The Chocolate McGuffin

ChocolateChapter 3, just completed,  ended abruptly, surprisingly so. After 3400 words, it wanted to be finished. At least I had the sense to listen to that signal. I had another scene lined up, a big one, but I sensed it wouldn’t have been organic to bolt it on after a natural end. Maybe I can use it later.

This is what I mean when I recommend writing from an outline.  It doesn’t mean you’re going to follow the outline, but at least you have a vague sense of direction. If you don’t have an outline, the writing tends to meander. That can work for naturally gifted writers, but it doesn’t for me.

My first goal in Chapter 3 was to introduce Scott’s brother, Greg, and his wife, Ronnie, and I did that. They will figure large, later on. I gave each one of them a tiny bit of texture, just enough for them to take form.

The second goal was to introduce chocotle, the magical chocolate that is the story’s McGuffin. I’m going to create a utopian mini-society, but I don’t believe those really work, because people are, after all, nothing but hairless monkeys, and we’ll scratch each other’s eyes out with the first available excuse. I needed a device that would cause a few people to back away from greed and selfishness, at least for a little while, to make the story go. Chocotle now exists, so ‘Mission Accomplished’ for this chapter.

Having just summarized the broad arc of the story line, it seems pretty lame. I am seized with self-doubt. Utopian society forms and dies, wah-hoo. That isn’t much of a plot. What am I doing? I’m aching for a tricky safecracking caper or a money-laundering pyramid. This approach of writing from characters is torture. How do I know my characters are interesting? Even if they are interesting, who cares, if they don’t do anything?

Most people don’t do anything. We want to read about people who do things. Mrs. Dalloway didn’t do anything, and I loved her. Why is that?

I’m reading Saramago’s Blindness, and his characters are doing a lot of incredible things: starving, wallowing in excrement and blood, fighting with thugs in an insane asylum, hand-to-hand grappling, knives, guns. And did I mention everyone is totally blind? All but one, actually. It’s a roundabout phenomenology of vision and blindness, along with an allegorical examination of human nature, and allusions to the Holocaust.

I don’t feel a thing for his characters, despite their incredibly unusual lives. Incredible is literally the problem: cannot be believed. And yet, if I write characters who kill a half-dozen victims, or steal millions worth of jewels, that seems believable, even though it’s not. Maybe Saramago’s imagination is more original than mine. My characters trope across familiar fields. His struggle in a world too difficult to imagine. At least he’s got an unusual world. I’ve got ordinary everydayness.

It’s too early to give up. Maybe Chocotle will turn out all right, even if it is mundane. You could hardly get more mundane than Mrs. Dalloway or Jay Gatsby. Mundane is not an automatic death warrant.

Onward, then, through the fog. What I have to do next is reveal the magical qualities of chocotle, by showing changes in Scott’s attitude and behavior, subtle at first, then ballooning to crisis proportions. I have no idea how to do that.  I need an outline.

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