Plot quirks as much as holes


‘Missing’ is an odd concept

For a visual or graphic artist, there a billions of colors – digitize the spectrum as finely as you like to get as many distinct numbers as you need.

Of course, you can’t use them all.

And at some point the human eye can no longer distinguish between the shades.

A complete scene is another odd concept

That’s where the art comes in, for each writer, in deciding how much stays, how much is irrelevant (including whether or not to use scenes at all, but that’s getting a little too experimental for me).

From January 2013 comes an answer that turned my brain topsy turvy:

Upending plots to find holes

I had an interesting experience recently which gave me ideas about finding – and solving – plot problems. In the course of playing too many games of Free Flow on DH’s new iPad mini, I solved all but a small set of the 14 x 14 levels included. It irked me that, no matter how many times I went back to the remaining small unsolved set, even starting completely from scratch, I couldn’t find the trick to the solution.

A minor problem, you say. Agreed. But games can be useful (I know – this doesn’t justify all that time spent gaming) – or humans wouldn’t have invented them, and wouldn’t get so much stroking from them, so much pleasure, that they can become addicting. There is a sense of completion that releases endorphins and other good brain chemicals when a puzzle is solved.

So, I continued to come back to this set of unfinished puzzles.

But it wasn’t until, in desperation, I turned the iPad upside down that I found my answers: even though I had started each level from scratch, the orientation of the dots (you are trying to connect each colored dot with its mate in such a way that all squares on the board have a color in them and NONE of the squares is EMPTY) had locked into my brain prematurely, and I literally could not see them in a different way.

It actually HURT my brain to turn the iPad upside down, and to view each puzzle WRONG – but in a new way.

I told myself anything that made my brain hurt must be good for it (on the theory I hold that the brain is a muscle-like object, and it must be exercised).

I deliberately tolerated the stress – and quickly solved the remaining puzzles I had been struggling with for more days than I care to admit. Immediately. The skills I had developed for this particular little game had settled too soon into working on the default orientation – a technique that got me successfully through most of the 750 puzzle levels that came with the game – but not all.

I’m doing something similar with the scenes I’m revising now:

I have text for these scenes, text that I like, and a flow through the plot that strokes my brain (we all write, first, for ourselves), but it isn’t good enough.

Revising in place, just taking the words that are there, the order of words in a scene, and making them better, is good and useful and satisfactory – after all, I worked hard to write them originally.

But it doesn’t solve all the problems. I’m stuck, in some scenes, with a feeling that I haven’t done my complete job, that there are unexplored empty ‘squares’ on the grid. A feeling that if I notice a tiny void, a reader will, too. My brain hurts.

But the reader can’t fix the problem. That’s my job. If my writing isn’t satisfying me, it has no business going out into the world.

So I’ve been taking the elements of a scene, and going back to ‘start.’ Rearranging the order, re-thinking, re-visioning.

Letting my brain hurt.

Turning the scene completely upside down, asking beginner questions: What does this scene do? Why is this scene in the book? What can the reader only learn here? Even, Why the heck did he do that?

I’m hampered by the fact that I can – as an end result of many years of reading – turn out clean copy that LOOKS finished with relative ease. And once it is fixed in black and white on the page, it is very hard to question what looks ‘published.’

It takes time. It isn’t strictly necessary.

But if I identify the plot problems – the little bugs which irk the brain – those empty squares – and solve them, I get the endorphins. And a scene I have to admit is vastly better.

The interesting part has been that I have found extremely few places where I want to go back and change something in PURGATORY – which I just finished rereading.

Apparently, once I’ve got it, it locks in, and then it’s real, and I don’t need to go back. I didn’t think it would be so.

How about you?

If you’re a writer, do you find a strong stop for each scene – or do your scenes make you want to get out the editor?

If you’re a reader, can you tell when something is finished?

Just curious.


6 thoughts on “Plot quirks as much as holes

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      It’s easy for people to tell you to write what comes up; much harder to do that when the story veers into territory you were not planning on exploring. ‘Here be dragons.’

      So far, no one in my family has said anything about a couple of areas I thought would have raised questions. A few friends know certain things – before I learned to clam up and just point them to the printed words.

      It shouldn’t matter how much it cost the author; fiction isn’t memoir.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I just reread it; I had the same feeling. Weird to read your own writing and not remember some details. Which is why we write these down.

      The things that are pre-figured are deliberate, and some you are meant to recognize only in the future. I do try to play fair – there are hints.

      I hope to have three books next to my bed in the nursing home – when that happens.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Jeanne

    As a reader, I can sometimes tell when something is finished. This makes me think about Auden’s poetry, because he continued to revise it and publish new versions throughout his life. For the poem that got famous again after 9/11, entitled September 1, 1939, when he reprinted the poem in The Collected Poetry (1945) he omitted the stanza that ends “We must love one another or die” and later he changed that line to “and” die. If you ask me, all this was overthinking. The poem may have flaws, but it was finished when he got to that line, which is famous and should not be omitted (if you look up the poem online at the Poetry Foundation, though, it is).


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Probably apocryphal, the story of a man in a museum getting out paints and setting to work on one of the exhibits: it turns out he’s the painter, and decided the work wasn’t finished.

      My sister says the same of the two paintings she gave me as a wedding present (she was 13) of the church we were married in: that she’s going to touch them up. But there’s no way she’s getting her hands on them!

      Odd ducks, we artsy types.



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