the author. It was “Neil Simon’s California Suite” or “Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys” or “Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners” and so on.
His plays worked because the characters in them, no matter what circumstances we met them under, felt real. Their fears, their hopes, their drems, their foibles, and most importantly their relationships always rang true. He was a master at dialog, but his dialog worked because he made us believe in the characters speaking his lines.
It’s an accomplishment every writer longs to achieve. Simon honed his craft during years of writing for radio and television. It took him years of hard work, careful observation, and then fighting to make each line count. When he hit his stride, he made it look easy.
So join me in raising a glass to Neil Simon, the playwright who taught us that life is weird, and that’s why we love it.
They aren’t always happy when I tell them that this thing they have gotten into spirited arguments with their spouse/relative/co-worker over doesn’t have a clear answer.
They are even less happy when I tell them that it does have a clear answer, and they are partially correct but have misunderstood the actual rule. I’ll give an example.
Which of the following do you think is correct:
- A FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police.
- An FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police
I’ve had a huge number of engineers who insist the first sentence is correct because “you only use ‘an’ when the next work begins with a vowel.” And they are sort of right, but completely wrong. Whether one uses the indefinite article “a” or its variant “an” isn’t determined by the spelling of the following word, it is determined by the pronunciation. Because most people pronounce that three-letter initialism FBI as if it were spelled “eff-bee-eye.”
It isn’t whether the next word begins with a vowel, it’s whether the next word begins with a vowel sound.
If that’s still a little too vague for you, you can use the instruction given in the Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer: “Use the indefinite article a before words in which the first sound is a consonant, a sounded h or a long u… Use the indefinite article an before words in which the first sound is a vowel, except long u, and before words beginning with a silent h.”
The reason that pronunciation determines which word is used is because written English is not a programmatic system for creating sentences nor an algorithmic apparatus for manipulating the alphabet. Written English is a methodology for representing the speech of English speakers. And when you try to pronounce a phrase like, “a hour” it feels wrong. The “uh” bleeds into the “ow” sound. Some people literally can’t force themselves to say it without the “nnnn” sound in there to break them apart; that’s how deeply rooted the habit has become.
This is a bit of a ramble to get to my point (and to introduce a new series of posts I’ve been plotting for a while): using language is not like assembling a piece of furniture. Language can be ambiguous and still be proper from a grammatical standpoint. Words have different meanings in different contexts. Sentences usually provide enough context that which meaning the author wants is clear. But sometimes the ambiguity is the author’s intent. That’s how much of poetry works; a line or group of lines are constructed in such a way that several meanings of a particular word are evoked, in order to create a synthesis or a juxtaposition of the concepts.
One of my problems when I am copy editing someone else’s work is not just that I have a bad habit of unconsciously decoding common typographic errors (so I literally don’t perceive the wrong word a person has written in some cases), but also because I love the many variant ways that language can work. Enforcing a standard style guide is difficult, because sometimes, even though a sentence in a particular article or instruction violates the guide, it more elegantly conveys the meaning than one which followed the guide.
This isn’t to say I don’t have my own style preferences that I will enforce on others if I’m in an editorial role (copy editors I have worked with can tell you about the long rows we’ve had because I insist that the only acceptable spelling is “okay” and not “OK” for instance), but I also know that those instances are preferences that I’m insisting on because I like them, not because there is an absolutely right or wrong answer to the particular question.
There are times when ambiguity is bad. There are times when you have to make the meaning crystal clear leaving as little doubt as possible about the exact meaning of a particular description or instruction. Most of those cases have to do with procedures which people are undertaking: instructions related to medical conditions, or repairing equipment, or recording legal documents. But quite often in fiction, a little ambiguity is required; it provides the wiggle room necessary to breathe life into your story.
“Semicolons revel in ambiguity; ambiguity is beautiful.”
This is hardly the first time I’ve written on this topic, of course: Editing is not about understanding the semi-colon and similar arcana.
And it was in the pages of the April 1983 issue of Asimov’s that I first met Connie Willis.
The novelette included in that issue, “The Sidon in the Mirror” is told from the point of view of person just arrived on a new planet. Except it isn’t a planet. Paylay is a dead star, and somehow humans have figured out how to live on a solid crust of the outer layers of the dead star. It isn’t a terribly nice place to live, but large pockets of various pure elements can be mined, so people have an incentive to come there. A side effect of the mining process has created a thin layer of mostly breathable air that is much higher in helium and hydrogen that ours is.
We learn that our viewpoint character is not human, but rather a Mirror: an alien species that has the ability to absorb personality traits, skills, and other things from other beings. They don’t take on the shape of the copied person, and the process is totally involuntary. Mirrors don’t even know they are copying, their personality being re-written as they go, unless someone else notices and tells them. There have been some instances in the past of Mirrors absorbing the murderous thoughts of others and acting on them, so they have been banned from various world.
He’s been brought to this strange mining colony to play piano in the colony’s only brothel. He had previously absorbed the piano playing skills of a now dead man who was known to both the other of the brothel and at least one of her employees, which is at least part of the reason he was brought to Paylay.
The rest of the plot is difficult to summarize, in part because Connie does a really good job of putting you inside the head of the person who doesn’t know or trust his own thoughts and motives. He is afraid he is going to be compelled to do something horrible, and there are characters he is now living among who appear to be trying to manipulate who he copies for their own nefarious purposes.
But I should explain the title. The viewpoint character’s species are called Mirrors, as explained. There is another alien creature mentioned, it’s called a sidon. Sidon’s are vicious predators, but some people have tried to tame them (because people will do that), and it has always gone badly. The miners have taken to naming their mining taps as sidons—while all the compressors and pipes and such are holding, everything seems under control. But ever miner knows it is only a matter of time before a tapped sight explodes. They’re just all trying to make their money and leave before that happens.
By the end of the tale there are violent deaths, and it is left to the reader to decide which of the deaths were murder, which were self-defense, or whether they fall into another category all together.
On one level the story is about the meaning of free will. Willis herself has said, when introducing the story in collections of her work, that the story was inspired to seeing stories of twins who were adopted out separately, and then find each other as adults and learn how many things about their lives are spookily similar. Many things we think of as choices may not be at all.
If was a tough story to read, because there were points in the tale when I wanted the viewpoint character to do something different. I saw moments he could have escaped the trap. Except when I got to the end, I found myself questioning the definition of trap I had been using. Was the trap the manipulation coming from one of the two characters who were trying to turn the Mirror into a killer, or was the trap the Mirror’s own belief that he himself would inevitably turn into a violent killer, or was the trap the fear of the other characters?
I’ve re-read the story many times over the years. And even though I know how it ends, I’m always at the edge of the seat throughout. As mentioned above, Willis really puts you in the mind of this character so that by the middle of the story, I’m just as afraid and uncertain as to what will happen as the character is.
The story made me think a lot about how we make decisions. How much of what we feel is the result of what people expect us to feel? How many decisions that we think are our own are being forced upon us? What, exactly, is the nature of our own identity?
They were questions I was wrestling with personally. While I didn’t have an sudden epiphany at the end of the tale, it did nudge me further in the direction of coming to understand how the nature of the closet. The stifling social trap that many queers find themselves living in is constructed at least as much by our desire to win the approval of society, family, and even my closest friends. It isn’t just fear that drives one into the closet, but also (ironically) the need for love.
And it took an alien playing piano on the surface of a dead star to show me that.
I’m once again participating in Camp NaNoWriMo. Camp is different than the full-fledged National Novel Writing Month in that the word count goal is set by each participant, folks frequently use camp to edit an existing work rather than write new, and the camp website supports small private chat groups called “cabins.” The best part of either project, IMHO, is having a mechanism to publish your daily word count totals, and have friends to encourage you.
At least those are good things for me. I am more productive when there are people I have promised certain things (completed stories, word counts, edits, et cetera). I’m also someone who loves getting in a race with someone on word count, if they’re into that. That doesn’t always work for everyone.
But writing buddies and cabin mates are a good way to have folks to consult with or just get encouragement from or give it to. That’s another thing I find that motivates me: getting to encourage other people and congratulate them on milestones improves my mood considerably. And sometimes when you’re trapped deep in seemingly irresolvable plotholes, anything to perk my mood up is great!
So, that’s what is happening here. If you’re doing Camp NaNoWriMo, especially if you’re interested in joining my Cabin, leave a comment here, or send me a message on twitter, or send me an email with the Contact Me page here—or if you already have another way to ping me use that.
Let’s get writing!
First, let’s deal with the song a bit. If you aren’t familiar with the song (which knocked the Beattles off the top of the pop charts for 4 weeks in 1967, then went on to make it into the top twenty of the Blues chart, the Soul chart, and finally the Country chart), you must listen to it once before we talk about it. Even if you are familiar, you really should listen again, and try to listen to it as a short story, rather than just some song:
The song is often retro-activily classified as Country, but at the time it was more clearly pop with a heavy blues influence. I think people classify it country because the story of the song is set in the south and she lets her Mississippi accent through.
Anyway, as a short story, it’s pretty phenomenal. And part of appeal of the song, clearly, is the mystery at the center of the song: what did the narrator and Billie Joe throw off the bridge earlier in the week, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide?
Over the years, Bobbie gave a very consistent answer: she didn’t know and it didn’t matter2. Many times she explained to interviewer, “It’s a MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock called the object that moves the plot along but isn’t really important on its own a MacGuffin, and writers have been using that term since the 1930s.” The song wasn’t about what happened, rather it was about unconscious cruelty. The family is sitting around the table discussing the suicide of someone they all know as casually as they ask each other to pass the biscuits, completely unaware that the suicide victim’s girlfriend is a member of their family, sitting right there listening to them.
The something that the narrator and Billie Joe were seen “throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge” is one type of MacGuffin. It is something another character saw, and a third character comments on, which draws a connection in the minds of the audience between other events in the story. But exactly what it was and why it was thrown off aren’t important to the tale that the writer is sharing.
You’ll find a few different definitions of MacGuffin out there (also spelled McGuffin and Maguffin). My definition is:
- A story element that draws the reader’s attention to certain actions and/or,
- Drives the plot of a work of fiction (usually because several characters are willing to do almost anything to obtain it), but,
- The specific nature of the object may be ambigious, undefined, left open to interpretation, or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that in a thriller the MacGuffin is often a necklace (a small object which can be worth a lot of money, but may also hold sentimental value or be coveted for its beauty), while in a spy stories the MacGuffin is usually some mysterious papers. The important thing (storytelling-wise) about the MacGuffin is what it motivates the characters to do, not what it actually is. In the example of “Ode to Billie Joe” the thing thrown off the bridge is important because apparently it contributes to Billie Joe MacAllister’s decision to commit suicide, probably motivates the preacher to come tell Mama the news of the suicide, and draws the audience’s attention to the connection between the narrator and Billie Joe.
One might wonder how MacGuffins relate to subplots. As I’ve discussed before, subplots are sequences of events with plot-like structures that happen within a larger story an are sometimes only tangentially related to the main plot. And sometimes a way you can connect subplots more closely to the main plot, or even connect subplots which aren’t otherwise related to each other is with the use of a MacGuffin.
For example, many years ago when I became the editor-in-chief of a small sci fi fanzine, I inherited a project started by the previous editor. She had come up with a framing tale to allow contributors to write a large group story together. This allowed contributors who had trouble coming with with plots an easy situation to write some scenes about their characters in, for instance, and encouraged contributors to work with each other. When I became the editor, there were about 40,000 words worth of writing from a whole bunch of people… and most of it did not fit together very well.
I went through the whole thing, taking notes and trying to come up with an outline that would fit all the disparate pieces into the original framing tale. One of the contributors (and an Associate Editor), Mark, regularly wrote a lot of the stories we published, and had written several sequences with different characters which could have been turned into interesting plots on their own. So we talked at length before bringing the proposal back to the rest of the editorial board. There would need to be a lot of new stuff written to tie the pieces we had together and push the whole thing to an ending, and I proposed two MacGuffins to help us out.
A lot of the existing sequences (and the framing tale) involved a criminal deal (worth the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars) gone wrong. While the initiating event for the non-criminal characters was an anniversary party to celebrate the original maiden voyage of a spaceship. So, one MacGuffin would be the 36th Century equivalent of a bearer bond: a physical object containing some kind of encryption key which could be presented to a particular financial institution and be exchanged for the hundreds of millions of dollars—that could be cashed by anyone. The other was an anniversary present which the pirate captain charged his first mate with making certain was delivered to the captain of the ship celebrating the anniversary.
This gave us two packages that were both in the possession of one of the criminal leaders early in the story and then became separated in the chaos of the shoot out and the inconveniently times major earthquake. Many of the criminal characters believed that either of the lost packages was the fabulously valuable bearer bond, but weren’t sure which one. Other characters had no idea when either package was.
A lot of the sequences which had no other connection to the established plots could thus be connected merely by adding a few sentences where one or another of the characters came into contact with a package that looked important, and then losing it. Other sequences got a more firm connection to the plot by adding a few sentences where one or more of the characters was trying to find one of the packages.
The two MacGuffins on their own didn’t solve all the problems. We spent a few months dividing various sequences and subplots to members of the editorial board to write additional bridging material5. And then Mark and I would each re-write these sequences to make them fit with the others. After a few months of this, I started sensing a bit of dread from the other members of the editorial board when we got to the standing item of this story6, so one meeting when we got to that point I immediately said, “I think we’ve reached the point where I should take over and finish weaving the rest of the tale together, and then Mark can do a clean-up pass.” At least two members of the board audibly sighed and said something like, “Thank goodness.”
We published the final tale as 24 chapters in consecutive issues of the ‘zine. The final word count was a bit shy of 250,000 words. And those two MacGuffins really helped. In the penultimate chapter, one MacGuffin finally ended its journey, and I managed to make the delivery of the lost bearer bond to the pirate captain into the punchline to a joke. The other MacGuffin never made it to where it was originally destined, but it served as the final punchline to the entire story.
The objects themselves were not really important, particularly in light of the number of characters who were killed in the course of the tale7. But the objects provided through-lines for may subplots and kept the reader guessing until the very end.
1. The opening lyrics of the song are, “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day”
2. Please don’t ping me to tell me that the 1976 movie based on the song reveals the answers. It doesn’t. Through a series of events involving a later minor hit of Ms. Gentry’s that was the theme of another movie, a studio approached her with the idea of making a movie based on her first hit. Per the agreement, her only involvement with the movie was they would use an existing recording of her singing the song in the soundtrack, and she would have one meeting with the screenwriter. Only one. He reported afterwards that the first question he asked her was why did Billie Joe commit suicide. He said Gentry laughed and told him, “I have absolutely no idea. That’s not why I wrote the song.” Then he asked her what they threw off the bridge, and she repeated that she had no idea. Left with no information he could use, the screenwriter made up a rather convoluted plot, and named the previously unnamed narrator of the song Bobbie, so that audiences would believe that the song was autobiographical3.
3. Which it wasn’t4.
4. In a very early interview about the song, when the interviewer was not happy with Bobbie’s explanation that it was a MacGuffin and pressed her repeatedly for an answer, Bobbie said, “I really don’t know. Maybe it was a ring or a locket that represented an engagement or something?” But clearly at this point she admits that she is guessing, too.
5. A lot of the authors or co-authors of some of the sequences had left the project, but we had permission to use the material, without always knowing how the absent writer had intended to end their sequence.
6. Yes, we were technically a fan project, but we had regular meetings and I had agendas for the meetings and we took minutes and everything. I’m that kind of editor!
7. It was a natural disaster story and the story of a criminal deal gone wrong, with multiple shoot-outs—of course characters died!
8. Edited to add: I should have linked to the podcast. Cocaine & Rhinestones Season 1, episode 4, “Bobbie Gentry: Exit Stage Left”.