Saturday, June 7, 2014

How Gossip Girl Helped Me Revise My Plot

Meme: "The day may come when I stop watching Gossip Girl. Today is not that day."
I'm a huge Gossip Girl fan. Deride if you must, but know that George Sand being the writer a character most wants to have dinner with was an actual plot point in Season 2 (episode: "New Haven Can Wait"). There was also a Wharton tribute episode ("The Age of Dissonance"), plus GG gave us a memorable nickname to denigrate hack literary writers: F. Scott Fitzjackass ("The Fasting and the Furious"). Suffice to say, there are a lot more literary Easter eggs in the show than appear at first glance.

What does this have to do with writing tips? 

I'm about 70% through the fourth draft of The Red Road. This is the do-or-die batch of revisions, the one where I have to make final decisions about what stays, what goes, and what needs to be added. Drafts 2 and 3 were mostly about cutting my ridiculously verbose paragraphs down to their essence, and losing the overly "literary" tone that appeared every so often. This draft is about plot and subplot arcs, character arcs, and themes. 

The good news: the book has plot and subplot arcs, character arcs, and themes. The bad news: they aren't right yet.
Meme: "Hey girl, let's stay in tonight. I want to watch Gossip Girl and eat Nilla Wafers with you."

The other night, I was super frustrated by the amount of work left in front of me. So I did what any frustrated writer would do--poured a glass of wine, turned off the computer, and settled down to re-watch a Gossip Girl episode with the hubby. One of the million reasons why I love my husband is that he tolerates...dare I say shares? unholy fascination with Gossip Girl.  He routinely uses that "F. Scott Fitzjackass" quote. Anyway, we're currently on season 4, when the Brooklyn team (Jenny, Vanessa, and Juliet) work together to take down Serena.

You don't need to know much about Gossip Girl to understand this particular plot arc. In a nutshell, the "outsider" Brooklyn girls want to 
ruin Serena, a glamorous rich girl from the Upper East Side. Their plan is simple: one by one, they will strip away everything Serena has that they don't: a devoted best friend, two boys who like her, her academic future at Columbia, and her family's trust.

Meme: "I don't always watch television shows, but when I do, it's Gossip Girl."
They develop elaborate ruses to strip away each of Serena's support networks, and then go in for the kill: one super-elaborate ruse that is meant to destroy Serena's credibility for all time. The girls map out each takedown and orchestrate them individually. And guess what? It almost works. Serena gets put in the nuthouse and everyone thinks she's a lying, slutty drug addict.

And then it hit me: The Red Road needs a little Gossip Girl action. One of the main problems I'm having is that I feel the heroine's actions are too abrupt in the third act. I take her from a smart but worried schoolgirl into a revenge-seeking assassin. It doesn't work because she doesn't have enough reason to jeopardize what she has going for her. 

I realized I need to get all Gossip Girl on her ass and strip away the things she has one by one:
  • Best friends
    • In GG, the villain selected Blair for entry to an exclusive on-campus club at Columbia, leaving Serena out in the cold. Blair, who's always had self-esteem issues where Serena is concerned, now feels like the superior one. 
    • In my book, I need to make sure to isolate the main character by giving her friends what they want, so they have more reason to act selfishly and maintain the status quo than they do to support Emma.
  • Her academic future
    • In GG, the villain sends an email from Serena's phone, asking one of her professors to trade sex for grades. This is, of course, enough to get her in trouble with the dean, who wants to expel her. 
    • In my book, I'm adding two new chapters that basically put a black stain on Emma's academic record--enough to make good schools question her suitability as a scholarship recipient. The action she takes is entirely her choice, which means she knows exactly what she's doing, but can't help herself. She'll have a choice, and I need her to make the wrong one.
  • Her family's trust
    • In GG, the villain drugs Serena, dresses up exactly like her and takes pictures of herself snorting coke, then dumps Serena in a crappy cross-town motel and basically waits for her to overdose. When Serena wakes up and calls for help, her family thinks she's returned to her old, careless ways that apparently involve doing massive amounts of drugs and generally not giving a crap.
    • In my book, what would disappoint the family most is Em sabotaging her own future--and acting out. This family values strength and silence in equal measure. So the worst she could do is show weakness, make mistakes, and be vocal about it, forcing the other family members to witness her collapse. This happens after the incident I'm adding that destroys her academic future, in a new chapter or two I'll have to write from scratch.
  • The boy who likes her
    • Chuck Bass meme: "Sells girlfriend for hotel. Still considered dreamy."
    • In GG, the villain starts an anonymous rumor that Serena has an embarrassing case of VD. This makes both of the guys who like her consider other options. Once this is proven false, however, the villain has a backup plan. She masquerades as Serena ('s a masquerade ball) and while disguised, kisses both guys. Naturally, there's photographic evidence floating around that turns both guys against Serena.
    • In my book, this is the one step I'm not sure I want to take. I kind of want to keep her love interest on her side so she always has a way out...and then I want her to refuse to take it. 
Every single one of these Gossip Girl plot points applies to my character...and maybe to yours, too. 

The next time you're looking at your book's lumpy middle and wondering how to stiffen it up, think Gossip Girl. What does your character have that the villain needs to take away? Pick it off in small pieces, and those small pieces will add up to a collective whole that gives your hero plenty of work to do in the story's climax.

If all else fails, just stream old episodes of your favorite TV show. You never know what will spark an idea for your next plot twist.