Revision Boot Camp Days 5-7: Climbing Out The Window

Boot camp artwork is from the U.S. Army Online Gallery, this one by SFC Peter T. Varisano. Click for a full gallery of his work
Boot camp artwork is from the U.S. Army Online Gallery, this one by SFC Peter T. Varisano. Click for a full gallery of his work

Did you tighten your character interactions, Private? If you did, carry on, if not, I want you to sit down RIGHT NOW and Gimme Fifty! What does that mean? Not pushups, you only wish!

If you did not do your assignment yesterday, sit down RIGHT NOW and write fifty words about why you’re such a lazy, PANSY of an author who will never get anywhere if you don’t actually IMPROVE YOUR WRITTEN WORDS.

Yeah, I said FIFTY, Private. You gonna make somethin’ of it?

The “doorways” of plot are transitions into different stages of the novel. We started with our inciting incident. We worked on our characters and built the tension. Now we need to advance the plot beyond the characters’ comfort zone so we can test them–squeeze out every drop of their humanity.

The doorway at the end of the first act has to MAKE the Lead go where we want him to go–cause if he’s got half a brain he doesn’t want to follow that path. In Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell says, “In order to get from beginning to middle–the first doorway–you must create a scene where your Lead is thrust into the main conflict in a way that keeps him there.” Running away cannot be an option.

I prefer to think of this and the later doorways as “windows of opportunity.” I can use them to force the character forward, but also to make him human. I want my window to not only push him into the plot, but also to test his mettle–and make him climb out in a way that isn’t so easy. There isn’t a door–he has to MAKE one.

For example, in my first artist mystery, the Lead walks into a murder scene just before it burns. She’s uncomfortable, annoyed when the cops take her painting of the crime scene, but she can move on without much disturbance in her life–until The First Window.

A man in a ski mask invades her apartment and tries to kidnap her. There’s a gunfight between the masked man and her next door neighbor. The Lead is scared, but she COULD move away, get a big dog or a bigger roommate. She finds out that the masked man was after her ex-boyfriend who stole $3 million dollars from a dirty banker’s slush fund. The banker’s henchmen are after her EX and their only lead is, well, the LEAD–but she could STILL run away.

Until the First Window. image

Now I triple-slam a wrecking ball through her personal firewall. Someone-she-loves-deeply gets murdered. Her best friend is arrested for both murders. Her ex shows up–with stolen millions in tow–wanting to reunite. Plus the FBI asks her to spy on all of them. They will either put her in jail or she has to become a snitch. Moving forward becomes a matter of love, integrity, and patriotism … and you could say blackmail on the part of the FBI.

She truly cannot run away.

YOUR ASSIGNMENTS for today and the weekend:

1) Take your first “doorway” and make sure there’s no going back. Why? Because if you truly set up a point of no return, the reader will not be able to put down your book. If you built a character they care about, the readers will follow.

2) Transform that moment into a “Dangerous Window of Opportunity.” Make ’em climb through.

A few methods and ideas:
But how can we make this more dangerous? Start with love. Sure, my lead in Distortion was over her ex, but her feelings were complicated. Most exes ARE complicated. They’re a great plot device as long as your Lead isn’t pining over the ex. That’s annoying.

Now let’s talk integrity. She wants to help clear her best friend, but she has to invade his privacy plus that of many other friends to do it. Spying feels much more like betrayal than loyalty. What’s going to happen when they find out she snitched on them–to save them?

Having to betray in order to save is a fantastic, mentally challenging plot device.

And patriotism? Well, that’s a hard call when your country is at odds with your community or your family. My lead’s counter-cultural artist town had plenty of average Joes whose behavior tiptoed over the legal line. The FBI could arrest most of them at first exposure.

Can you see where I’m going with this? I tested her on every level, poor girl. She couldn’t go back to her old life without getting kidnapped or put in custody. She wanted to help her friend and protect the rest of the people she loves–but it would wrench her emotionally to do it. By throwing in an angry drug cartel and an attraction to an FBI agent and I was able to create a truly dangerous window of opportunity.

Which way is up? Don’t stop tightening the first window until your lead can’t tell up from down. You don’t have to be writing crime fiction.

ANY genre has its own methods to challenge the characters. Find them. Use them. PUSH FORWARD, Private!

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