Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Morality: The Key to the Climax?

I've been stuck for some time on the climactic scene of the Airship novel. My characters are in the right place, about to uncover the big reveal and have the final showdown with the opposition. But...something just doesn't feel right. I don't know what should happen. I had an idea as I was working up to this point, but once I reached it, none of my plans seemed right. The meeting with the big bad didn't feel right. The big reveal didn't seem big enough.

So today I went through my usual process of asking myself questions about the story. I do this in Freemind. For each question I ask, I try to come up with several possible answers and follow their implications. One of the big unanswered questions in my story is how Elsie was separated from her parents as a child. The big reveal is the moment when Elsie discovers what her lost father was working on and, maybe, what happened to him. Since I was having trouble with the big reveal, I was hoping that drilling down on Elsie's parents and their motivations would get me somewhere.

So I asked, "Who were Elsie's parents?" I already knew a lot about Elsie's parents, of course; what I really wanted to get to was their motivations. The answers I started with:
  • Good people
  • Bad people
I looked at these answers for a moment and thought about how to proceed. Then I remembered a passage in 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald B. Tobias. In his chapter on Deep Structure Tobias says "the central concept of deep structure is morality." So I wrote down "What's the morality of this book?"

This turned out to be a key question that unlocked some incredibly productive trains of thought. I listed several options for the overall moral position that the book could take, ranging from idealistic to nihilistic to purely selfish:

  1. It's OK to desire power, as long as you are benevolent.
  2. Power is evil by nature.
  3. Wealth is the primary objective.
  4. Power is morally neutral; large-scale domination is a necessary prerequisite of civilization.
  5. Regrettably, some must suffer to serve the greater good.
  6. The desire for power is not compatible with benevolence. One must work first and foremost for good.
As I came up with these, I found myself thinking about characters that appeared in the story. Different characters seemed to embody different viewpoints. Once I noticed this, I realized that the whole conflict of the story was nothing more nor less than the clash of these different viewpoints. It was then clear where my MC would start out on this spectrum, where she would end up, and how she had to get there.

This exercise took me a long way from my original question about the motivations of Elsie's parents, but it did answer that question, and many other unexpected ones. For example, I know that Elsie starts out at moral position number 5: some must suffer to serve the greater good. But in looking at this, I realized that the greater good wasn't really good enough, so Elsie's complacency made her unsympathetic and shallow. This gave me some ideas for changes to the setting and even some new characters. This in turn led to more revelations, until finally I knew what the climactic moment would be, where it would be, and who had to be there...all of which were totally different from my original conception.