Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Losing the plot

Not the novel plot, the plot plot. As in, going crazy.

I was thinking about human behaviour on Saturday, as I vacuumed the house. I'm intrigued by human behaviour of all kinds, but in particular I'm fascinated by the ways in which people respond to adversity, or challenge, or a shocking surprise, or everything going off the rails.

What interests me is how differently people respond. And I do believe that's because one's response to extreme situations gives no room for considered and measured reaction. In an instant reaction, you have a person showing their true colours. What makes them tick. Exactly who they are.

And it occurred to me, as I hoovered up dust and crumbs, all the while plotting war and mayhem, that this is what makes human behaviour and adversity together such excellent fodder for fiction. You see, because of the unpredictability of human response, your characters can react in unlimited ways when things go wrong. If their car breaks down, they can do anything from kick the tire, to murdering the nearest passerby- and as long as you give them credible reasons for that response, you as an author can do it.

The unexpected reaction is what I love to find in stories. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was full of twists and turns and behaviour that I didn't see coming, but at every turn, she set it up beautifully, so that the extremes were believable.

I guess I've been pondering this because the last few days of NaNo have been spent writing scenes that I've avoided for quite a while- those featuring Bill in a mental hospital in 1916 after the war breaks him completely. Toss together betrayal, seeing his best friend die in front of him, shellshock, and a whole lot of other factors, and I was prepared for Bill to do almost anything.

But I must admit, I didn't see it coming when he got up and jumped out the window of his second-floor hospital room to escape the voices in his head (snippet below).

And this is precisely what I love about writing. First, finding unexpected reactions. Secondly, the dance it takes to work out what on earth happens next, and to show why this piece of behaviour made perfect sense in context.

I have another one of these scenes to write next- that in which Bill arrives home at the farm and sees Kit, Len and Jared together, mistakenly thinking they've become a family in his absence. I forecast even more unpredictable behaviour there- and I can't wait to see what happens next. Hopefully this will translate to my readers feeling the same way when they pick up the book.

In NaNo news, I'm about to break 60K, and I've officially verified myself as a winner today. Hurrah!


[Mental Hospital], France
June 1916

“Morning, Private.” The orderly bustled in and ripped open his curtains with no warning at all, making him squint against the glare. He didn’t move a muscle, just kept on staring at the doorframe.

White paint. White paint. White paint.

The bloke chattered on, making a right nuisance of himself. “Nice day out there. Maybe we’ll take you for a walk later, hey? A little turn around the garden?”

Bill sat. Stared. White paint. White paint. If he looked hard enough, he could see the brushstrokes. He concentrated on blocking out the noise, just trying to get a little peace. Peace was so hard to come by, and when it went, look out. It was impossible to get back, not without a fight and a syringe full of darkness.

The orderly made up the bed and snatched up the water jug, not much bothered that his patient didn’t talk. He was halfway out the door when he stopped and turned back. “Oh, I almost forgot.” He reached down into the deep pocket of his tunic and pulled out a string-wrapped bundle of paper. “One of the boys from your company brought this by. Said it had your name on it.”

He held it out, but Bill didn’t move. It didn’t take long before he set it on the dresser instead. “Suit yourself.”

The door swung shut behind him.

White paint. Silver knob.

Sooner or later, they’d be back to take him to breakfast. Get him dressed. Do all the things he couldn’t bring himself to, most days. He stared hard at the back of the door, trying to keep his concentration. Tough going today. Every now and again some inconsiderate bastard would make a noise - a cough down the hall, a passing conversation down below in the garden- and he’d start to lose focus.

White paint. Silver knob. White paint. Silver knob.

If he repeated it enough times, he could train his mind into thinking that was all there was in his room, beside the bed and the chair and himself. Sometimes he even managed to keep the whispering at bay.

It was getting to him this morning, though. The harder he tried to focus, the louder the hissing got. He picked up the chair and shuffled it back, right to the corner so he could see the whole room at a glance. Only problem was the door was too far away. He shifted his stare to the dresser instead.

Dark wood. Brass handles. Six- no, eight drawers. Letters. A bundle of letters.

He felt the first tingling of panic as he groped for the right combination that would save him this time. Too much choice was a terrible thing. It let the voices sneak in while his mind was grappling for the next thing to grab.

Dark wood. Brass handles… “Bitte lach miss leben...”

“No,” he whispered. He squeezed his eyes shut. Dark. Dark. Dark.

“Meine Frau. Mein kleiner Sohn.”

When they came, all he could do was be as firm as possible. “I said no.”

But it was too late. He should have kept his eyes closed, but it was like they opened all on their own, and there he was again, bloodied, beaten and begging. The German.

"Bitte. Bitte.”

He got out of the chair, but the man was between him and the door. He had to get out. He had to, before the rest of them arrived. He turned to the window. Mistake. A cold hand landed on his shoulder, and he spun back and slapped it away, then staggered back. The man was right in his face. His eyes were palest blue, washed out, and there were tiny flecks of blood splashed in a neat arc across his cheekbone.

“Leave me alone. Leave!”

“Meine Frau. Mein kleiner...”

“I heard you the first time!” He turned back to the wall, put his forehead against the cold plaster. Felt the fingers on his shoulder again, heavy. The room was colder, colder, and the ripples of dread were spreading out across his shoulders. He held his breath as he shifted his gaze, just slightly, to see the bed, and then all the air left his lungs in a sob.


Unlike the others, Tom never talked to him. He just lay there, always the same, staring out at the ceiling with his blank eyes and his mouth hanging open and the great hole in his neck.

The only thing that peeled his eyes away was a movement caught from the corner of his eye. When he glanced across, there was a Turk standing there, just a couple of feet behind the German, who was still pleading and going on in his native tongue.

He covered his ears, but they kept talking. More voices, more. He couldn’t stand to look at the rest; the men who were filing into his room, now, like they did whenever he lost it, packing in around him until there was hardly room to breathe. All the men he’d killed. Every last one of them. When they had him surrounded, pressing all around, he could hear them in the hallway. All the ones who didn’t fit. The rest.

That was usually when he started screaming, and eventually the doctor would come and knock him senseless again. Chase them all back to the shadows, where they belonged.

Today, though- today they hadn’t counted on him being back against the wall like he was. They couldn’t get around him. And just a few short steps sideways, pushing his way through a couple of cold bodies, shuddering as he went, and he was at the window. He ignored the babble of shouts as he looked up at the panes. The latch was bolted, but he didn’t much care.

He snatched up the chair and hefted it for a moment, considering his options. A few well-placed knocks to the latch and he could swing the whole thing open without too much trouble.

But that would take time, and as they crowded against him, knocking into him from behind, he knew he didn’t have that.

He elbowed his way back through them, just a couple of paces, and then he lifted the chair over his head and hurled it straight through the glass.

There was absolute, blissful silence from the men for a few seconds as glittering shards fell like rain, tinkling on the floor, and then someone- the kraut, probably- howled in his ear. He stepped forward, slippers crunching in the mess, and pulled himself up on the windowsill, ignoring the sharp pain as his hands met broken glass.

He pulled himself up and closed his eyes, breathing in the fresh air. Flowers. He could smell flowers, cut grass. The sun was warm on his face.

And then a cold hand closed around his ankle, and without any clear thought to compel him, he let himself fall forward and down, through the momentary freedom of the whistling summer sky, and into blackness.


  1. Claire, this is so chilling. But I also get the sense that this turning of his back on the ghosts - albeit in a way that is harmful to himself - may be the beginning of Bill clawing back his sanity?

    And speaking of losing the plot ... yeah, forgot to blog yesterday. Brain = sieve. But on the upside, I've managed to crack 60K, and got myself awarded as a NaNo winner too (erm, after I adjusted the time zone thingum which I initially *did* have set correctly, and which then re-set itself to Zurich time or somesuch and refused to accept that yes, it *is* the 25th down here. (g) Talk about losing the plot. :-P)

  2. Rach- congrats on the 60K! I'm only 800 words off that myself, and looking forward to getting there. I'm hoping to make the last two write-ins this weekend, and if I do, I have a fighting chance of breaking 70K by the end of NaNo. There *is* still excitement after 50K!

    You're correct in your assessment of the snippet- it's the literal turning point for him. In the next scene, all of his ghosts- including those from before the war- are going to start losing their hold on him, and he'll start fighting back.

  3. Eek! I haven't typed in days, again.
    Love Bill's voice in this snip - if one can say that about a guy suffering as much as he is.
    And congratulations to you both on all the thousands of extra words!