One of my BIG regrets with deciding to become a writer is that it has taken away the simple pleasure of enjoying a good book. Now when I read, I find myself dissecting the book, looking for strengths and weaknesses’, trying to determine what makes a book publishable, puzzling over why a book called The Great Stink, which was supposed to be a murder mystery but as of the first half nary a murder had taken place, got published.
I recently read The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty during a restful week in the Canadian lake country, while concurrently educating myself on writing techniques by wading through James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, and for the first time in quite a while, I was enjoying a book, both books actually. Set in the 1920s, The Chaperone chronicles the events that occurred during the summer of 1922, when a thirty-six year old woman accompanies a fifteen year old ingénue who was travelling from Kansas to New York to attend a prestigious dance program. It started off strong; a wonderful snapshot of a dynamic time in history especially for women, similar is some respects to the 1850 setting of my own novel. It was well researched, well written, captivating and all this in a character driven novel, a diversion from my normal diet of plot driven books. So it was with shock when, a little over half way through the book, the chaperone (the protagonist), who had her own reason for travelling to New York that summer, realizes her objective.
My first thought was ‘what more is there to come?’ I had just been reading about the LOCK system in Plot and Structure: L for lead, O for objective, C for confrontation (without which you have a boring story) and finally, K for knock-out ending. Now, Bell did specify that while readers of commercial fiction want to see a knock-out ending, a literary novel can play with a bit more ambiguity, but that in either case, the ending must have knock-out power. He also states that ‘Objective is the driving force of fiction. It generates forward motion and keeps the Lead from just sitting around’. So as I am reading in one book ‘You want readers to worry about the story question, will the Lead realize her objective, that essential thing which is crucial to the Lead’s sense of well-being’, I am confused by the early realization of my protagonist’s objective in The Chaperone. So what now? Will there be a new objective set?
As I read on, with some of the wind taken out of my sails, there followed in quick succession two very important scenes, scenes which in my opinion fell flat, because they did not add anything to the achievement of the objective, they came after. This is when I got really disappointed. Thinking about the three scenes which I had just read, I realized that with just a bit of juggling, both scenes could/should have preceded the achievement of the objective, for one establishes a time line for leaving New York and so would have raised the tension of the achievement of the goal, while the other adds some spice to the plot. The way it was laid out, there was no tension built and we had eaten most of the meal only to decide at the end to add some cayenne pepper to the last bite. My ire now switched to the editor, who should have suggested the changes. However, it was the end of Part Two of the novel, so I decided to give both author and editor a break, for surely, with a quarter of the book still left, there was more to come.
What followed was in my humble opinion, the longest epilogue I have ever read, almost one hundred pages in total. Now, many times I have wished that a book had an epilogue, even just a short summary, to know how it all panned out in the end. And this was one such story for sure, as Part Two did end with an interesting twist. But 100 pages?! Sadly, no. What followed could easily have been condensed into one large chapter or two smaller ones. There was nothing in part three which resembled an outline of a subplot. There was no objective, nothing to maintain the tension, just a rambling account of the rest of the protagonist’s life, which given that she lived to be almost one hundred meant that there was a lot of ground to cover! Very little of it however, added to the crux of the story, for that had happened back at the 3/5 mark in the novel!
All the above being said, I DO still recommend the book. As I stated earlier, it is well written, well researched and does succeed in taking you to a different time and place. My sensitivities to the topic of plot structure may not likely bother most people but I shall see, for I plan to submit it as a title for my book club this year and if it is picked up, it will be interesting to get their points of view.