This post carries on from my last entry “Story vs. Plot—Really?” I’m going to reflect here on those ideas as they pertain to my work, so please take a look at that one before reading this (or, a second look, in case it put you to sleep before).
Non-Spoiler Warning: None of the following gives away anything that will diminish your reading experience.
The Brass Ring: The story if of a young man is feeling, perhaps groping, his way from extreme grief to recovery. As he gets a grip on a new life, he and a “fellow traveler,” ignorant of the risk, attract the lethal attention of the main antagonist. With that danger lurking, three more threatening actors, with competing agendas of good and evil, join the drama. All the actors have goals toward which they are working, scheming, conspiring, and plotting, creating the main conflicts in the story. Through the downs and ups of the resulting friction and threats of destruction, the hero and heroine resolve to survive. With the help of unseen forces, they keep their heads and delay their deaths until Fate and an unexpected ally lead them back from the brink and bring justice to their enemy.
The plot puts flesh on the bones of this story. An upstart entrepreneur in the California wine business, Alex Corlett, is recovering from the death of his wife. Doing some research, he stumbles onto a lie told by David Gilbért, a leading figure in the wine industry. Unaware that this lie is a clue to Gilbért’s role as the head of a drug-smuggling, money-laundering ring, Corlett shares the information with Samantha Bergmann, a government computer genius with obvious but apparently innocent connections to Gilbért. Gilbért discovers what they know just as he’s being blackmailed by a criminal confederate tied to the drug-running. As the threads of the story and plot merge, the novel turns “crime classic,” with extortion, kidnapping, murder, and the surprising role of an international undercover cop.
What does the plot bring to the story, or to the book as a whole? Color, specificity, time-and-place detail, entertaining escape, costume drama, and, the author hopes, some intellectual intrigue that gives dimension to the story for the reader.
There is also a story-plot dichotomy Beachtown Blues (a.k.a. The Killing of Chuy Muro). Story: two close friends, virtually brothers, have their psychological and emotional bonds broken apart by unexpected but inevitable forces of change outside their control. The damage done by the division of their friendship leads to the destruction of both their lives, a Cain-and Abel story told to the reader much later by one of the two characters.
Plot: socio-economic changes are brought to a small California farm town in the form of labor laws and social upheaval that will disrupt the teenage life that Gene and Eddie share, setting in motion local gang fights, a rape, a beating, and more. Police transgressions then create, almost literally, a “trial by fire” for one of the boys, and his breakdown as a result of the outcomes of that crisis leads him to an act he will forever regret.
I began The China Contract while on an overseas trip. I couldn’t find a way to sell Ring, and needed to find a direction and outlet for my storytelling. When I recall this episode, it reminds me of TV personality Steve Allen, a musical genius with an unbridled urge to write music. He came to my college Psych 101 classes and talked about his piano. He told us that if he had no access to a piano at least two or three days a week, it thwarted this creative drive and caused him serious frustration.
I began China with a piece of plot: an assassination at Auckland International Airport, New Zealand. I worked on some plot devices to get it moving—color, intrigue, violence, danger, mystery—but then I needed to transition to story. If not, the actors risked becoming James Bond rather than Jay Gatsby or Emma Bovary, and I might not find any supporting archetype, any common humanity to the dialogue and romance of the plot.
The story in China is of an aging public servant looking back on his life and broken marriage, trying to determine what elements of those things he can still commit himself to, still do well, still mine for reward and satisfaction. Is Nigel Hawkins still competent, still of value, still willing to pay the price necessary to keep his self-esteem? The plot—an international manhunt to prevent a shooting war in Asia—gives him the stage on which to prove his worth.
In The Eunuch of Shanghai we revisit Nigel Hawkins and FBI Special Agent Daniela Benelli, his partner in crime investigation. Their unhatched romance in The China Contract is now in flower. As the plot engages, they’re off to Asia to investigate a family’s massacre. What appears to be the violent and ruthless killing of six people proves to be exactly that, but with a complex cast of characters creating a far-reaching saga of wealth, death, and power in 20th- and 21st-century China.
Eunuch’s story cuts back and forth across the plot by episodically bringing the past to bear on current circumstances and events, as it is wont to do. The patriarch’s Faustian bargain to serve his ambitions and the State, the role of a mother’s suicide in sibling rivalry, paranoia and vengeance as causes for greed and murder—these are pillars in the story which support the interconnected scenes and sequences of the plot. Thanh, as “pocket protagonist,” uses the unjust death of a lover as his hyper-fueled motivation to take the fight to the killers, alongside, and sometimes in front of, Hawkins and Benelli.
I look for a marriage between story and plot, the former being the kind of battle that the book portrays, and the latter being the depiction of the battle itself. Without a universal, enduring story behind it, the plot risks being a two-dimensional experience for the reader. Imagine for the moment a sci-fi plot without a human story behind it: a race of cyborgs attack and disembowel the cloned creations of a rival cyborg planet, and these rivals ignore what the first wave of cyborgs are doing. How would a human reader engage with this plot? Where is the “human interest” element? If the plot struggles to deliver any of that, there’s not much of a story. The fact is that humans are nearly incapable of creating a contiguous, conceivable plot that isn’t underpinned by recognized human behavior, i.e. a story. In the long traditions of oral histories, we say, “He/She’s a great story-teller.” We don’t say, “He/She’s a great plot-teller.”