On Writing

Endless Cups of Tea

Kameron Hurley has a great new post, “The Madhatter Teaparty: Rescuing Your Characters from Endless Cups of Tea,” about the problem of novels becoming too talky.cup-of-tea

Plot kicks my ass. It kicks my ass up one end of a story and down another, because honestly, all my characters want to do is snark at each other over tea. Or whisky. Or coffee. Or bug juice. Whatever. Any excuse for them to sit around flinging zingers at each other and discussing what they are going to do next works for me.

Snarking at each other — or perhaps politely teasing each other — over tea is about all my characters do (when they’re not being robbed by cross-dressing highwaymen or dueling with swords). In some novels, it’s literally all they do (see Rachel Cusk’s Outline). Jane Austen was criticized for exactly this. Even her publisher said that Emma “wants incident and romance, does it not?”

Of course, there’s a difference between plot-driven novels, which is what Hurley writes, and character-driven ones. In the former, where the action is external, it’s simply redundant for characters to talk about what has happened and what is going to happen. In the latter, where the action is internal, the changes going on inside the character can be revealed through dialogue as well as through action. Think of romance novels: as the would-be lovers move toward each other, changes in their attitudes and level of attraction should show up in what they say to each other and to others, as well as in how they behave toward each other (culminating, of course, in that ultimate enactment of these character developments, the love scene).

Or, to take an example from my own work, in Daring and Decorum (still making the rounds of agents and publishers), Elizabeth begins the novel as a very reserved and proper daughter of a country vicar in the late 18th century. Over the course of the novel she becomes both more expressive and less concerned about always acting with decorum. This change comes out both in the way she expresses herself over cups of tea, and, in the end, on a break-neck horseback ride across the country-side, in morning dress, without a bonnet, and her hair unpinned and flowing behind her. Even more shocking, she’s riding astride, which no proper English lady would do.

Elizabeth Bennett drinking tea
Some tea-drinking scenes are filled with action, like this one, in which Elizabeth Bennett gives the verbal knife to Wickham.

The best novels, for me, are those that combine character and plot, where the characters drive the plot into some external action. Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests does this to excellent effect. It begins with two women in post-WWI London slowly growing in attraction for each other in the first act, but this internal movement leads inexorably to a murder. The second act becomes a police procedural focused on the central characters, and the third act is a tense courtroom drama. But all of that action grows directly out of the personalities, needs, and desires of the characters, played out within their social situation. (Not incidentally, Rachel Cusk’s review of The Paying Guests criticized it for the melodrama of its final two acts, which is an example of a reviewer playing up the market for her own type of plot-free fiction. Walter Scott did the same thing two centuries ago, though from the other side of the plot vs character fence, in his somewhat backhanded review of Emma.)

“When we get stuck on what happens next,” Hurley writes, speaking of ‘discovery or gardener’ writers like herself (which I think is her term for pantser), “we just sit the characters down for a chat and let them figure it out.” This problem of talking about the plot, rather than just letting the characters act, seems even more applicable to novels that may already have a lot of talking. As I struggle to come up with that perfect mix of character and plot in my second Highwayman novel (currently at the 50,000-word mark), I find myself lapsing into this problem. I’ve got a lot of conversations in morning rooms (though a few take place at the dinner table, and others in ball rooms). Many of those conversations do (I hope!) reveal characters and their changing attitudes toward one another, but there are some where they mainly talk about what has happened and what they should do next. Time for some edits, and thanks to Kameron Hurley for the timely reminder.

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