If through no fault of his own the hero is crushed by a bulldozer in Act II, we are not impressed. Even though life is often like this—the absconding cashier on his way to Nicaragua is killed in a collision at the airport, the prominent statesman dies of a stroke in the midst of the negotiations he has spent years to bring about, the young lovers are drowned in a boating accident the day before their marriage—such events, the warp and woof of everyday life, seem irrelevant, meaningless. They are crude, undigested, unpurged bits of reality—to draw a metaphor from the late J. Edgar Hoover, they are “raw files.” But it is the function of great art to purge and give meaning to human suffering, and so we expect that if the hero is indeed crushed by a bulldozer in Act II there will be some reason for it, and not just some reason but a good one, one which makes sense in terms of the hero’s personality and action. In fact, we expect to be shown that he is in some way responsible for what happens to him.
Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an actionis through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire letrun, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It canonly be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.
All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.
On THE AMBER SPYGLASS:If this plotline was a motorist, it would have been arrested for driving while intoxicated, if it had not perished in the horrible drunk accident where it went headlong over the cliff of the author's preachy message, tumbled down the rocky hillside, crashed, and burned.
Imagine the same scene in HAMLET if Pullman had written it. Hamlet, using a mystic pearl, places the poison in the cup to kill Claudius. We are all told Claudius will die by drinking the cup. Then Claudius dies choking on a chicken bone at lunch. Then the Queen dies when Horatio shows her the magical Mirror of Death. This mirror appears in no previous scene, nor is it explained why it exists. Then Ophelia summons up the Ghost from Act One and kills it, while she makes a speech denouncing the evils of religion. Ophelia and Hamlet are parted, as it is revealed in the last act that a curse will befall them if they do not part ways.
The last time she was up here, she had been... staring up at the sky and dreaming of stars. Now, she looked down and plotted flames.
I don't judge a scene or a line of dialog by whether or not it advances the plot, for example. Imagine an edit of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction wherein only dialog that advances the plot was allowed to remain. I don't obsess over the balance of conflict and interaction. I don't generally fret over the possibility that something I do may cause some reader to experience a disconnect (what an odious metaphor). I don't think in dramatic arcs. I don't spend a lot of time wondering if the plot is getting lost in description and conversation. To me, this all seems like a wealth of tedious confusion being introduced into an act that ought to be instinctive, natural, intuitive. I want to say, stop thinking about all that stuff and just write the story you have to tell. Let the story show you how it needs you to write it. I don't try to imagine how the reader will react to X or if maybe A, B, and C should have happened by page R. It's not that I don't want the story to be read. I desire readers as much as anyone. But I desire readers who want to read what I'm writing, not readers who approach fiction with so many expectations that they're constantly second-guessing and critiquing the author's every move, book in one hand, some workshop checklist in the other, and a stopwatch on the desk before them. If writing or reading like this seems to work for you, fine. I mean, I've always said that when you find something that works, stick with it. But, for me, it seems as though such an anal approach to creating any art would bleed from it any spark of enjoyment on the part of the artist (not to mention the audience). It also feels like an attempt to side-step the nasty issue of talent, as if we can all write equally well if we only follow the rules, because, you know, good writing is really 99% craft, not inexplicable, inconvenient, unquantifiable talent.
Persons curious in chronology may, if they like, work out from what they already know of the Wimsey family that the action of the book takes place in 1935; but if they do, they must not be querulously indignant because the King's Jubilee is not mentioned, or because I have arranged the weather and the moon's changes to suit my own fancy. For, however realistic the background, the novelist's only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland, where they do but jest, poison in jest: no offence in the world.