Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hidden agendas

In an impressive feat of Internet magic, I'm bringing you this post from the wilds of Western Australia's desert, while being several hundreds of kilometres from the nearest computer. Hurrah for being able to write something in advance, then set a time to post it! That's assuming it actually comes through and doesn't just disappear into the ether...

Anyway! I've been pondering agendas for a few weeks- I've talked about agendas in novels before, in the broadest sense (the "theme" more than anything) way back here. This time, I'm talking about much more detailed stuff- the agenda within each chapter of your novel. My theory is this- in every chapter, there are two agendas that must work together for a complete story:

The character's agenda (what they want to achieve within the events depicted in the chapter); and
The author's agenda (the reason that particular scene needs to be in the novel).

These are not always the same thing.

What I've realised recently is that in chapters I've written in the past where nothing much seems to happen, I've not taken into account both agendas when I've sat down to plan. I either know why I want the scene in there, or I know what the character wants, but I fail to mesh the two of those things for a complete picture.

I'm going to give you an example from my ongoing second draft of Between the Lines.

I recently rewrote a chapter in which the following happens:

Bill's fiance Kit has been assaulted by his brother, Len. Bill takes her home the morning after, then goes after his brother, who's fled to the nearest city to join the Army and skip town. Bill takes his best friend, Kit's brother Tom, with him, but can't tell Tom what's going on because Kit doesn't want him to know. When they get to town, they split up to find Len, and Bill speaks to the military recruiter and discovers that Len has already left.

The first time I wrote this chapter, it was a whole lot of nothing. The main reason for that was that Bill's agenda is very clear indeed: he wants to find his brother, and make him pay for what he did.

But he fails at that objective, because his brother gets away. And so the chapter kind of petered out with a whimper instead of a bang, and the tension within it went down instead of up. In the end it was Bill and Tom wandering around town not doing all that much, then going home.

What I was missing was my own agenda as an author. I hadn't originally sat back and looked at why I wanted this scene in the book. After all, they don't find Len- surely I could skip straight from Len's escape on the night of the assault to the next scene, which is Bill and Kit trying to deal with what has happened. Why do I need Bill and Tom wandering around town together, looking for someone I already know is gone, even if they don't?

I needed to get a good handle on my objectives for the scene. I listed 'em out, and these are what I came up with:

1. To show Bill taking active steps instead of sitting passively by and waiting for something to happen. This was a major flaw in my first half- things happened TO Bill, instead of Bill doing things. Who can really root for a hero who doesn't act?

2. To show Tom getting suspicious of Bill's/ Kit's weird behaviour, and to have him realise that Len has done something (what, and how bad, he can't imagine yet).

3. To give more information about Len and his background- the military recruiter knows him personally because he's been in a local militia for a number of years, and is well-respected. I need this ambiguity to make Len a real person and not a cardboard cutout villain- and I need it for undisclosed things that happen later in the story, too...

4. To amp up the tension and heartbreak even further for Bill when he discovers that Len spent the rest of his night at a local brothel (see the snippet below).

5. To show the beginning of the process by which Bill and Tom will be sucked into the war themselves- at this point, they're just looking for Len, and he's used the Army as a means to get away. But though they don't realise it, as young men in this time, they're already caught in the machine. Bill's refusal to sign up on this day will be the beginning of the negative view townsfolk develop of him- and that negativity is what will eventually grow into a threat to his family, and cause him to have to sign up.

So, you see, my agenda with this chapter is considerably more complicated than Bill's- but this makes it infinitely easier to write. Bill brings a particular level of fury and motivation to the scene, and I just have to put the players in the right places and tweak away to get it flowing right. Of all of the above, number 1 and 5 are the most important- they're part of the much bigger picture. Numbers 2 to 4 are more about driving the small scale action, but all of them are essential.

I now write every scene with a little list of what the POV character wants to achieve, and what I want to achieve, side-by-side to help me focus.

Here's a small snippet from that much longer scene to conclude.

Think of me this week- I'll be out in the desert without my beloved computer, back to writing longhand if I want to get anything done! But I'll be having a ball, too- I'm going on an amazing trip for work. And when I get back, we'll have an exciting announcement to make here, too. Stand by!


He slowed down and stopped as he reached the front verandah at Freemason’s. The recruiter had his wooden stall set up under the overhang, surrounded by madly waving Union Jack flags. He was a fat little man with a sandy mustache over his top lip, and he was scanning the crowd with mean eyes. He turned his gaze Bill’s way, and he straightened up.

Bill obliged him by walking over.

“Here, son! Come to sign up and fight?”

Bill shook his head. “Not today.”

The man’s expression changed to something far less friendly. “You’ve only got today, ‘less you want to sign up in Perth next month.” He sat back, thumbs through his braces. “Plenty of others already signed up.”

Bill crossed his arms. “Yeah? Didn’t think you’d get much interest. Harvesting season is coming up.”

The recruiter let out a belly laugh. “No need to worry about that. You’ll all be home by Christmas. Bit of adventure for you. Get out of this dull old town and live a little. King and country and all that.”

“Dunno.” He made a face. “I’d be more interested if I knew who was going. Maybe you’ve seen my best mate already?”

The fat man perked up. “Maybe, maybe. If I find his name, we’ll send you after him. How’s that?”

Bill shrugged. “Check for Lionel Cutler.”

The man had a stack of pages in front of him, but he didn’t move a finger. He was grinning.

“Son, I don’t even need to check my papers to tell you about Len Cutler.”

He forced himself to keep a straight face. “Oh?”

“Oh, yes. Had him in my regiment a couple of years back, the [?] militia. Top bloke, recognised him right away. Hard to miss, eh?”

He was hard to miss, with his height and his golden hair and his handsome face. Too bad they’d have to miss him when Bill got hold of him. Bill nodded. “And?” he said, through clenched teeth.

“And he had quite the night last night, let me tell you.” The man gave him a big wink, and it took everything Bill had not to punch him right in the face. The man leaned forward, confidentially. “You know Elise? Over on [?].”

Everyone knew Elise. Best madam in town, the blokes at the pub were always saying. Bill didn’t like where this was going.

“Reckons he got the urge… you know, the urge… last night. Got on his horse and rode down here in the dark, in the middle of that bloody storm.” He roared with laughter. “Mad bastard! Rocked up at Elise’s place at three in the morning and slammed open the door. All the girls thought it was some kind of raid. Scared them senseless. So he had to make it up to a few of them, you know? You know?”

Bill could almost hear his teeth grinding together. “You’re telling me he spent the night at Elise’s place. With more than one…” He couldn’t bring himself to say it. Whores. Len had spent the rest of his night with whores. After… after…

“Jesus. Jesus!” He turned away.

“Here, now! Are you all right?”

He jammed a fist against his mouth, but he couldn’t stop it bubbling out. “Wasn’t she enough for him? Wasn’t she good enough? Hadn’t he already had his fair share of… Jesus!”

The other man was looking at him, agape. “I… well, all right.”

Bill set both his hands on the table. “Just tell me where he went.”

The recruiter opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, like he couldn’t quite think what to say. And then he looked down at his papers again, and shuffled them. “He didn’t sign up here. Said he had to go to Perth, anyway. Had things to do first. He was catching the first train out.”

“Shit!” He held his head with both hands, hoping it might make the ringing in his ears go away, but no luck. “Shit.” He looked up at the recruiter, who he doubted was going to press him to sign up anymore. “Thank you. Thanks. Maybe I’ll catch him in Perth.”

He turned and walked away without another word.



  1. Brilliant Claire!
    I hadn't thought of consciously separating my agenda from the characters' agendas before - will go ahead and try it!
    Meanwhile, though, reasons or no reasons, the way you have this scene written you absolutely need to leave it in! Right up to the last 'maybe I'll catch him' instead of the 'catch up with him' that the recruiter is expecting to hear. I just finished rereading all the Anne of Green Gables books and it's funny how often in the first few months that refrain of 'home by Christmas' was repeated.
    And now I can start thinking of Len as a villain again :-)

  2. Excellent point, Claire. Writing really is a delicate balancing act between being an actor (when you're channeling your characters) and being a director with a god's-eye view of the whole book. It seems like you've got that balance sorted, with that great snip! :-)