Building a structure for Bedlam
A writer's plan for tying up the elements of a story ran into an obstacle course
Published: May 18, 2010
|The idea for Breaking Out of Bedlam occurred to me from out of nowhere, with no regard for the other novel I was working on at the time. The book is about Cora Sledge, an 82-year-old woman who’s forced into an assisted-living facility by her children. I wanted to tell the story of her past along with an account of the intrigues that were brewing in the nursing home in the present. My plan was to have past and present collide at the end of the novel, tying things up, illuminating everything. The reader would experience a sensation of completion, of everything falling into place.|
My plan immediately crashed into a number of sizable obstacles. My first challenge was voice, my second was establishing a framework for effectively moving smoothly between the protagonist’s past and present, and the third was to reveal a particular character’s intentions at a pace that sustained the tension of the plot.
I started out in the third person. It wasn’t long before Cora turned into a bitter, racist and totally dislikable character. No matter how much I tried to sweeten her up, she refused to cooperate, and I was hard-pressed to imagine any reader who would care about her. Her voice, however, was coming through loud and clear.
I decided to let her dig her own grave and switched to first person. Turns out she was watchful and sly, with a bawdy sense of humor. Things looked different from inside her head. I began to see how she got the way she was, and to realize that she did not always mean what she said.
Next, I ran up against the time problem. The sections in the past were huge globs of undigested flashback; they were poorly integrated into the sections about the present, and the switch between the two was jarring. Plus, Cora wasn’t the type who would reel off a long story like that, on and on. She had a lot of time on her hands, but she wanted revenge for being locked away.
I decided to have her reveal the truth about her life in letters to her granddaughter. This approach solved a lot of problems. The length of the letters cut the narrative into bite-size episodes. I’d found a fluid and natural way to interrupt the story of the past with an incident from the present (“I was sitting here writing when in walks ...”).
Now that Cora had someone specific to address, her tone became more confidential. I didn’t want to bother with the granddaughter’s responses and Cora’s reaction to them, so I decided that Cora would keep all her letters with instructions to open them after her death. All the better to cut loose and say whatever she wanted.
But I became so absorbed in the separate strands of past and present that it got harder and harder for me to switch from one to the other. In a stroke of luck, friends lent me their one-room house in Hawaii, which had been closed up for some time. Geckos and cockroaches had the run of the place. Cobwebs hung everywhere; dead bugs littered the floor. It was hot and stuffy. I wrote in the middle of the room so I could keep an eye on the creatures darting up and down the walls. A bed without blankets, empty cupboards, the sound of dripping water. The perfect place to open the window of memory and restore life as it had been. In the musty air, Cora’s past came alive. In a matter of weeks I had finished writing her early history.
The next challenge was to lace the present and past together, which proved to be a lot like buttoning a cardigan in the dark. I came up short at the top or the bottom, missed buttons altogether, bunched some parts up, and stretched out others. Each episode needed to be complete in itself, not too short and not too long, and it had to be carefully placed in the stream of the narrative. After months of fitting and adjusting, I finally managed to braid past and present together so they enhanced each other, and fused at the end of the book.
Next, a problem of pacing
I had found ways to divide the narrative into manageable pieces, to situate the action in both the past and present, and to weave it all back together. But there was still a problem with the pacing. Several of my readers, including my editor at Crown, pointed out that Vitus Kovic, Cora’s love interest, tipped his hand too early in the novel, which short-circuited the suspense. I needed to roll out his character more slowly to maintain the tension through to the end of the story. That meant re-examining every scene where Vitus appeared, and adjusting his words and actions so that his intentions weren’t clear until the climax of the story.
Without giving away too much, I needed to clean Vitus up so he didn’t look so shifty. I had to make sure he came across as warm rather than smarmy, that he was friendly to everyone in the facility as well as to Cora, and that his motives and movements were all accounted for. As the plot advanced, I had to shift suspicion onto other characters. I realized I had been protecting Vitus, muzzling him and covering his tracks, which made him look fishy. As soon as I let Cora challenge him, he was able to explain himself and therefore allow the plot to unfold more slowly, as more and more of his character was revealed.
It wasn’t over yet. When I delivered what I thought was the finished manuscript, my editor suggested that Cora keep a journal rather than write letters. I bristled. I’d come by the structure through a lot of hard work. She asked me to think about it, the usual ploy of editors who are used to authors getting their backs up at any mention of change. It didn’t take long for me to realize there was really nothing to be gained by my original device. I went through the manuscript and erased all references to a correspondent. The book was better for it.
Next she suggested I give what had once been each letter, then each journal entry, and now each chapter, a title. I’ve learned it’s bad form to fume publicly, so I sat on it for a few days before I decided to try a couple just to be reasonable—or at least to appear so. I had fun naming the first two chapters, so I went on and did several more. Still fun. Before I knew it, I’d named them all. The chapter titles gave the novel a more defined shape and flavor, and they boosted the momentum.
Looking back, I realize I’d embarked on Breaking Out of Bedlam in a condition of extreme myopia. At first, all I saw was a blur of color and maybe the head of a nail. I felt around until I found a wall, then a window, then a roof line. Shingles, a TV antenna, a screen door. About halfway through, I began to perceive the shape of the house, the silhouette it cut against the sky. My editor, seeing it the first time from a distance, spotted faults I had missed. Tow that trailer out of the driveway; nix the gingerbread trim. Reinforce the balcony and build a porch.
Now it’s finished. The For Sale sign is on the lawn. With any luck, no one will notice the patched stucco, demolished walls, and layers of paint. They won’t suspect that my original blueprint was nothing but the few shaky lines of a kindergartner’s stick house.
# # #
PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS:
• THE WORK: The novel Breaking Out of Bedlam (2010, Crown/Shaye Areheart Books).
• THE PROBLEMS: A character's obvious intentions diffuse suspense. Third-person proves to be the wrong voice. Past and present are poorly integrated.
• THE SOLUTION: Reserve revelation of the character's motives until later in the novel. Make the protagonist a first-person narrator. Work on "braiding" past and present.
# # #
BEFORE AND AFTER
Revealing motive in increments
Tension and suspense in the plot is diffused because the protagonist’s love interest tips his hand too early in the narrative. Though Vitus has been courting Cora (the narrator), he panics when she pounces.
“Lie back down here,” I coaxed. “Let’s have a little hanky-panky.”
I tried to pull him down with me, but he fought me off. “Cora, please! This is no way for a lady to act.”
“Well, you looked so sweet sleeping here, I thought I’d come over and get me some of you.”
His hair had gotten all jumbled up. I was inclined to laugh, but also inclined to cry. I never expected he’d act like this, not in a hundred years.
“Don’t you want this, Vitus? Because I do. I want it with all my heart.”
“No! The only thing I want is for you to let me up.”
I realized that I had to rehabilitate Vitus’ personality, and reveal his motives in smaller increments. Moreover, I had to tone down his reaction to Cora’s advances, so that he was not giving himself away.
“Lie back down,” I coaxed. “Let’s have a little hanky-panky.”
He smiled like the rascal he is.
“My, my, Cora. What did I do to deserve this?”
“Well, you looked so sweet sleeping here,” I whispered in his ear, “I thought I’d come over and get me some of you.”
He slicked his hair back and grinned. “Oh, you did, did you?”
He nestled on the pillow next to me and touched my face so soft. We looked into each other’s eyes. “You bring out the beast in me,” he said, then he barked like a little dog.
# # #
Leslie Larson is the author of the novels Breaking Out of Bedlam and Slipstream, both from Crown/Shaye Areheart Books. Her work has appeared in many publications, including Faultline and East Bay Express. Web: www.leslielarson.com.