A Lesson in Plotting from a Very Funny Guy

I went to see J. Elvis Weinstein the other night. He headlined at the Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis and drew an enthusiastic crowd, despite dire warnings from talking heads about an impending sleet and slush apocalypse. I got some good, healthful laughs and a wonderful reminder about plotting a novel. 

From a stand-up comic?

You bet.

After all, whether it’s a novel, a screen play, a lyric or a standup routine, the author is telling a story.

I realized that the show was much more than a series of jokes.  It was instead a series of elements, carefully woven into a subliminal story line that plumbed the human condition with warmth and humor. Things mentioned early, like teeth grinding, got a laugh and got fixed in our minds. They disappeared, to return later and fit with other carefully positioned elements. The conclusion carried some of the elation of pushing that last piece of a 3000-piece puzzle in place and made the final laugh so much the bigger.

In rewriting my third novel, I’m trying to balance dropping those elements that are important to the conclusion in place delicately enough so, like Weinstein’s stand-up routine, the reader will put them all together just a second after the big reveal and realize that they knew all along what was going to happen, but were not aware they knew.

A lesson well taught.

Parsimony

I just took Gabe Tovar out of my third novel, Fail Deadly.  Damn!  I liked Gabe, but the poor guy was compromised by Russian mafia types, and he did add complexity.  Maybe he’s relieved, but I’m sorry to lose him. However, his loss didn’t hurt as much as Raisa Jarvinen, whom I had to take out a couple of months ago. She was an FBI agent, a specialist in languages.  She allowed me to exercise my interest in etymology, languages in general, and the Finno-Ugric branch of Indo European. See, Estonian is closer to Finnish and Hungarian than the Slavic languages that surround it as a result of the Uralic tribes … hmmm. Maybe it’s good for my readers’ sanity that I took her out.  

What I’m learning is that parsimony is valuable in writing, just as it is in science.  I don’t mean the penny-pinching skinflint kind; I mean the Aristotle-Duns Scotus-William of Ockham’s razor kind.  The kind that says Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate, loosely translated for the novelist as Don’t put in stuff that doesn’t move the story forward.

When I was about to publish Fatal Score, I asked for a review from Brian Lutterman, a Minnesota author whose work I admire.  He graciously accepted and wrote a lovely review.  Then he asked if I wanted an honest appraisal of the less-than-nice stuff. I did, and he explained that, while the plot was interesting and the writing good enough to merit his fine review, but I had too many characters. Parsimony, again.

Eep … The novel I’m finishing, Fail Deadly, had more characters than Fatal Score.  The plot is about as complex, which, following Ockham loosely means there’s less space for characters. 

Sic transit Gloria personae, Gabe and Raisa.  You’ll be back in other books, I hope.