Novel Writing & Playwrighting Similarities
Last summer I began listening to podcasts for the first time–that may come as a shock when everyone seems to listen to them now. One of said podcasts I got hooked on was Writing Excuses. Writing Excuses is a podcast where the hosts discuss a variety of aspects of writing a story. Wanting to listen to as much as possible, I took a step back from the current season and started listening with season 9 (that was as far back as Google Play went at the time). I’ve found each episode to be thought-provoking and inspiring. One episode in particular really struck me because it resonated with a discussion from my old playwrighting class.
“Hiding the Open Grave” is an episode from season 9 where our hosts discuss what happens when writers have a character that is only there to die. These are the characters that aren’t real enough and don’t serve a primary role in the plot. The Writing Excuses folks discuss how to pick out said character’s and also ways to hide the “open grave” from the readers—so how to make it less obvious a character is fated to expire before the end of the story. One of the gentlemen (apologies I have trouble distinguishing who is who) asked: “why would you put in an [character] arc you never intend to fulfill?” Mary (the only female host so she’s easy to distinguish) adds that this makes the story more real because in real life no one finishes their character arc.
This got me thinking about writing plays. More often than not anything outside of the major plot remains unresolved (because there’s only so much that can be accomplished in a two-hour span of time). Only the main conflict needs to be resolved and, in plays, that is an accepted form of storytelling. All of those interesting subplots or arcs can be left open at the end of the story (well not all of them, but they don’t all have to be resolved). As my playwrighting professor would always say “plays are life with all the boring bits cut out.” Plays are a slice of life and we aren’t able to see the full picture in that slice. I like to think the same of novel writing.
A novel is a larger slice of life than a play (maybe think of a play as a short story for the purposes of this post). Reader’s don’t follow a character from birth until death (usually) so it would make sense that there are items left open or unresolved when the story wraps itself up. The major conflict (the reason we’re reading and the reason the author wrote the story) gets resolved, but not every other little issue in the book is necessarily resolved before then. And I don’t think these smaller conflicts need to be resolved every time.
To me, a lot of this comes down to being afraid to leave something unfinished. As the folks on Writing Excuses discussed in “Hiding the Open Grave,” if a character has an arc that is clearly meant to carry them through to the end and then they die before it’s completed the death becomes more shocking and real. Now, I don’t mean that only deaths can leave things unresolved (the episode just focused specifically on character deaths). Maybe the characters run out of time to deal with the subplot (or their personal arc) before the main conflict resolves or maybe they reach a dead end and realize they need someone else’s help to resolve the issue (and because the problem is not a part of the central conflict they are unable to find said help). Just a few ideas.
If nothing else, open subplots (or character arcs) can help spur sequels—if you like writing series. And this can always be a good exercise if you’re stuck in a story. If doesn’t hurt to try at least.