Excerpts from Thomas McCormack's The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and The Novelist
Looking for general, systematic tools for editors requires that the editor/writer learn some of the key working parts in a story, the dynamic elements that make it start, keep it going, and determine its direction. We have to agree on a lexicon, a consistent vocabulary. The two major forces and forms that create and direct vital motion in an orthodox story can be labeled situation and master-effect-wanted.
The elements that set a story in motion: character, setting, and most of all, circuitry
Situation includes the narrative elements character, setting, and circuitry. Think of conflict, action, crisis, resolution, and similar eventualities not as narrative elements but as products of the elements.
Think of suspense, tension, interest, surprise, involvement, satisfaction not as being in the book at all but in the contemplator of the book—i.e., the reader—and that each can be traced back to a cause that is in the book.
Character. to mean personal makeup, everything constant from the skin in. That a person is rich is not part of character, but that he's smart, callous, and bigoted is. That she's pregnant or has a terminal illness is situational rather than characterological, because it's not constant.
Setting. Includes the basic time and place of our novel, especially any objects or events within the setting that may have an important motivating effect on the characters: a dust storm (in Steinbeck's Oklahoma in the thirties), a new eligible bachelor at Netherfield (in Jane Austen's Regency England).
Circuitry. Think of each person and object in a story as a source of particular kinds of potential energy, of galvanic charges, of influences on the behavior of others. And each person also is a bundle of susceptibilities, of receptors for that electrical jolt.
An attractive man or woman riding into town may be a source of a jolt of sexuality, but what kind of effect that charge has on a given recipient varies with the kind of receptors the recipient has. The sexy man will have different impacts on the lesbian sheriff and the randy, heterosexual female librarian. Similarly, the jolt-effect of a sack of cash will vary with the receptors in the region. The super-rich old lady in the penthouse can't be bribed by the offer of ten thousand dollars, but the jobless man with a family to feed might ask, "Who do I have to throw out a window?"
So “circuitry” comprises electricity sources—think of them as batteries, generators; the outgoing wires carrying the generated energy; and the ports to receive motivating energy from incoming wires. Each person in the story has his own circuitry—the jolts he can send, and the ones he can receive—and the novel as a whole contains the motherboard—the sum of all the individual circuitries. What kind of situational arrangement the writer may embrace should ultimately be a function of his master-effect-wanted—about which more later.
In a good story most of the "batteries" are imbedded in characters. But some are lodged in the insensate setting. Picture a snowbound mountain cabin inhabited by a pregnant woman approaching labor, and a man who is not the father. Our two mountain-top characters are already being well-jolted by the blizzard. Now suppose they find themselves moving with no act of will on their part: the top of the mountain has broken loose and their cabin has become part of an avalanche. Here is a general rule about such developments: Readers tend to tolerate such "accidents" (see later) when they get the characters into trouble, but they're less accepting when the author uses them to rescue people, because in one stroke it renders untimely, feckless, and "meaningless" all the efforts of the cast—the people for (and against) whom we've been rooting for hours: "Do this to escape! Do that!" Oh, never mind, the author has just made lightning strike the bad guys.
Optimal reader satisfaction requires optimal circuitry. Chemists refer to certain elements as 'inert', meaning they only minimally combine or interact with other elements. John Updike: "it matters, among my humans, not only what they're made of but exactly how they attach to each other."
Put inert elements into an existent mixture, and nothing new and interesting happens. In fiction, inert characters are actually a liability to narrative motion. The crafty editor, when faced with a sluggish narrative, will examine each character for its batteries and receptors. But an abundance of both still may not make a character right for this story. It's critical to see that a character's contribution to story-energy is not equivalent to his sheer vitality. The question is whether the characters are right for each other. Think of a dinner party with Pavarotti, Babe Ruth, and Jane Austen. It's caviar, steak, and chocolate: separately, delights; simultaneously, garbage.
The first testing question about the circuitry-fit of a character is: Does he braid with other characters in the novel? This requires that his actions produce a strong current of motivating energy that finds apt receptors in those around him. And/or: Does he have receptors that will react interestingly to the nature and efforts of the others?
Joan Didion: "You have to make sure you have the characters you want. That's really the complicated part."
In different terms: what motivating function does this character (shaped this way) serve? Does he jolt other characters to characteristic action? (Adele is intellectual, proud, driven; her husband, Milt, is smooth, cunning, and weak. Jack happens on the scene; he is coarse, callous, humorous, smarter than Adele, stronger than Milt. We still have to devise the rest of the situation, but the circuitry is going in the right direction: The characters' strengths and foibles will provide jolts and highly sensitive receptors for one another.) Granted, there are also other functions a character can serve—for example, connection or reflection—but the informed editor would know this too; he’d understand that the artist frequently has to make trade-offs. The point is to perceive when a trade-off is being made, which means being able to see distinct elements distinctly, and appreciate the possibilities of further bargaining.
Circuitry can be faulty in several ways. We've focused on one: many potentially motivating currents, but all wasted because of too few suitable receptors—i.e., a bad mix of characters. Fifty years ago in Paris someone might have written a play with such a cast-perhaps taking a "we-are-all-alone" message and pseudo-vivifying it by having all the characters speak different languages. But even in that forgiving city I'd urge it be only a one-act. And I can imagine no venue where a novel of all plugs and no receptors would survive.