When I was a teen-ager, you couldn’t have a party without Onion Soup Dip. One large package of cream cheese plus one package of dry onion soup mix mashed together with a fork, and thinned, if needed, with mayonnaise. Served with either those new-fangled ribbed potato chips or with corn chips, which made dandy scoops. Excuse me, I have to go calm my quivering arteries.
Life changed. A party dish that came along long after I reached adulthood was the many-layered dip. It’s especially pretty served in a glass bowl, so that guests can see the stratigraphy of hard work, the careful layering of beans, avocado—did you know that the word avocado refers to male anatomy?—tomato, cheese, olives, green peppers, and sour cream. Hey, it’s got vegetables in it, and beans, so it has to be good for you. I mean, what’s a little cheese and sour cream between friends?
Layered dip starts out so pretty, so pristine. All those colors. That smooth topping of sour cream, often swirled into delicate patterns. The anticipation of tastes to come by dipping down, down through the different flavors and textures. So much promise. By the end of the party what’s left—if there is anything left—is a swirl of brownish-green muck with soggy bits of tortilla chips imbedded in it like standing stones in a miniature Stonehenge. So much for promise.
I suspect my current plot is heading in the same direction as the layered dip. Honestly, I started with pristine layers. So-and-so did this, another character did that, the killer had clear motivation, and I’d tuck in a surprise or two at the end. So much promise.
Something wonderful happened on the way to the beans at the bottom of the bowl. It sounds a pretentious as hell to say, but I matured as a writer. Not for the first time, not—I really, really hope—for the last time, but for this time and this story. Different layers started to blend together in unexpected ways. I could see possibilities I never imagined before.
I changed the way one character died because it suddenly became clear how much more bizarre and useful a different death would be. Another character told me, in passing, that he’d done something I had no inkling had come to pass. My first response was, “Please, please, please tell me you are joking, because, if you’re not, there goes Chapters 3, 4, and probably part of 16.”
He wasn’t joking.
This feeling of flow, of having a story gel in an unexpected way, is as close as I can get to describing the heart of writing. It’s the reason many of us stick with the craft in spite of the chaos of publishing, and the loneliness of the long-distance writer.
This leap of faith, the vision of new possibilities, is not a conscious thing. You can’t will it to happen. You can’t predict when it will happen. You can’t even predict if it will happen, because it’s not given to every book. Some books are work-a-day good, and you’re proud of them for that, and maybe you gained some technical skill, but you’re still pretty much the same writer at the end of the book that you were when you wrote page one.
Other time, it’s different. As the French say, Viva la difference!
Writing quote for the week:
Layers don’t come from subplots, but from additional problems in the protagonist’s life.
~Donald Maass, editor and agent